In our monthly column Laughed to Death, we look at the way comedy and existentialism go hand-in-hand in seemingly unlikely ways. For this installment, Brianna Zigler makes the case for how Martin Scorsese’s 1985 black comedy After Hours discreetly portrays a dead man damned to his own endless eternity.
“What do you want from me?” Paul Hackett shrieks to the heavens, to the black, neglectful, and uncaring abyss that hovers above and taunts him with silence, “What have I done? I’m just a word processor, for Christ’s sake!”
On the surface, Paul Hackett (Griffin Dunne), the protagonist of Martin Scorsese‘s After Hours (1985), hasn’t done a thing — at least, not intentionally. After another grueling day indistinguishable from the last in the life of a gear in the corporate machine, Paul snatches the opportunity offered to him by a pretty girl in a diner. But in the hopes of conversation and a quick fuck, he is instead led down a grueling nighttime Odyssey in an inverted version of New York City.
From the moment Paul decides to call Marcy (Rosanna Arquette), under the guise of inquiring about her roommate’s plaster of Paris bagel and cream cheese paperweights, he steps into a Bizarro World version of our universe. Minor actions open up Pandora’s boxes, women lash out in uncanny ways and speak in nonsequiturs, and, somehow, everything and everyone is connected in a series of absurd coincidences. Each new situation throws poor Paul deeper into lunacy and farther away from his desired goal of getting home, the latter of which flew out the taxi cab window along with his only $20 bill.
After Hours is a film trapped in purgatory as much as its own protagonist is. For Scorsese, it is bookended by a series of legendary leading Robert de Niro performances that came before it (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The King of Comedy), and a slew of eclectic classics that followed (The Last Temptation of Christ, Goodfellas, Cape Fear, The Age of Innocence, Casino). An oft-forgotten gem within the director’s towering filmography, the breezy black comedy is a sly, darkly hilarious depiction of one man’s personal hell.
Paul’s initially innocent attempt to get laid turns into a fruitless quest to free himself from a downtown perpetual prison, looping him right back to the very corporate office that he started from once he’s finally free. Or is he? Because the inexplicable actions of the people around him and increasingly ludicrous situations, juxtaposed against Paul’s own incredulity, might lead one to believe that the film is more than a simple night gone wrong. Is the insanity of this cursed evening, as well as these people he encounters, all in Paul’s head — a product of insecure projections, perhaps — or is it really happening? Or, is it a little bit of both? Or, maybe, there is no Paul Hackett at all.
You see, there was a Paul Hackett at some point, but not anymore. After Hours is not simply a personal hell, but a very real one. A purgatorial pastiche of a life lived and sins yet to be reckoned with. I want to make the case for why Paul is actually deceased. The events of After Hours are us witnessing the infinitely looping version of Hell that he’s been damned to for eternity. Whether or not the night’s events really happened while he was alive, or whether they are simply an amalgamation of specific torment meant for Paul’s punishment, I believe that the loop holds the key to his ultimate cause for damnation and even offers him a chance for redemption each time — which he will always fail to act on, as part of his retribution.
While there is no canon interpretation in the Bible of Hell manifesting as an infinite loop, Hell is regarded as “a place for the soul of extreme torment by being separated from the blessings of God.” Though ideas of this torment can take on different incarnations from religious thinkers and the layperson alike, such ideas are all generally linked by the basic concept of Hell being a place of extreme punishment. As a result, the idea that Hell could be a loop that one must circle through for eternity has been depicted before in recent pop culture, in such series as Lucifer and American Horror Story, where the retribution for sins in the afterlife is to endure one’s worst fears over and over. The way in which the plot of After Hours is laid out, the idea of a looping Hell seems feasible.
Paul’s story commences at his office in uptown Manhattan and leads him to a diner where he meets the beguiling young Marcy. There, she shares an innocent affection with Paul for Henry Miller’s 1934 novel Tropic of Cancer — which he’s reading at that moment, and the story of which similarly follows a man stuck in a kind of purgatory. The two chat flirtatiously and Marcy imparts upon him the eccentric paperweights her sculptor roommate Kiki (Linda Fiorentino) has been crafting and selling. Paul takes an eager if not entirely disingenuous interest, and Marcy gives Kiki’s home phone number to Paul so he can purchase one.
Taking her phone number extension as a sign, Paul rings her up later that night under the guise of paperweight procuring. What starts as the simple desire for a one-night stand mutates into an unending night of beguiling events, interacting with one unhinged individual after the next. This includes Marcy, whose cryptic behavior shifts from coy to peculiar. Mysterious conversations with Kiki, a book on burn victims, unexplained gashes on her thigh, and the ever-increasing transparency in her demeanor that something is bothering her. With no prompting, at one point she tells Paul that she has an estranged husband who shouts “Surrender Dorothy!” when he climaxes.
