Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #120
Number of Views: Multiple
Release Date: September 13, 1985
Sub-Genre: Black Comedy
Country of Origin: United States
Box Office: $10,609,321
Running Time: 97 minutes
Director: Martin Scorsese
Producers: Amy Robinson, Griffin Dunne, Robert F. Colesberry
Screenplay: Joseph Minion
Cinematography: Michael Ballhaus
Score: Howard Shore
Editing: Thelma Schoonmaker
Studio: The Geffen Company, Double Play Productions
Distributor: Warner Bros
Stars: Griffin Dunne, Rosanna Arquette, John Heard, Catherine O’Hara, Verna Bloom, Teri Garr, Linda Fiorentino, Tommy Chong, Richard ‘Cheech’ Marin, Dick Miller, Will Patton, Robert Plunket, Bronson Pinchot, Rocco Sisto, Larry Block, Victor Argo, Murray Moston, Clarence Felder
Cameos: Catherine Scorsese, Charles Scorsese and Martin Scorsese as Club Berlin Searchlight Operator
Suggested Audio Candy:
Howard Shore 6am
When you mention the name Martin Scorsese to anyone, it is likely that the first word that will leave their mouth is Goodfellas. Praise for the New York-born director’s 1990 crime epic was unanimous and it instantly gained elite standing amongst other mob flicks doing the rounds at the time. Indeed, he has revisited the genre on a number of occasions since and has a record that is pretty much second to none. However, while the exploits of wise guys Henry Hill, Jimmy Conway and Tommy DeVito were extraordinarily well documented, for me the film is not Scorsese’s finest hour. Neither are any of the other obvious choices. Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Casino, The Color of Money, The King of Comedy and Mean Streets – all are unquestionably superb motion pictures, while his later works are none too shabby either. But there is one particular Scorsese feature that stoked the fire in my soul and would still sit right at the top of my desert island list thirty years later.
Ordinarily filmmakers avoid releasing their films on Friday the 13th as it is considered terrible luck. However, in the case of Scorsese’s 1985 masterpiece After Hours, it seems most fitting. It is the very blackest of comedies and offers a breathless excursion round the unwelcoming back streets of Soho, holding you in place like an anaconda and constricting further, while never once slackening its grip. By the conclusion, its main protagonist is literally dripping in sweat and moist paper mâché and so are the audience. Indeed, should I be selected to teach a master class in filmmaking, then it would be very first on my curriculum. Scorsese actually intended it to be a parody of the style of Alfred Hitchcock but it is so much more besides.
After Hours charts the steady decline in fortunes, public standing, scruples and ultimately sanity of docile Paul Hackett (Griffin Dunne), a fairly unremarkable word processor who impetuously follows his gut after meeting the striking and mystifying Marcy (Rosanna Arquette) in a Manhattan café and striking up conversation around paperweights. There is a spark visible to both parties and it appears as though Paul could well be spending the night in a different zip code. What follows is one unfortunate turn of events after another as he unwittingly heads off to her downtown apartment on the wrong side of the tracks to bag the girl and, failing that, procure those paperweights.
“What do you want from me? I’m just a word processor!”
At first, despite some fairly wretched kismet en route, events seem to be favoring Paul and he must, at this point, be expecting to feed Marcy his monster. But like the course of actions that follow, sudden warning signs and a distinct change of circumstances scupper his plan and, with each new turn of events adding to the complex web which he finds himself caught up in, the paperweights become far less pressing a concern for our increasingly perplexed protagonist. To give you an idea of his accelerating frustration, Scorsese slapped a sex and sleep ban on his lead in order to heighten his edginess. It worked! You can almost hear his inner screams as things continue to escalate from bad, to worse, to way beyond FUBAR.
“Where are those Plaster of Paris paperweights, anyway? I mean, that’s what I came down here to see in the first place. Well, that’s not entirely true, I came to see you, but where are the paperweights? That’s what I wanna see now!”
Arquette is an erection waiting to happen and has an organic seductiveness about her, as demonstrated a year previous as Roberta in Susan Seidelman’s marvellous Desperately Seeking Susan. As Marcy, she is initially pleasant and alluring, whilst the birds are visibly not all in the nest and Arquette captures each erratic mood swing exquisitely.
Meanwhile, her artist friend Kiki (Linda Fiorentino) is no less bizarre and Paul wisely decides that there is no place like home. Unfortunately for him, leaving Soho on this particular night is no easy task and, after one disconcerting thing leads to another, he is left well and truly up the creek without a paddle.
Howard Shore Midnight
His escapades take him to a diverse range of locales and each seemingly safe haven proves less assured than the last. There are some glorious interactions as he begins to rub the townsfolk the wrong way and ends up public enemy number one. Catherine O’Hara and Teri Garr both put in splendidly deranged turns as Soho’s resident bunny boilers, while John Heard is on fine form as Paul’s only perceptible ally, approachable bartender Tom. After Hours builds up a full head of steam on its course to an exquisitely dark and delicious final act as all plot threads pull together and the rug is well and truly yanked from under his feet in upsetting fashion.
“I want to live.”
Every youngster can relate to the sound of the approaching ice cream van. That siren-like tune alerts them instantaneously and every parent in a two mile radius turns on their selective hearing in anticipation of the upcoming exploitation. In After Hours that catchy jingle is used to disconcerting effect, heralding the oncoming mob of misinformed locals all looking to punish Paul for a spate of burglaries he has been accredited with. Every time the Mister Softee van approaches, a small chill filters down our spines, and Howard Shore’s disconcerting score compliments his spiraling plight. So too does the cinematography of Michael Ballhaus, which depicts the helplessness of the situation through foreboding flashpoints. It feels wholly insular, almost paradoxical and Scorsese punctuates this trepidation with moments of the blackest humor.
[after witnessing a murder through a window] “I’ll probably get blamed for that.”
However, the true star of the show is resident New Yorker Dunne. Since watching his extraordinary turn as the beleaguered Paul Hackett, he has been something of a personal Jesus to me. John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London placed him squarely on our radars in 1981 but, despite appearing in Luc Besson’s exceptional The Big Blue (alongside Arquette once again), he has never really received the service he richly deserves. Aside from occasional spells in the directorial hot seat, he still acts, but never has he been used to such magnanimous effect as here. Paul is immensely agreeable and we will him on through every inevitable bungle. As his tolerance becomes further tested, he begins to bear his teeth and we can feel every bead of perspiration trickle down and every low body blow knock the wind from our sails. Granted, he is assisted in no small part by a simply edible ensemble cast. But this is Dunne’s film through and through.
After Hours could have ended up even more melancholic but test audiences rejected an alternative ending and tying events up satisfactorily proved troublesome for Scorsese. Indeed, at one point, a bizarre metaphorical rebirth was considered but the eventual outcome is more than gratifying. Three cheers then to Marty for providing us with such a wonderful piece of eighties cinema and my personal darling of his vast oeuvre, by a good country mile. When you consider the quality of this man’s résumé, that is no small compliment and 10/10 has rarely been such a justified signifier of excellence than it is here. Believe me, if I could score it an eleven, I would. I love movies about spiraling events set within a single 24 hour timeframe and this is the mack daddy of them all. I had absolutely no desire to be Paul Hackett as he endured the single worst night of his entire life but I’m sure glad he invited me along for the ride.
Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 10/10
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Copyright: Crimson Quill: Savage Vault Enterprises 2013 (Revised Edition 2016)