330. AFTER HOURS (1985)

“Different rules apply when it gets this late. You know what I mean? It’s like, after hours.”–After Hours

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , John Heard, Linda Fiorentino, Terri Garr, , Verna Bloom, , Tommy Chong

PLOT: Paul meets an attractive woman in a Manhattan coffee shop after he gets off work. Under the pretext of his buying a paperweight from her roommate, she gives him her number. He calls her, is invited over to her SoHo loft, loses his money on the cab ride over, and is plagued by a bizarre series of missteps and coincidences that result in a dead body and his pursuit by a lynch mob as he tries in vain to make his way back home.

Still from After Hours (1985)

BACKGROUND:

  • Originally titles Lies, the script for After Hours was Joseph Minion’s thesis project for Columbia Film School. His professor was . He got an “A.”
  • Minion lifted about a third of the film (much of Marcy’s character) from a radio monologue by Joe Frank, who won a plagiarism lawsuit against the producers.
  • Minion would go on to write the script for another Certified Weird pick: Vampire’s Kiss (1988).
  • Griffin Dunne and Amy Robinson, then-struggling actors who took up producing, optioned Minion’s screenplay. They pitched the project to Martin Scorsese, but when they did not hear back from him they began negotiations with , who had yet to make a feature film at the time. Months later, when Scorsese’s first attempt to make The Last Temptation of Christ fell apart, he expressed interest in the project. When Burton heard this news he gracefully withdrew, saying he did not want to stand in the way of Scorsese.
  • The ending of After Hours had not been decided on when shooting began. (One proposed, and unused, surrealistic ending had Paul climbing into Verna Bloom’s womb and being reborn uptown). The first cut used a downbeat attempt at a conclusion that bombed with test audiences. Scorsese then went back and re-shot the ending we see today. (Director suggested the resolution Scorsese finally used).
  • Scorsese won the “Best Director” award at the Cannes Film Festival for After Hours.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Kiki’s papier-mâché sculpture of a man staring up at the sky, mouth agape and gnarled fingers held before his face, like a flash-fried Pompeii victim preserved in ash. Paul thinks it looks like a three-dimensional version of “The Shriek.” The statue turns up unexpectedly later in the night, and an eerily and ironically similar piece plays a key role in the climax.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Burn victim?; “Surrender Dorothy”; mummified escape

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: No other black comedy has ever captured such a perfect mix of unease, absurdity, melancholy, and danger with the light, unforced touch that Scorsese does here. Man’s fate in an uncaring universe ruled by the iron fist of coincidence has never seemed so horrifyingly hilarious.


Original trailer for After Hours

COMMENTS: Years ago, I wrote an article for this site about “quirky” movies (Quirky, Not Weird). After Hours, Martin Scorsese’s nightmare comedy, debuted just before the quirk explosion, and it may be the perfect example of the key difference that separates the weird from the merely quirky: danger. People die in After Hours. On the surface, you could describe Paul Hackett’s encounters as “quirky.” Just look at the kooky females who alternately tempt and plague him: kinky sculptress Kiki, who walks around her loft topless making bagel and cream cheese paperweights; Terri Garr’s stuck-in-the-Sixties nightshift cocktail waitress (“Miss Beehive 1965”); Catherine O’Hara’s irritable Mr. Softee truck-driving vigilante; Verna Bloom’s frumpy artist, who rents a room underneath a punk club and seems perfectly sweet and normal—for about five minutes. Topping it all off is the temptress who sets the whole night in motion, Rosanna Arquette’s irresistible Marcy, whose conversation is littered with sexual non-sequiturs, like the story of her estranged husband’s obsession with The Wizard of Oz, and who may, or may not, be covered in terrible scars. Behind Marcy’s manic pixie dream girl front hides a schizophrenic demon nightmare girl. These women aren’t cute, they’re predatory: Kiki almost brains Paul with her plummeting keys the first time they meet, Julie’s bed is completely surrounded by mousetraps. The normal rules of flirting are turned upside down. The night belongs to weirdos, and Paul’s daytime mindset can’t adjust to the dim lights of After Hours.

