Martin Scorsese’s “After Hours” (1985)

Notable Festivals: Cannes (Best Director)

Independent Spirit Award wins: Best Feature, Best Director

The 1980’s was a turbulent decade for director Martin Scorsese—he kicked things off in high form with RAGING BULL (1980), overcoming a substance abuse problem that had nearly killed him and regaining his artistic relevancy in the process.  However, the rest of the decade would not be so kind to him.  He began to move away from the kind of projects that made his name (gritty urban crime dramas) and explored other avenues like comedic features (1983’s THE KING OF COMEDY), television, and music videos.  All the while, he was feverishly developing his true follow-up to RAGING BULL, a passion project called THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST.  Shortly after the release of THE KING OF COMEDY, it looked like Scorsese would have his shot to make his dream film.  He had his cast assembled and funding secured, and had even gone out to Morocco to scout locations.  However, it all came crashing down when the studio called Scorsese on Thanksgiving Day (of all days) to inform him they had abruptly pulled the plug. 

Scorsese had just turned forty, firmly crossing the barrier into middle age.  Now that his longtime passion project was dead, he was at a crucial crossroads in his career.  What kind of filmmaker did he want to be?  Were his best days, his best films, already behind him?  Would the legacy he left be one of a swift rise to glory followed by excruciating decline?  It was at this time that his old MEAN STREETS (1973) star, Amy Robinson, contacted him with a project she was producing with her partner Griffin Dunne.  She had a script called AFTER HOURS, written by a recent Columbia University graduate named Joseph Minion for his student thesis.  On a surface level, it seemed an odd choice for an Oscar-nominated director to adapt a script by a fresh-faced kid straight out of film school, but THE KING OF COMEDY had just bombed and the struggling director would try almost anything to get out of his current rut.  He saw in AFTER HOURS an opportunity to return to his independent roots, using the mobility afforded by a small budget and crew to creatively reinvent himself.  In a way, it was almost like he was going back to school—only it wasn’t his grade that was at stake, it was his career.

Paul Hackett (Griffin Dunne) is a mild-mannered word processor content to live out his days at the office and his nights inside of his well-appointed (but personality-devoid apartment) in Manhattan.  One night, he decides to break up the routine by going out to eat at a local coffee shop—a decision that he could never have guessed would have absurdly outrageous consequences.  He strikes up an innocent conversation with a pretty blonde a few tables over named Marcy Franklin (Rosanna Arquette).  She indirectly invites him over to her apartment by giving him the number of her roommate, a local artist specializing in plaster paperweights—a product which Paul feigns some interest in.  As soon as he returns to his apartment, Paul arranges to come over to her loft to “see the artist’s work”.  However, once he finally arrives in the unfamiliar neighborhood of Soho and starts getting to know Marcy, he decides that they aren’t exactly a great fit for each other.  He tries to sneak out, beginning a cascading chain of events that will see him dodging the varied, colorful characters of the neighborhood and a series of absurd scenarios that no ordinary man could possibly encounter in the course of one night.  He just wants to get home to his cozy apartment uptown, but as he finds out, that will prove to be a task far more difficult and dangerous than he ever thought possible. 

In keeping with the “reinvention” conceit that he applied to the production of the film, Scorsese mostly dispenses with his habit of re-using actors from previous projects– including Robert De Niro.   Indeed, the only familiar faces in AFTER HOURS include Victor Argo and Verna Bloom in a pair of unremarkable cameos.  Griffin Dunne proves himself a Scorsese protagonist of an entirely different kind– a reactive yuppie and beta male fine-tuned for the Wall Street-obsessed New York of the Reagan era.  Rosanna Arquette equally embodies the classic Scorsese blonde archetype retooled for a brave new world characterized by prescription medication and open acknowledgment of mental health issues.  The rest of the cast is populated by the bizarre, mysterious characters that Griffin’s Paul Hackett encounters over the night, the most notable of which being Linda Fiorentino’s punk sculptor/artist Kiki Bridges and stoner comedy duo Cheech and Chong as a pair of burglars stalking the neighborhood in their junk-filled van.  

