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  • Writer's picturePerrin Faerch

Classics Review: After Hours (1985)

Martin Scorsese is not just a director, he is a film historian. He eats, sleeps and breathes movies. Very few filmmakers understand and study the medium to the extent quite like he does. Although he is mostly associated with crime-driven dramas, Scorsese’s foray into other genres and styles are not often met with the same level of attention that the Taxi Drivers, Raging Bulls, and Goodfellas get. He has also done many overlooked masterpieces that have regained acclaim and appreciation over the years. The King of Comedy, The Age of Innocence, The Last Temptation of Christ and Silence (just to name a few) all aging well and showing his often overlooked versatility as a filmmaker and his ability in understanding different genres and stories with ease. But there is one film that still, for some inexplicable reason, manages to slip everyone’s mind when discussing the most underrated (and best) Scorsese films: After Hours.

His second (black) comedy after The King of Comedy, After Hours somehow goes unnoticed in his filmography among the casual Scorsese appreciator as well as even the most avid of his fans. Despite being critically acclaimed like The King of Comedy was, it went on to win Best Director at Cannes as well as being nominated for the Palm d'Or, generating more buzz. But somehow, it was still met with very little attention among audiences upon its release. It’s a genuine hidden gem that continues to unearth itself among fans of Scorsese as well as fans of dark comedies in general.

Taking place over one hellish night, Paul Hackett (Griffin Dunne) works at an unrewarding 9-5 job as a word processor. One night, he meets a young woman named Marcy (Rosanna Arquette) at a diner where they briefly talk about the book he is reading. She mentions that she is living with a sculptor who makes plaster paperweights that resemble cream cheese bagels, eventually leaving him her number if he’s interested in getting one. In a spur-of-the-moment, Paul later phones the number showing a fake interest in the paperweights with the hopes of seeing Marcy again. On his way to see her, the only currency he had in his wallet, a twenty-dollar bill, literally flies out the window, preventing him from settling up with the cab driver. Things begin to spiral out of control as Paul desperately tries to keep a grasp on each situation.

In the opening moments of After Hours, a trainee at his work tells him of his real goal and passion in life, and how he has zero intention of making a career out of this. This plants a seed in Paul's head about stepping out of his comfort zone. We see through his work, his clothes, his apartment and just his overall demeanor that he is in a safe lifestyle absent of any sort of impulse or risk. After his meeting with Marcy, someone who takes notice of him because of what he is reading in a diner, Paul finally appears to stand out in the crowd, at least to Marcy that is. His decision to impulsively act on meeting up with her again in the dead of night is admirable in his desire to live with some sort of excitement, something we can all easily relate to. However, we begin to see the selfish and shallow side of Paul, with his intentions and efforts in trying to show interest in those around him for his own benefit. From here on out, After Hours appears to go on a mission to punish Paul.

The world with which Paul finds himself in is so ready to reward his desire and need to step out of his comfort zone, but once he shows ulterior motives, the world around him rightfully goes out of its way to punish him for doing so. Even when he starts to show regret in some of his decisions, he runs from them; refusing to make amends for them, ultimately convincing the universe to lash out at him even further. It’s a darkly funny and cruel film that suggests possible spiritual, physical and personal rewards if you choose to break free from your dull life, but will swiftly cut you down if you undermine and undervalue those around you and their own situations (how I felt at least).

Although it may not appear so on the surface, there’s a feminist undercurrent surging throughout After Hours. Paul’s selfishness and shallowness in attempting to get laid has him losing the higher ground to each woman he comes across. Of course he doesn't realize this, with him begging and pleading for help from male figures around him instead - seemingly brushing aside the help women appear to offer him on a plate every single time. Each one of them has complete power over him and his situation, ultimately determining his destiny. There are moments where Paul is emasculated by each one of these characters through visual and situational metaphors that show the glaring flaws in Paul’s character. A scribble of a shark biting a man’s erect penis is seen in the bathroom of a bar he finds himself stuck in. Paul is stuck in the flat of a woman who surrounds her bed with mousetraps as he tries to switch the circumstances to his advantage again. An artist creates a paper Mache sculpture of a man cowering under her spell. These moments make brilliant observations into the fragile masculinity of Paul’s attitude in needing to always be in control, with women offering him constant lifelines in improving him as a person as well as literally saving him from the batshit situations he has got himself into.

Scorsese is New York as far as I am concerned. The man understands what makes it great, terrible, beautiful, scary, and ugly. It’s a film that feels every bit like New York should, especially during that time period. You can smell it, taste it and feel it all on your palette as it reveals itself to you. Although one doesn’t normally associate Scorsese with comedies, he has a knack for it. The King of Comedy showed just how adept and versatile he is in executing and understanding comedies. He understands the absurdity in each situation as well as the deeper meaning behind each moment. With After Hours, he is offered more of this absurdity that allows him to reach into surrealist undertones we don't often see from him. Every situation Paul finds himself in is bizarre, with each interaction he has feeling like a strange dream that may or may not have happened - a dream he cannot seem to control as he flails through it, trying to wake up from this seemingly endless nightmare he has lost control of. The pace with which the anxiety builds and fluctuates is handled in a manner that makes it impossible for us to predict. Scorsese slows things down enough for both us and Paul to catch our breaths, only to have him unknowingly sabotage himself, forcing the universe to punish him once again.

After Hours may not get the same level of attention as Scorsese’s more famous works, but it still stands right up there with the very best films of his career. It showcases his highly attuned understanding in the power of subtext and visual storytelling, all within a genre people seem to forget that he has a clear grasp of. Somehow overlooked on a regular basis, After Hours is a master class from one of the finest filmmakers to ever do it. It's his most underrated film. Hell, to this day, it’s still one of his best.

Where you can watch it: Apple TV (SA), HBO MAX, most VOD platforms (USA - leaving HBO MAX soon), Most VOD platforms (UK, Australia)

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