After Hours (Martin Scorsese, 1985)

by Douglas Buck August 26, 2019 6 minutes (1295 words) HD Streaming

Mild-mannered computer word processor Paul Hackett (Griffin Dunne) seemingly lucks into the tryst of a lifetime with the quirky yet supremely sexy Marcy Franklin (Rosanna Arquette) who he meets at a local café, only to have, after he arrives at the artist loft where his dream girl is staying, his romantic New York City story-of-a-lifetime spiral into a hellishly absurdist nightmare of suicide, bizarre and dangerous encounters, with the young professional eventually on the run for his life, stalked through the late night downtown streets by an angry mob who mistake him for the burglars who have been prowling the neighborhood.

An emotionally unstable seductress with promises of a night he’ll never forget instead revealing disturbing hints of disfiguring burns. Her sexually masochistic artist roommate (Lina Fiorentino as the nicely monikered Kiki Bridges, still a decade before everyone would know her from The Last Seduction), revealing her breasts in front of Paul as she finishes up a full size sculpture of a terrified and cowering man (to which she asks him to help her put on the finishing touches). The punk rockers in the steel cage club that the now frantic Paul on the run clearly doesn’t belong in, holding him down and trying to shave his head. The desperately lonely waitress (Terri Garr) in the empty downtown bar (other than those two gay biker bears who never stop making out in the background) who won’t leave Paul alone, revealing herself as not only nuttier and nuttier (with the rat traps surrounding her bed being just one of the clues)… but ultimately insanely vindictive after he rebuffs her. The bar owner himself (John Heard), who by coincidence (in one of many, with Paul’s nightmare continuously circling back in on itself), happens to be Marcy’s violence-prone boyfriend, who keeps disappearing every time Paul needs him. The intense woman driving the late-night ice cream truck (SCTV legend Catherine O’Hara) who initially attempts befriending the lost Paul, only to quickly mistaken him for the burglar and eventually leading the whipped up gay posse looking to lynch him (with her Mister Softee truck in the lead). And, last but not least, there’s June (70’s legend and director Clint Eastwood favorite Verna Bloom), the reclusive sculptress, living somehow in the basement of a punk rock club, who saves Paul from the mob by covering him in plaster and disguising him as a sculpture, only refusing to let him out of his hardened prison after they leave.

After the terrible disappointment of the studio backing falling apart for the Last Temptation of Christ (temporarily, anyway… but he didn’t know that at the time), as well as the lukewarm critical and box office reception to his last film, The King of Comedy (though kinda beloved now… reminds me, I gotta revisit it one of these days) it seems filmmaker Martin Scorsese decided to distract himself by agreeing to direct this inspired tangent of a film — a fling on the blackly (screwball) comic, neo-noir wild side — a white man’s yuppie anxiety dream of the emasculating dangers that Big City nights bring if you allow yourself to get too close to all that neurosis and nuttiness (with the crude wall graffiti of a shark biting off a man’s penis Paul notices in a random men’s room perfectly outlining the theme); it’s a mirror image of the hellish New York Scorsese imagined so completely with Taxi Driver, only now through the eyes of a white collar worker, surrounded by mostly New York economic ‘haves’, rather than the far more enraged and desperate ‘have nots’ of that original urban masterpiece (also worth noting, where the male characters of Taxi Driver seethed with racism and misogyny, with After Hours, Scorsese – or, more succinctly, to be fair, the script, which he didn’t write – gives a lot more evidence for why Paul wouldn’t have much trust for either women or gays).

Griffith Dunne with Rosanna Arquette

With its exuberantly roving camera constantly working to match the frantic Paul’s sense of paranoia and growing certainty that he’ll never escape and get home (those over-cranked shots to the phone of whatever apartment Paul has found himself in when he realizes there is a possible way out bring a joyful smile to my face every time), the embarrassing wealth of familiar actors giving their all in these fantastically colorful oddball roles, and the clever narrative looping around of events and devices (such as the constantly recurring twenty dollar bill that Paul initially loses out a speeding taxi window that begins the circle), reveal Scorsese as a master, even when he’s playing around, allowing even greater experimentation and freedom with the form while not necessarily having to worry about the emotional weight he brought to the greatest of his films.

Not all of the dialogue quite works between the characters; there are beats, including some of Paul’s reaction shots, I found off a bit. I wondered if Scorsese wasn’t seeing some of this as a chance at mucking about in the playground of the sophisticated word-play comedies of the 1930’s that he loves so much… only to learn he couldn’t quite pull it off (or perhaps the script wasn’t always right to do it with).

With Cheech and Chong

Middling issues included, the film remains a joy to sit through. Not well received upon release, it has mustered up a kind of cult classic status over time (I was one of those who enjoyed it the first time I saw it in the theater, and, looking back, realize I was captivated enough by its wild view of the big city, it might have been the very catalyst that led this upwardly mobile suburban kid to move to New York soon after – a period that lasted almost two decades — in hopes of experiencing his own flights of dangerous fancy). I have the feeling the movie would be even more appreciated if it hadn’t been made by a director with so many modern classics on his resume to bring it down a peg in comparison with.

Amongst that amusing cavalcade of urban characters our intrepid Paul comes across are the real low-rent burglars of the film, played by that comedy duo Richard “Cheech” Marin and Tommy Chong, who happen to be the main reason for me revisiting After Hours, as I’ve been slowly working my way through a retrospective of their (sometimes hilarious, oft-dubious) cinematic work. Starting off with an exciting, drug-fuelled bang with their first amusingly inappropriate (yet also surprisingly socially relevant) Cheech and Chong’s Up in Smoke in 1978, which revealed them as an extremely likeable if dopey pair, the six follow-up C&C films, while still having their moments, were growing more tiresome to wade through, with the duo more-and-more straining unsuccessfully against the limitations of their act.

Dunne with John Heard

Seeing them back in their original personas (as suspiciously stereotypical as those may be), with the entire film not revolving around them, in a film with an urban setting where the two are stealing to get by, revealing themselves as ultimately more charmingly inept and harmless than dangerous, also brought back all those good feelings of what these guys can be. After the lazy (and even worse — eegad! — relatively drug free) silliness of their last effort from earlier in the year, the short-form video, Get Out of my Room, their amusing cameo in After Hours has them back on my good side (not that they were ever exactly on my bad side – they’re too likeable for that). I guess I’ll see where my feelings will lie with Cheech after I delve into his follow-up solo effort, Born in East LA, made two years later…

After Hours (Martin Scorsese, 1985)

Douglas Buck. Filmmaker. Full-time cinephile. Part-time electrical engineer. You can also follow Buck on “Buck a Review,” his film column of smart, snappy, at times irreverent reviews.

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