Lust—for Marcy, but also the desire for adventure, for experience, for a break from his dull routine of word processing in the day and channel surfing at night—drives Paul Hackett into the night. This straight-laced, entry-level yuppie braves a trip to SoHo, a world of punk clubs, performance artists, and leather boys. But what bedevils this midtown mediocrity in the downtown bohemian community is not his squareness but… women. From the bathroom graffito of a shark chomping down on a stick figure’s member to the mousetrap that snaps just as Julie is putting the moves on him, females are the constant peril for Paul: always tempting him, then betraying him. The only person who genuinely tries to help him through his ordeal is a man, Tom the bartender. But despite these facts, the script never feels misogynist. It doesn’t simply paint these women as untrustworthy deceivers out to toy with a boychild out of his element. Instead, the sense of persecution is tied to Paul’s own sexual paranoia. After Hours emerged in 1985, at the height of the AIDS panic. Paul’s increasing ambivalence about Marcy stems from his growing suspicion that she is hiding scars or burns underneath her slinky chemise—no matter how tempting her body looks, he fears that once her nightgown is stripped away, she will reveal a disease. Torn between his desire and his fear, Paul can expect only frustration, and he soon becomes lost in an endless night cycle of dashed hopes. After Hours can be read as a nightmare parable for the AIDS age.

More than succubi, the women of After Hours can be better seen as Furies come to pursue and punish Paul for his sins. Not that Paul’s sins are profound—basically, he is a decent guy who gets fed up and lashes out occasionally as his circumstances get worse and worse. But he does sin, driven by his twin motives of lust and fear. He flirts with turning his attentions from Marcy to Kiki when she seems to be the one who’s sexually available. He later ditches Marcy; but given the growing weirdness of their interaction, the sense that something’s terribly off about her despite her good looks, we can understand why he decides to dash, even if we wish he’d pulled it off in a classier manner. In classical tragedy, even minor, unintentional slights against the gods lead to unintended consequences and horrible retribution. Paul sees himself as Job, at one point kneeling in the street (in a pose that recalls Kiki’s agonized statue) and asking God directly what he’s done to deserve such persecution (“I’m just a word processor!”) But he’s not entirely innocent—it’s just that he hasn’t done much wrong. His failings are no worse than most of ours—mostly, chickening out when things get too weird. The proportionality of his punishment, though, is off the cosmic chart. We identify more with flawed but decent Paul more than with sinless Job. Paul develops a consciousness of his own guilt, although he doesn’t completely understand what he’s done. By the end, he seeks redemption. He spends his last quarter on a jukebox tune so that he can dance with lonely June. It’s the first time in the movie he unselfishly offers something to someone else, rather than bargaining for help. As a result, he breaks his cycle and is finally delivered from his season in hell—although not immediately and, appropriately, only through bizarre coincidence.

That last quarter that he spends on June instead of on a final, desperate phone call is significant. When he drops the coin into the slot, he has finally unburdened himself of the curse of money, which—like women—promises to bring him salvation. But money always lets Paul down, because he never has enough of it. Paul’s shrinking bankroll is a crucial plot point in After Hours. The tragicomedy does not even begin until his $20 flies out the window. Without money—in New York City, especially—he is helpless. Paul has a steady job, wears a coat and tie, but it’s a front. It’s not like he’s a lawyer or a stock broker, or even a distinguished artist or professor. He’s just a word processor, a glorified typist, trying to find fulfillment in one of the most expensive cities in the world. Maybe, just maybe, Paul’s lack of success with his girls is related to his lack of funds? Things seemed so promising with Marcy when he had $20, but when he only has pocket change, everything starts to go horribly wrong. Subway fares rise to the point where he’s just barely short. Bouncers accept his pathetic attempt at a bribe, but still won’t let him into the club. Cabbies stiff him. The idea of a lack of funds leading to an absurd comedy of errors obviously appealed to Scorsese, who’d just seen his dream project, The Last Temptation of Christ, shut down prematurely by the money men.

So is After Hours really a comedy of materialism? A critique of the emptiness of Paul’s quest for meaning through sex? Is it about AIDS? Or materialism? Urban alienation? Part of the reason for its success is that it wraps up so many anxieties of the 1980s, the gilded age of Reaganomic optimism. But although it is grounded in period concerns, the futility of Paul’s quest to go home again still resonates today. He is toyed with by the gods, like Job, like Odysseus, like Shakespeare’s tragic heroes. After Hours is a great tragicomic creation, but Paul’s tale is told not with the certainty of an ancient moral, where one easily identified act, whether sin or curse, leads inexorably to tragedy. Instead, Paul is a victim of existential arbitrariness: he just happens to be Fate’s designated chew toy for the night, thrashed around, then discarded when day breaks. After Hours is an absurdist postmodern version of classical tragedy, where the root cause of the hero’s persecution cannot be clearly identified. It’s all nothing more than horrible, horrible coincidence, collisions of ill-starred atoms indifferently tormenting a random innocent. After Hours has no moral; Paul’s suffering just is, and is, therefore, funny. When he first meets her in the coffee shop, Marcy quotes Henry Miller’s opening to “Tropic of Cancer” from memory: “this is not a book, this is a prolonged insult, a spit in the face to Art, a kick in the pants to Truth, Beauty, God…” Or “something like that,” she giggles modestly. After Hours is “something like that…” But funnier. And with Cheech & Chong.

