Perhaps Martin Scorsese’s most direct response to pop culture, After Hours, was a surprising deviation from his usual gritty fare that earned him his regard as one of cinema’s most powerful contenders. Raging Bull (1980) and Taxi Driver (1976) are stories that tell of New York’s most unfortunate souls; city dwellers on the brink of ruin who are gripping the last shred of their sanity by their teeth.
These dramas that made a household name of Robert DeNiro as Jake La Motta in Raging Bull and Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver were potent slips of cinema verité that pushed the boundaries of violence into levels that introduced a realism in film that was just coming into its own during the ‘70s and the early ‘80s. Not one to sit content with newly minted success, Scorsese got down to work on a frustratingly laborious project that would become the religious drama The Last Temptation of Christ, a work that would put him at odds with the production team helming the film, as well as various religious groups protesting the making of the picture.
When an increasing budget forced both the filmmaker and the production team to step back from the project (which would eventually be completed and released in 1988), Scorsese looked elsewhere for work. His 1985 dark comedy After Hours is a smaller film compared to a number of the director’s other works, but it is one which he reportedly holds in high esteem.
Based on a screenplay by Joseph Minion, who wrote the script as a film student at Columbia University, After Hours is one in a string of films that tried to capture the restless energy of downtown New York’s punk scene. The scene had already been encapsulated in its barest and rawest form by Amos Poe, a filmmaker who spearheaded the No Wave punk movement during the late ‘70s and early ‘80s with films like The Foreigner (1978) and Subway Riders (1981). During that time, Hollywood caught the scent of a possible cash-in on No Wave culture and made Times Square (1980) to a middling effect. After Hours is helmed by the assured and skilled hand of a director who was certainly not entrenched in the punk scene himself but understands narrative well enough to use settings judiciously as a means to generate a good story.
After Hours turns a simple fish-out-of-water story into a picaresque-from-hell, displacing a white-collar wannabe yuppie and setting him in a world of junkies, punks, and dangerous eccentrics. Paul (Griffin Dunne) is an office worker with little excitement in his life. He meets Marcy (Rosanna Arquette), a downtown hipster, one day at a restaurant, and she gives him her number. Later in the evening, Paul takes a chance and decides to call Marcy to meet up with her. Taking a taxi to her apartment, he is emptied of his wallet when he loses a 20-dollar bill to the wind.
Completely broke but still interested in meeting with Marcy, he goes to her apartment, and meets Marcy’s roommate, Kiki (Linda Fiorentino), a punkishly po-faced sculptor who gives Paul the creeps. Upon speaking with Kiki, Marcy doesn’t seem to be who he thought she was at their first meeting in the restaurant. It isn’t helped by Marcy’s own appearance at the apartment, where she unnerves Paul with her increasingly strange behavior. The two go out to a restaurant, and after a difficult conversation, Paul realizes what he’s got himself into. Now disinterested and a little scared, Paul decides to ditch Marcy, only to realize that he has no money for the subway fare back uptown.
Wandering the streets, Paul stumbles into a bar and meets a seemingly genial bartender named Tom (John Heard), who decides to help him out and give him some change for the subway – if only he can get the cash register open. What follows is a host of misunderstandings that has Paul pegged as the neighborhood apartment burglar. Things get especially heated when an angry mob, who believe they’ve got the apartment burglar in sight, chase him down streets and back alleys. All Paul wants is to make it back uptown – but for all his rotten luck, he’s still 63 cents short of the subway fare needed to get back home.
After Hours is the product of two very different minds meeting in a space of creative yield. Writer Minion has the downtown scene of New York in the ‘80s sized up to the thin skin of true-life experience. His characters (who seem ported from the stories by Mary Robison and Frederick Barthelme) are certainly exaggerated to wild and amusing effect, but they are still birthed from the seed of realism. The dialogue often reads like snatches of conversations overheard on a subway, in a coffee shop or bar, and for all its grandiose treatment, it rings true.
Minion’s writing is at once fluid and jarring; his community of city slickers is well glossed with characters who crackle with life, but his narrative sequences are rough. Stylistically, it’s fitting – the narrative’s slap-dash transitions appropriate the collage-like aesthetic of trendy underground newsprint. Scorsese’s version of New York, as evidenced by his earlier films Mean Streets (1973) and Taxi Driver, is equally gritty and off-kilter, but his hand of experience gives After Hours an alluring varnish to attract the eye and gives the story its nimble pace.
Further to Scorsese’s credit, he is never just an observant filmmaker, simply operating at a calculated distance. Instead, he pushes himself into the scenery, sidling into the spaces where characters breathe and walk so that his camera becomes one among them. The close and clipped proximity creates a buzz of energy that electrifies almost every scene. With his skillset, Scorsese offers a try-anything-and-throw-in-the-kitchen-sink approach, which allows him to edge close to the absurdity that borders on pure mania.
This is especially noted in After Hours’ visual schema, which references everything from No Wave culture and the high jinks of Charlie Chaplin films to the cool and prim austerity of Euro-cinema. Watch Scorsese foreground Dunne and Arquette in Bergman-esque frames during their moments in the apartment, only to later upend the stylistic device with a roving camera – documentarian style – through a mosh pit in a punk club. In spirit, he stays true to Minion’s script and never shies from taking a diametric step from the ones he has taken earlier in the film.
Minion’s script also captures an interesting burgeoning scene amongst filmmakers of downtown New York. After Hours’ surreal Alice in Wonderland-like trip through urban spaces is not unlike that same year’s Desperately Seeking Susan, or 1980’s Times Square, films that also captured the wide-eyed thrills of being thrown down the chutes of suburban quietude into the hyperreal world of Alphabet City’s concrete jungle. After Hours edges out amongst those other films on its florescent palette that fetchingly places all of its splashy neon against the black of midnight.
Criterion’s release of After Hours delivers an excellent transfer that captures all the shades and tones of the print beautifully. This is a rather dark picture, most of the story taking place at night, and the new remaster renders a nice balance between the nighttime shadows and the colors of lighted diners, apartments, and bars. The effect (which was most likely intended) is that of Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, and Criterion’s transfer does the aesthetic justice.
The sound and dialogue are clear. A very talky film in many moments, the audio track is clean and even with no distortion. Optional English subtitles are also included. Supplements include an interview with Scorsese, who also appears on the commentary track alongside actor Dunne. There is also a documentary about the making of the film, deleted scenes, and a feature on the visual style of the film.
Scorsese has rounded up an admirable cast of players to bring this screwball nightmare to life. Performances border on the Brechtian, with all the actors pulling out all the stops. No one here is taking the story seriously, and yet, every actor is committed to delivering their characters with an energy that fries the scenery. Catherine O’Hara scares viewers the most. Playing Gail, a sociopath who drives a Mister Softee ice-cream truck, she evinces a spiteful cruelty veiled beneath the pretenses of good humor – reminiscent of the creepy neighbor that lurks in every tenant’s building.
Dunne, who carries the picture, is completely reactionary. His character’s gestures and expressions are controlled by the weather of his circumstances; the effect is that of a puppet being viciously pulled to and fro by a merciless hand, his once-composed office worker persona dissolving into a puddle of facial tics and nervous judders. Through a tableau of living and breathing graffiti incarnated as New York City’s most dangerous bottom-feeders, he ambles like a wretched and helpless zombie under the deadening blanket of night.