“Different rules apply”: “After Hours” at 35

After Hours (Warner Bros.)

An under-appreciated work from the filmmaker and a career rebound, Martin Scorsese’s screwball comedy remains one of a kind.

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It may seem baffling to moviegoers today who’ve always known Martin Scorsese as the great American filmmaker of our time, but he wasn’t always seen as the most consistent artist. After reaching an early critical and commercial peak with Taxi Driver (1976), the next several years were marked by a number of well-documented personal struggles.

An uneven box office track record culminated in the catastrophic financial failure of The King of Comedy (1983) and the last-minute scuttling of his dream project, an adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ. Reeling from these setbacks, Scorsese determined that the best path to re-establishing himself in the filmmaking community was to go back to basics and tackle a smaller-scale project that he could shoot quickly and cheaply in the manner of his earlier efforts.

Such an opportunity came along when he came across the script for what was then called A Night in Soho, a work initially written by Joseph Minion as a Columbia University Film School assignment. At the time, Griffin Dunne and Amy Robinson’s production company owned the project. It even had a newcomer named Tim Burton set to direct, but he’d step aside once Scorsese became interested. Thus began After Hours (1985), a project that would not only result in one of the best films of his career but also rejuvenate his career.

Set over the course of one long night, the film stars Dunne as Paul Hackett, an utterly ordinary guy with a job in data entry. While in a cafe after work, he strikes up a conversation with Marcy. That conversation is a little off; there’s talk of her roommate Kiki (Linda Fiorentino) and her work selling plaster-of-Paris paperweights that look like a bagel and cream cheese. But Paul is able to work around that since Marcy is played by Rosanna Arquette. Later that evening, Paul calls up Marcy under the pretense of buying a paperweight. He hails a cab to Soho to meet up with her, but alas, the cabbie is driving so wildly that his only $20 bill flies out the window.

After Hours

Suffice it to say the attempted date quickly goes sour. Paul’s plan to return to the safety of his bland apartment is thwarted at every turn. The subway fare increases at midnight, and he doesn’t have enough money. A kindly bartender (John Heard) offers to give him the change but left the key to the cash register in his apartment, forcing Paul to retrieve it. He inevitably returns to Kiki’s apartment is guilted into apologizing to Marcy for bailing on her. It doesn’t go well and, as the night goes on, he continues to encounter a number of people (including Teri Garr, Catherine O’Hara, and Verna Bloom). While they initially seem to offer him refuge from the storm, they only worsen his troubles. Before you know it, a vigilante mob is after him.

I should probably mention at this point that After Hours is, in fact, a comedy. In the hands of any number of other filmmakers, the premise could have resulted in a pleasantly amusing screwball comedy, perhaps Adventures in Babysitting (1987) for adults. Although Scorsese has had moments of great humor in many of his films, this remains the only pure comedy of his entire oeuvre, but it’s not a goof by any stretch of the imagination.

Appropriate for its nighttime setting, it offers a form of dark humor laced with so much tension that even the biggest laughs tend to catch in the throat. As things progress, the increasingly bizarre situations begin to take on a Kafkaesque feel. There’s even a scene that seems directly inspired by “Before the Law,” and even the throwaway gags have an edge to them. At one point, Paul witnesses a murder and surmises he’ll be blamed for that too.

After Hours

For a film as peculiar as After Hours to work, it has to find just the precise tonal balance. One false step and the entire mood could be completely destroyed. Amazingly, Scorsese pulls that off. The result is a little miracle of cinematic style so relentless in its danger and surrealism. In fact, it might actually prove to be too much for some first-time viewers who, like Paul, might expect a respite from the craziness. In the first of several collaborations, Scorsese and cinematographer Michael Ballhaus create such a nightmarish vision of Soho that if you watched it without the soundtrack, it could easily be mistaken for horror.

What keeps After Hours from being more than just an extreme exercise in style how it handles Paul. On the surface, he may seem like one of the most “normal” male characters in the Scorsese universe. Beneath his dully-handsome exterior, however, he soon proves to be a self-absorbed jerk—the prototypical “Yuppie scum” of the era—that the film never hesitates to put in his place. However, while it’s easy enough to dislike him, Scorsese and Dunne make it so that viewers can at least empathize with his plight. Haven’t we all found ourselves in a bizarre situation where all you can say is a variation of “I’m sorry”? As wild as After Hours gets at times, it taps into universal confusion and embarrassment to ground it.

Yet After Hours is genuinely, hysterically funny. The screenplay contains a number of wonderfully amusing moments ranging from increasingly strange conversations to throwaway bits. Each member of the supporting cast has their own vignette, and they all find just the right notes. Arquette, Garr, O’Hara, and Bloom enact a quartet of cool blondes that Hitchcock would have loved to utilize. Fiorentino adds the jolt of pure personality that will once again make you wish that she had become the big star that she deserved to be.

Cheech and Chong score as the burglars who are able to successfully navigate the night, and the late, great Dick Miller not only turns up as the owner of a diner but also delivers the film’s benediction (“Different rules apply when it gets this late. It’s like after hours.”) And while the nature of the ending was apparently a bone of contention throughout the production, the one finally selected (which Michael Powell suggested) concludes things on the exact right note. 

Although Scorsese has had moments of great humor in many of his films, this remains the only pure comedy of his entire oeuvre, but it’s not a goof by any stretch of the imagination.

When After Hours was released, it received positive reviews. Scorsese won the Best Director prize at Cannes and the Independent Spirit Awards (winning the latter’s Best Picture prize as well), but the movie wasn’t particularly a box office success, and it tends to get short shrift in accounts of his career. This probably has less to do with its lack of financial glory and more to do with an unfortunate legal situation that occurred. Radio artist Joe Frank filed a plagiarism lawsuit claiming that Minion’s screenplay, especially the first third, was lifted almost entirely from a monologue he delivered on NPR Playhouse in 1982. A settlement was made and while the accusation didn’t affect Scorsese, it did derail Minion’s once-promising career, save for his further cult adulation upon writing Vampire’s Kiss (1989).

Nevertheless, After Hours would ultimately prove to be one of the important titles in Scorsese’s filmography. By showing Hollywood that he could make a film on time and budget, he got back into their good graces. It solidified with his next project, the thoroughly mainstream though not uninteresting The Color of Money (1986), and he was able to use the guerrilla filmmaking tactics he relearned to finally get The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) made. The rest, as they say, is history.

However, After Hours isn’t a mercenary move by any means. It’s a Martin Scorsese film through and through. While it may baffle to generations raised on cellphones, ATMs, and more that’d make this particular story impossible to tell today, it remains just as fresh. It’s as vibrant and suffused with the exhilaration one gets at watching a master filmmaker at the peak of their powers as ever.

And for those of you who have to nitpick: Yes, it’s been estimated that if Paul had just simply walked home from Kiki’s apartment, that trip would take only about 10 minutes longer than the movie itself. Happy?

After Hours Trailer:

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