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Scorsese’s ‘After Hours’ is Essential and Worthy of Your Director Rankings

‘After Hours’ is a comedy, but it’s also a drama. And a horror film. And an essential masterpiece in Scorsese’s filmography.
After Hours Martin Scorsese
Warner Bros.
By  · Published on August 11th, 2016

Welcome to The Essentials, a series of articles originally published in 2016 that dared to try and create a list of essential movies for film lovers. This entry explores Scorsese’s underrated ‘After Hours.’

Movie lovers, like just about anybody, typically love rankings and lists as a form of shorthand highlighting their thoughts on a particular filmmaker’s best or worst efforts. It works the other way too as a window into just how like-minded or off-their-rocker someone else might be on the same subject. This week saw a spontaneous surge in people on Twitter listing their top five Martin Scorsese films, but while the expected titles (Raging Bull, Taxi Driver) made the cut again and again there was one conspicuous absence in far too many of these rankings.

Scorsese’s After Hours is every bit the masterpiece as those other titles (and my personal favorite Scorsese) and deserving of far more affection than it gets. It’s a sad, terrifying, and hilarious descent into hell that serves as a cautionary tale of sorts warning you to be careful what you wish for, and it’s as essential as any entry in Scorsese’s filmography.

Paul Hackett (Griffin Dunne) spends his days at a dull, meaningless job, and when we first meet him he’s training a new hire in the fine art of monotony. The trainee tells him this is only temporary as he can’t imagine making a career out of such mundane activities, and Paul takes the comment to heart. Later that night, back at his lonely apartment, he decides to step outside of his box and head out into New York City’s waiting arms.

It’s a baby step at first – an all-night diner with a dog-eared Henry Miller novel to keep him company – but things begin looking up when an attractive woman (Rosanna Arquette) starts a friendly conversation on Miller’s Tropic of Cancer. Marcy gives him the number for her friend’s Soho loft, and with the tease of a Plaster of Paris bagel and cream cheese paperweight still hanging in the air she disappears into the night.

The door’s been opened, and for a man whose life is clearly a stagnant cycle of data entry and dinners for one it’s an invite he can’t refuse. How could he know that all of the excitement he’s been missing in his boring life is about to hit him over the course of one night?

Scorsese received deserved acclaim for the energy displayed throughout 2013’s The Wolf of Wall Street, but After Hours is an equally dynamic and vibrant experience. He and longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker give the film a dangerous momentum as Paul’s simple attempt at fun and nookie leads him on a downward spiral of madness and misfortune. His nightmare journey moves from one absurd situation to the next, introducing him each time to newly eclectic characters brought to glorious life by a tremendous cast of supporting actors.

Marcy’s friend, Kiki Bridges (Linda Fiorentino), tosses the keys down to let him into her loft apartment, and their fall is given an ominous power as they rush towards him. These won’t be the first set of keys to fuck with him tonight. She’s a sultry and flirty artist who keeps him busy while they wait for Marcy to arrive, but his efforts to seduce her with a massage and a sexy (?) story about burned children sees her fall asleep in his arms.

Paul is a tragic figure, one we can’t help but feel sympathy for, but he’s not exactly the nicest guy. Unlike the terrific Miracle Mile, another one-night tale about a man’s doomed quest for a woman, this isn’t a story about a good guy facing adversity. Paul’s troubles are due as much to his own actions as they are to the twisted will of an uncaring universe. He’s punished for his decisions, repeatedly, and his initial decision to leave his apartment in the first place aside, almost all of it stems from his mistreatment of Marcy.

He tries making moves on her friend, but once she returns he shifts his libido in her direction only to grow increasingly wary about his decision. She’s had man trouble in the past and seems somewhat wobbly emotionally, but he’s ready to ignore all of it in exchange for some horizontal shenanigans. What he can’t abide though are his suspicions that her clothes are hiding some hideous burn scars. Some comments from Kiki, a late-night pharmacy run, and Marcy’s demeanor fuel his concern, so he skips out on her.

And she commits suicide.

And I swear this is a very funny movie.

Joseph Minion’s screenplay – his first produced! – is an absolutely pitch-perfect balance between comedy and tragedy. (It should surprise no one that he also wrote the much-maligned Nicolas Cage film, Vampire’s Kiss.) Ridiculous story turns and characters exist side by side with loneliness, despair, and desperation, and it’s an absurd concoction inspired as much by Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz as it is by the now long-gone world of mid-’80s NYC. The film captures both a place and a time we’ll never see again.

Paul’s efforts to get home are immediately stymied by a Kafka-esque stab at bureaucracy when he’s fifty-three cents short for the train, and it just gets more frustrating for him from there. He mistakes two men (Cheech Marin & Tommy Chong) for thieves (they are thieves of course, just not of the items he accuses them of stealing) and is himself accused of being a burglar, he upsets more women, and he even witnesses a random murder – leading Dunne to utter one of my favorite line deliveries with “I’ll probably get blamed for that.” It seems only natural that he ends up on the run for his life from a neighborhood-watch mob led by a deranged Mister Softee truck driver (Catherine O’Hara).

In addition to the film’s many narrative joys, After Hours is a mesmerizing smorgasbord of familiar faces and character actors including John Heard as a friendly bartender, Will Patton as a leather-clad arbiter of Paul’s mistreatment of Marcy, and Dick Miller as a winking waiter. The ladies shine even brighter though as the ones leading the charge against Paul’s initial misstep. Arquette, Fiorentino, O’Hara, Teri Garr, and Verna Bloom inject the film with zany, sad, sexy, memorable performances.

Paul’s journey out of this nightmare ultimately lands him at the gates – not of heaven or hell, but of his own personal purgatory. He’s back at work, and as Scorsese’s camera moves through the cubicles accompanied by the ordered and alive sound of Mozart’s Symphony in D Major, K. 73N, it encircles Paul and appears to trap his still form in place. And then he’s gone.

After Hours is a comedy, but it’s also a drama. And a horror film. And an essential masterpiece in Scorsese’s filmography.

I just wanted to leave my apartment, maybe meet a nice girl, and now I’ve gotta die for it, you know?

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Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.