Pete Trbovich adds: After Hours is the ultimate example of the “Kafka komedy”: based on the spirit of ’s works, it’s where the universe becomes the personal hell for one unlucky protagonist. Part of the bouncer’s dialogue at Club Berlin is even borrowed from “Before the Law,” a parable within Kafka’s The Trial. It is also a delightful treat for weirdo fans in other ways, with Teri Garr (you know her from The Monkee’s Head) in a supporting role, and Cheech and Chong as a couple wacky burglars. And of course it’s directed by Martin Scorsese, no stranger to our pages. It’s the darkest chocolate of dark humor, because every bit of it could happen, however improbably, and we’ve all had one day (or one night) that felt this bad—a Tinder horror story, if nothing else.

Music trivia you must know: The song at Club Berlin’s jukebox which Paul buys with his last quarter, “Is That All There Is?”, is a great candidate for a list of weird songs. It is written by the legendary team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, pop songsmiths from the Brill Building era who also penned some of Elvis’ hits. Leiber and Stoller wrote the lyrics and music at home, independently. They met in the office the next morning and showed each other their new ideas, discovering that by coincidence they fit together perfectly. They first tried to sell the song to Barbara Streisand, but her manager ignored it (years later Streisand found out about the missed opportunity and howled with rage). They got it to Peggy Lee, who in the studio tried a valiant 35 times to get it just perfect, and was finally satisfied with take #36. But the engineer forgot to hit the ‘record’ button. So what we hear today is take #37, and Peggy Lee went to her grave mourning that perfect lost #36 take. Source: “Hound Dog: The Leiber & Stoller Autobiography.”

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a film that is so original, so particular, that we are uncertain from moment to moment exactly how to respond to it. “–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

“The mood is dark; the settings are weird; the characters range from wobbly to wacko… moviegoers who don’t enjoy a strange adventure — once in a while, at least — won’t like it at all. I enjoyed the picture less for its craziness than for its control. The more bizarre and frantic the material, the more I felt the strength and sureness of Scorsese’s directorial hand, taming the screenplay’s goblins and rendering them harmless.”–David Sterrit, Christian Science Monitor (contemporaneous)

“Although it’s a comedy, After Hours doesn’t contain a lot of jokes as such. What it has, instead, are weird moments that summon laughter by calling up conflicting, difficult-to-resolve emotions.”–Jay Boyar, Orlando Sentinel (contemporaneous)

IMDB LINK: After Hours (1985)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

A Key to ‘After Hours’ – Short “video essay” on After Hours by A. Martin & C. Álvarez López for Mubi

After Hours Movie Review & Film Summary – Roger Ebert’s Essay for his “Great Films” series (written 24 years after his original review)

The Scandalous Origins of Martin Scorsese’s After Hours – Report on the Joe Frank plagiarism scandal, with the original monologue included

After Hours (1985) – The closing titles (therefore, spoilerish) of After Hours, with brief commentary, from Art of the Title

After Hours Film Locations – Photographs of some of the locations used in the film

READER RECOMMENDATION: AFTER HOURS (1985) – Our first  Reader Recommendation for After Hours, from “Rajiv”

TWO READER RECOMMENDATIONS: AFTER HOURS (1985) & STARSHIP TROOPERS (1997) – The second Reader Recommendation for After Hours, from “Brad”

HOME VIDEO INFO: The 2004 Warner Brothers DVD (buy) is affordable and easy to find. An 18-minute mini-doc, “Filming for Your Life,” gives all the background information on the film you could want. There are also eight minutes of high quality deleted scenes, including a fine Catherine O’Hara freakout, Horst playing the piano, Paul listening to an answering machine message from Tom’s mother, the coffee shop clerk giving more background about Marcy, a touching moment with June, and alternate takes of Paul calling the police to report a suicide and discussing Marcy with Tom. There’s also a selected scene commentary from Scorsese, Dunne, and others; when you access it through the special features menu, the movie automatically skips over scenes with no commentary.

Somewhat surprisingly, After Hours is not available on Blu-ray at the present time. It is available to rent or purchase digitally on-demand.

(This movie was nominated for review by multiple readers, first by Rajiv, who called it “A strange, original, and totally underrated movie from Mr. Scorsese.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

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