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Nathan Weinbender reviews "After Hours"

Film still of Griffin Dunne as Paul Hackett in After Hours (1985)
After Hours, The Geffen Company/Warner Bros. Pictures, 1985.
Film still of Griffin Dunne as Paul Hackett in After Hours (1985)


Martin Scorsese made After Hours quickly, cheaply and as a last resort after his first attempt to film The Last Temptation of Christ fell through. Its story is not one of religious persecution, but it is also about a man being pushed hither and yon by cruel forces beyond his control.

The 1985 film was remastered by the Criterion Collection and released on BluRay for the first time this month, and it looks better than ever. It’s hardly Scorsese’s most famous film, but I think it’s one of his best, and it's one of his most unforgettable portraits of New York City at night.

It stars Griffin Dunne as Paul Hackett, who works a desk job in one of those nondescript offices that’s shorthand for corporate drudgery. One night in a café, Paul starts a conversation with Marcy (played by Rosanna Arquette), who will eventually invite him over to her loft, and it’s his first stop in a harrowing, hilarious odyssey that finds Paul trapped in the heart of the city.

This is a slapstick yuppie nightmare, and like all great slapstick, After Hours is put together like a Swiss watch. (It ticks like one, too.) Paul’s ordeal develops a hilarious, horrifying logic as the movie hurtles from one indignity to another: he loses his money, he’s saddled with a dead body, he’s mistaken for a guy who’s on a robbery spree, and his every attempt to get home is thwarted.

And like all memorable nightmares, After Hours is peppered with weird little details that give it a surreal, hallucinatory edge: outlandish coincidences, recurring imagery, characters whose identities and motives shift without warning (including every woman, who is nice to Paul before betraying him).

Like so many Scorsese protagonists, Paul is trapped in a metropolitan purgatory and being punished for his own sins. But those sins are… what, exactly? That he’s a corporate peon? That he has a latent fear of women? Does Scorsese hate him? Pity him? Empathize with him? Maybe his misery is merely incidental, but the movie takes so much glee in punishing him that there must be some spite there. It’s like he’s being pinned to a board and sadistically tortured.

The cast in After Hours is one of the strangest Scorsese ever put together. Griffin Dunne, hardly ever a leading man, is the human embodiment of sweaty desperation, and Rosanna Arquette brings more eccentricity and vulnerability to her role than was likely on the page. There are also zany supporting parts for Catherine O’Hara, Teri Garr, John Heard, Linda Fiorentino and even—believe it or not—Cheech and Chong.

Everything about the movie’s craft helps sell its off-kilter tone: Michael Ballhaus’ elastic camerawork, the flashpoint for the combustible style that defines Scorsese’s middle period; the percussive precision of Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing; the synth-y mysteries of Howard Shore’s music.

It’s fitting that After Hours follows The King of Comedy in Scorsese’s filmography, because it feels like something of a spiritual sequel to that deeply uncomfortable, brilliantly uncompromising movie. Both films present funhouse versions of Scorsese’s desperate, lonely men swallowed up by the big city, and both adopt the structure, pacing and pitch of farce without ever providing the true catharsis of comedy. Every laugh is undercut by discomfort, tension and confusion. It’s possible that After Hours is Scorsese’s scariest movie. It may also be his funniest.

For Spokane Public Radio, I'm Nathan Weinbender.


Nathan Weinbender is one of the regular co-hosts on Spokane Public Radio’s Movies 101, heard Friday evenings at 6:30 PM here on KPBX.