One of Scorsese’s smallest but most accomplished film, “After Hours” is a poignant noir comedy about the bizarre events that befall a hapless word-processor Paul Hackett (Griffin Dunne) after he ventures out of his apartment on the Upper East Side and goes Downtown in search of pleasure.
The (mis) adventures begin with a random but fatal meeting in a coffee shop with Marcy (Rosanna Arquette), a sexy but bizarre woman, and continues on a wild cab ride to SoHo, when Paul loses the only money he has on him, a $20 bill that the camera follows as it leaps out of the window and lands on the street.
When Paul goes to the loft of the quirky Marcy, he meets Kiki (Linda Fiornetino), another eccentric bohemian working on a papier-mch sculpture. Eventually. Marcy shows up, but she’s such a mess of contradictions and so incoherent that he leaves for the local bar, only to encounter even more offbeat residents.
“After Hours” was sort of Greenwich Village version of Joyce’s “Ulysses,” complete with Catholic guilt, a staple in Scorsese’s work. It’s a black comedy about an ordinary guy–a bored, uptight, and repressed programmer–who goes through a series of bizarre experiences during one incredibly long night.
The perfect orderliness of the music during the opening credits–Mozart’s Symphony in D major–provides a comic contrast to everything that comes later. As in every Scorsese film, behind every comic turn, there is a sense of menace. A word processor, Paul begins as a man who has comfortably situated himself within a nearly programmed life. But as the story progresses, the quintessential uptown native becomes the absolute downtown tourist. Scorsese suggests that, under the right circumstances, we all areor could easily become– tourists in our own cities while trying to adopt a temporary home.
Racing from scene to scene, “After Hours” a tightly constructed film, in which Scorsese is in total command of the narrative and visual style. The original script, dealing with a Yuppie’s emotional disorientation (who is as bewildered as Alice in Wonderland), was written by Joseph Minion, a graduate of Columbia University’s Film School.
The new world and its objects don’t so much respond to Paul’s perspective and desires as it assault his world. An everyman trapped in a nightmare world, a paranoid fantasy. The environment is foreign to Paul, who becomes a tourist in his own town, where he must perform its rituals in order to survive, literally.
An alien, Paul is entrapped in SoHo, and things only get worse as the night wears on. Indeed, every mishap possible happens in the story. Hence, when Paul plunks down the 90 cents he has at the subway station, the attendant tells him the fare has gone up to $1.50 just minutes ago.
Perfectly cast, Dunne turns in a superb performance as the Everyman Yuppie” (a new type in American films of the 1980s). As viewers, we totally sympathize with Paul, sharing his mounting frustrations and fears, shame and guilt. Reportedly, to increase Dunne’s anxiety level, Scorsese had ordered Dunne to abstain from sex and sleep during the shoot, a strategy that pays off nicely.
“After Hours” also features great performances from Verna Bloom, as a lonely and desperate woman, John Heard as the local bartender, Catherine O’Hara’s as Gail, and Teri Garr as Julie. Also contributing to the colorful milieu is Tommy Chong, who plays Pepe, and Richard “Cheech” Martin as Neil.
Richly dense in ideas, the film makes allusions to “The Wizard of Oz,” when Marcy tells of her former lover, who was able to have an orgasm only by shouting “Surrender, Dorothy.”
The exquisite cinematography is by Michael Ballhaus, whose dizzying and dazzling camera takes on an aggressive, willful personality of its own, scooting around, making inside jokes, and so on. The taxi ride downtown is a bravura sequence, with high-speed images that turn the city into a carnival.
Paul’s an Everyman bewildered by the treacherous, demanding occupants of SoHo as the new Oz, particularly the women, who represent in one way or another emotionally hungry women who tap into Paul’s deepest sexual fears, threatening his very own masculinity.
As a comedy, sans the noir elements, “After Hours” recalls another Downtown New York screwball fantasy, “Desperately Seeking Susan,” though Scorsese is too savvy and cynical a filmmaker to make a picture in Susan Seidelman’s ditsy sentimental romance. If Seidelman’s SoHo is a pink fairy tale, Scorsese’s is a cooler, and nastier one, representing his more controlled approach. Thus, Scorsese portrays a vacant city, with bare streets and deserted subways. Adopting the straight man’s POV, Scorsese neither identifies nor satirizes Downtown and its denizens.
A small gem, “After Hours” was independently produced by David Geffen and released through Warner. Scorsese said at the time that he wanted to see if he could make a “small” film on location and under budget ($3.5 million) after the big productions of “Raging Bull” and “King of Comedy,” artistic triumphs that were nonetheless commercial flops.