As appropriate for a scrappy, low-budget feature, the cinematography of AFTER HOURS is quick on its feet and unburdened by cumbersome equipment that would’ve been employed to sell a sense of scale.  AFTER HOURS marks the first collaboration between Scorsese and cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, who would go on to lens a majority of Scorsese’s future works.  Scorsese’s camerawork has always been dynamic, but in AFTER HOURS the camera threatens to run off the rails entirely, giving the film a reckless energy that’s aided and abetted by the mobility of the Steadicam.  With the exception of the bookending sequences in Paul’s office, the film takes place entirely at night, so Scorsese and Ballhaus adopt a high contrast lighting scheme to better convey the lurid colors of Soho—providing a marked contrast to Paul’s drab, beige apartment.  This aesthetic dichotomy (that of young urban professional against urban bohemian artist) illustrates a major theme of AFTER HOURS, which is the convergence and collision of subcultures that marks the vitality and unpredictability of living in New York City.  Scorsese’s regular editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, returns to lend her talents to AFTER HOURS, creating an unrelenting pace that drives our wearied, haggard protagonist ever forward with nary a chance to catch his breath. 

Revered composer Howard Shore, who would become a regular collaborator of Scorsese’s during his string of works in the early 2000’s, establishes his relationship with the director here in AFTER HOURS with a score marked by an electronic synthesizer and the propulsive percussion of a ticking clock.  This being a Scorsese film, AFTER HOURS naturally makes potent use of an eclectic mix of needledrop cues ranging from classical, mariachi, jukebox rock, and punk.  This diverse musical landscape cannily reflects the film’s focus on the collision of radically different subcultures that New York City enables.

The early 80’s marked a period of Scorsese’s career in which he experimented with different aesthetic and filmmaking techniques, exploring his range as an artist and branching out into new genres.  AFTER HOURS is much more of an outright comedy than the pitch-black farce of THE KING OF COMEDY, yet it still retains some of the qualities that signify Scorsese’s vision—the requisite New York city setting, the explosive chaos of urban life, and the messiness of passionate violence (like the scene where Paul witnesses the murder of a husband by his wife in the apartment across the street, via several angry bullets delivered haphazardly into his abdomen).  Despite these consistencies with Scorsese’s aesthetic, AFTER HOURS deviates greatly from other thematic conceits like the exploration of the Italian experience in America and protagonists who deal heavily in crime.  In a stark contrast from films like MEAN STREETS and RAGING BULL, the protagonist of AFTER HOURS is not a thug—rather, he’s a well-adjusted yuppie who’s main goal in life is to not rock the boat.   The story’s developments constantly seek to emasculate him, so Paul Hackett’s growth trajectory becomes reliant on him taking charge of his own masculinity—an idea that falls in line with Scorsese’s career-long exploration of masculinity as an engine of conflict and drama.    

AFTER HOURS marks the end of a curious comedic phase of Scorsese’s career, managing to end said phase on a high note after the disappointment of THE KING OF COMEDY.  By embracing his indie roots and scaling back his approach, Scorsese was able to rejuvenate himself creatively while delivering a lifesaving jolt of electricity to his career.  A warm reception at the Cannes film festival resulted in an award for Best Director, and while it may not have gotten any Oscar love, AFTER HOURS took home top honors (Best Feature and Director) at the indie sector’s equivalent gala, The Independent Spirit Awards.  Today, AFTER HOURS is something of a cult favorite amongst Scorsese’s followers, and while it may not rank among his most significant works, it is significant in the context of his filmography for re-establishing his value in the minds of Hollywood executives and giving him another shot at realizing his longtime passion project, THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST

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AFTER HOURS is currently available on standard definition DVD from Warner Brothers.

Credits:

Produced by: Robert F. Colesberry, Griffin Dunne, Amy Robinson

Written by: Joseph Minion

Director of Photography: Michael Ballhaus

Production Designer: Jeffrey Townsend

Edited by: Thelma Schoonmaker

Music by: Howard Shore