Fed up with Marcy and her confusing conduct, Paul bails on her unceremoniously with the intention of simply going home. But his main form of payment, a $20 bill that was snatched out his taxi cab window by the night winds en route to Marcy, is gone. And to his bewildered dismay, subway fares were increased that very night. The loose change in Paul’s pocket isn’t enough to get him back uptown and, suddenly, he’s trapped, in desperate need of a lifeline that no stranger is willing to give him. It all culminates with Paul being chased by a neighborhood watch mob who’ve mistaken him for their serial burglar and being physically turned into a Papier-mâché sculpture in order to cover himself from their hostile wrath.
As almost every new exchange with another human being seems to give way to a new preposterous string of chaos and hellish circumstances, it’s unsurprising that the film has already been linked to the Underworld and Dante’s Inferno. “Every time Paul escapes from one circle of tortured souls, he seems only to fall into another,” writes Steve Thompson for The Arbuturian on the similarities between the film and Dante’s epic poem. “Compounding his agony are characters who resurface only at the worst times to hound him and push him further into the depths.”
In her book Martin Scorsese’s Divine Comedy: Movies and Religion, author Catherine O’Brien finds numerous links between Hell and the world of After Hours. She likens the damp streets of nighttime Manhattan to the netherworld as characterized in the Book of Job and Paul’s inability to pay for neither taxi nor subway fare to the legend of Charon. In the latter, “one had to pay him [Charon] a coin or be condemned to wander the banks for a hundred years.” Similarly, Paul is condemned to SoHo. There are references to fire (or Hellfire) and charred flesh, such as Marcy’s book on burns and Paul relaying to Kiki his experience visiting a hospital burn ward as a child, where he witnessed some untold horror.
“Difficult journeys are a common theme [in Dante’s Inferno]” O’Brien writes, as Paul’s navigation of SoHo becomes more like searching for an escape from a maze. “Paul has a feeling of entrapment and futility in his computer job, with its programs and codes; and it might be appropriate for the grand gates that lead into his office building to bear the sign found at the entrance to Dante’s Hell: ‘All hope abandon, ye who enter in!’”
However, the irony is that the true hell that lies ahead for Paul exists elsewhere, the gates which adorn the entrance to his corporate office leading him to the Hell awaits just outside of it. Furthermore, similarly to the Divine Comedy, in which “Virgil and the Pilgrim are told (incorrectly) by one of the devils that one of the bridges has been broken as they cross the Malebolge in the eighth circle, lengthening their passage through the Inferno,” Paul’s plagued evening with Marcy begins with an uncannily similar misdirection. On the intercom resident list for Marcy and Kiki’s apartment building, the name “Bridges” is crossed out, despite the fact that Kiki Bridges does reside there.
Indeed, it seemed as though Scorsese had crafted the perfect recreation of Hell on earth, intending to put Paul through the utmost mortal torture for his and our amusement. However, the odd, almost inhuman manners of every new stranger he meets, paired with the inescapable nature of his torment, feels a bit too otherworldly to be consistent with the “on earth” part. In fact, the people in After Hours behave more like taunting minions of Lucifer than anything else.
First the bewildering, mysterious Marcy, with her scratches and estranged, Wizard of Oz-obsessed husband, who keeps sex with Paul just out of reach. Then Julie (Terr Garr), a waitress who immediately becomes hung up on Paul when he enters the bar she works at until he relents and goes home with her, where she starts drawing his portrait and becomes near-inconsolable at sarcasm. There there’s the inscrutable ice cream truck-driver Gail (Catherine O’Hara), who is insistent on impeding Paul’s attempts to make a phone call, fixates on assisting with his injured arm, and is ultimately the one to lead the charge on the neighborhood watch mob trying to kill him. Consequently, nearly every character in After Hours is an agent of chaos.
Furthermore, almost every situation Paul gets himself into is somehow connected to the last, as if the night only exists as its own self-contained universe. We eventually learn that the amiable character of Tom the bartender (John Heard) is Marcy’s boyfriend; Paul’s missing $20 has somehow become a part of Kiki’s Papier-mâché sculpture; Julie has her own plaster of Paris bagel and cream cheese paperweight like the ones Kiki sells, and all of these characters are eventually caught up in the vigilante swarm.
