After Hours (1985): Scorsese’s Dazzling Film Noir, Ulysses in SoHo, Starring Griffin Dunne and Rosanna Arquette

One of Scorsese’s “smallest” but most accomplished films, 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.

Grade: A (***** out of *****)

 

The (mis) adventures begin with Paul’s random but fatal meeting in a coffee shop with Marcy (Rosanna Arquette), a sexy but bizarre woman.  It 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-mach 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 the theme of Catholic guilt, a staple in Scorsese’s work.

It’s a black comedy about an ordinary guy–a bored, uptight, 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 would happen 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 are–or 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 actually happens in the story. Hence, when Paul plunks down the 90 cents he has at the subway station, the attendant tells him that the fare has gone up to $1.50 just minutes ago.

 

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,” which were artistic triumphs but commercial flops.

Aviator, The (2004): Scorsese’s Biopic of Howard Hughes Starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Oscar-Winning Cate Blanchett

As the last reel is particularly compelling, I’d like to describe it in detail: Paul meets a man who he asks for help, and the man assumes he is gay hookup.

Paul finds Tom again, but the mob (with the assistance of Julie, Gail, and Gail’s Mister Softee truck) pursues him. Paul discovers that after rejecting her, Julie used his image in a wanted poster–as the burglar. He ultimately seeks refuge back at Club Berlin, and uses his last quarter to play “Is That All There Is?” by Peggy Lee.

Asking a woman named June to dance, Paul explains he is being pursued and June, also a sculptor who lives in the club’s basement, offers to help. She protects him by pouring plaster on him in order to disguise him as a sculpture. However, she won’t let him out of the plaster, which eventually hardens, trapping Paul in a position that resembles Kiki’s sculpture.

Circular Ending

Neil and Pepe break into the Club Berlin and steal him, placing him in their van. He falls from the van right outside the gate to his office building as the sun is rising. Paul brushes himself off and goes to his desk, bringing the film full circle.

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 Paul about her former lover, who was able to reach 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 big 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 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.

In his wickedly funny comedy, Scorsese portrays a vacant city, with bare streets and deserted subways. Adopting the straight man’s POV, Scorsese neither identifies nor judges Downtown and its denizens.

Personal Movie

Scorsese contributed to the dialogue between Paul and the doorman at Club Berlin, which was inspired by Franz Kafka’s Before the Law, one of the short stories included in his novel The Trial.  The short story reflected his frustration toward the production of The Last Temptation of Christ, for which he had to continuously wait, as Joseph K had to in The Trial.

The film was originally to be directed by Tim Burton, but Scorsese read the script at a time when he was unable to get financial backing to complete The Last Temptation of Christ, and Burton gladly stepped aside when Scorsese expressed interest in directing.

Scorsese had asked Griffin Dunne to abstain from sex and sleep during the shoot in order to increase the authenticity and anxiety levels of the inherently insecure character he played.

Critical Status:

Scorsese won the Best Director Award as the 1985 Cannes Film Festival.

Cast
Griffin Dunne as Paul Hackett
Rosanna Arquette as Marcy Franklin
Verna Bloom as June
Tommy Chong as Pepe
Linda Fiorentino as Kiki Bridges
Teri Garr as Julie
John Heard as Bartender Tom Schorr
Cheech Marin as Neil
Catherine O’Hara as Gail
Dick Miller as Pete, diner waiter
Will Patton as Horst
Robert Plunket as Street Pickup
Bronson Pinchot as Lloyd
Rocco Sisto as Coffee Shop Cashier
Larry Block as Taxi Driver
Victor Argo as Diner Cashier
Murray Moston as Subway Attendant
John P. Codiglia as Transit Cop
Clarence Felder as Club Berlin bouncer
Martin Scorsese as Club Berlin searchlight operator