And aside from some of the vigilantes, the amiable Tom — the only person who comes close to helping Paul get home — and a gay male sex worker (Robert Plunket) who is peculiar but reluctantly allows Paul to vent to him about his night, the people who antagonize Paul the most are women. “I wanted to meet a nice girl, and now I’ve got to die for it,” he wearily expresses at one point, made somewhat paradoxical both due to the fact he is, of course, already dead, and that one of these girls, Marcy, really does die. She commits suicide by sleeping pill overdose, which Paul discovers upon returning to her apartment to deliver what he believed to be Kiki’s stolen sculpture. After Kiki and her sex partner Horst (Will Patton) have already left, Paul callously tends to Marcy’s corpse by calling 9-1-1 and leaving up a sign in the apartment that reads “Dead Person” with an arrow pointing to her room.
But how did Paul die? And what, exactly, did he go to Hell for? Since the film concludes with his extremely narrow escape from the vigilante mob landing him right back at his office in uptown Manhattan — he never does make it back to his apartment as he yearns for — I believe that the mob did ultimately end up killing him, with Marcy’s suicide being blood on his hands that turns him away from the pearly white gates.
There’s also the possibility that Paul really is the serial burglar that this mob seems so intent on “mistaking” him for. What if it’s no mistake at all? Paul spends the entirety of the film acting as if he is a passive victim being thrown to the wolves, but it’s his passivity that is his own undoing and, ultimately, the undoing of Marcy. His inability to be upfront with Marcy allows him to ditch her wordlessly, the series of nagging, unreadable women he encounters emblematic of his fear of the opposite sex and, perhaps, also intimacy. They could also be viewed as servants of Satan “guiding” Paul on his way towards further punishment for his hand in the death of a woman.
Towards the end of his night, Paul is inexplicably beckoned back to the punk bar he was turned away from earlier, Club Berlin, to attend a late-night art exhibition. When he arrives, the club is mysteriously empty save for the bartender and a solitary, middle-aged woman. The bartender explains to Paul that the woman, June (Verna Bloom), is always there and that no one ever notices her presence.
Paul uses the last of his money to play “Is That All There Is?” by Peggy Lee on the jukebox, and he dances with June. It’s a uniquely eerie, tranquil scene, as Paul “bears his soul” to her in the hopes for someone finally normal to talk with. As they dance, June questions his intentions, why he’s flirting and being so nice to her. Paul replies simply, that he wants to live: “I just want to live. Live,” he pleads with her as if June is the last being on his journey to the Underworld who can save his soul from damnation.
But as the vigilantes burst into Club Berlin, June becomes nothing more than another means for Paul to escape his night — as was Marcy, Julie, Gail — and he suddenly becomes volatile and shakes her violently to tell him how to escape the mob. Thus, the one woman all evening who shows Paul any true understanding and compassion then imprisons him in a Papier-mâché sculpture, as the vigilantes descend into Club Berlin and search June’s home for Paul.
Paul is “saved” from the mob by June’s quick thinking and reluctance to let him go, then by being stolen by thieves Neil (Cheech Marin) and Pepe (Tommy Chong). Paul had mistakenly believed the pair to be stealing Kiki’s sculpture earlier in the night, but they actually do turn out to be the neighborhood’s serial burglars (as far as it seems to Paul, anyway). Neil and Pepe hoist Papier-mâché Paul out of June’s apartment thinking he’s a real work of art, and Paul is finally delivered back uptown where he belongs — falling out of the burglars’ van, crashing out of his sculpted encasing and right in front of the gates to his office.
But, ultimately, Paul was never saved — certainly not his soul. He never gets home, the cycle never ends, he begins the loop anew staring lifelessly in front of his computer screen, the corporate cog that he is. Maybe the meeting with June was Paul’s last stand, his final confrontation and last chance at salvation, and one that he continues to fail over and over. Perhaps, it’s all part of the design of Paul’s afterlife.
Of course, there’s also the idea I offered previously that none of the events of this night really happened as they did. Perhaps, the narrative of After Hours is simply Paul’s greatest fear being lived out over and over as his punishment in death (his fear of women, intimacy, etc). Maybe it’s purgatory in between Heaven and Hell and his soul has yet to be dealt with.
Whatever the case may be, and whether or not it was Scorsese’s intent for the Hell that Paul Hackett experiences to be true perdition, After Hours was nevertheless viewed as something of a religious experience: one of its producers claimed it was “a creative way for Marty to exorcise his demons,” the director himself having once claimed that shooting the film “renewed [his] faith.”
“Is that all there is?” Peggy Lee asks in the eponymous song. For Paul Hackett, at least, this is it.