After Hours

1986 Cannes

Desperate to escape his mind-numbing routine, uptown Manhattan office worker Paul Hackett (Griffin Dunne) ventures downtown for a hookup with a mystery woman (Rosanna Arquette). So begins the wildest night of his life, as bizarre occurrences — involving underground-art punks, a distressed waitress, a crazed Mister Softee truck driver, and a bagel-and-cream-cheese paperweight — pile up with anxiety-inducing relentlessness and thwart his attempts to get home. With this Kafkaesque cult classic, Martin Scorsese — abetted by Michael Ballhaus’s kinetic cinematography and scene-stealing supporting turns by Linda Fiorentino, Teri Garr, Catherine O’Hara, and John Heard — directed a darkly comic tale of mistaken identity, turning the desolate night world of 1980s SoHo into a bohemian wonderland of surreal menace.
– Criterion.

From being, with Mean Streets (1973) and Taxi Driver (1976), America’s most seemingly ‘blessed’ director of the seventies, Martin Scorsese has, over the past decade, become almost a cineaste maudit, unable to bring projects to fruition, thrust deeper and deeper into a kind of commercial wilderness.

It is a curve to which the history of Hollywood has accustomed us, particularly with directors from the East, like Nick Ray and Elia Kazan. But, with Scorsese, the process has somehow seemed faster. One moment (Taxi Driver above all), he seemed to have tapped unerringly into the pulse of a decade. The next, with New York, New York (1977), Raging Bull (1978) and The King of Comedy (1983), he seemed to be pursuing a series of personal visions which, for all their compulsive brilliance, no longer accorded with a public taste hooked on a gentler view of the universe.

Then, too, there have been the twin stars under which Scorsese’s career has progressed: the Catholic agonies of Who’s That Knocking at My Door? (1968) and Mean Streets; and the flamboyantly perverse fascination with Catholicism’s mirror image — the Calvinism which (perhaps through writer Paul Schrader’s input) informed Taxi Driver. The two are thematically close, though: the massive taking-on of guilt by Travis Sickle’s taxi driver is, perhaps, just one step beyond the mystical, heretical Catholicism which required, in Mean Streets, that the sins of the world be washed away in blood.

After Hours, Scorsese’s latest movie, is a very Calvinistic film, although it allows for a tongue-in-cheek rescue at the very end. But, amazingly, for a film about suicide, sado-masochism, loneliness and attempted murder, it is a comedy. It’s tone, though, is that of Lubitsch, not Capra or Blake Edwards — and certainly not of the contemporary Hollywood comedies of hip blandness.

With Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, it forms a kind of trilogy, not just in the sense that it is one of Scorsese’s three best films, but because it manages to combine a consistent (if limited) view of the world with a clear dramatic structure.

After Hours follows its hero, Paul (Griffin Dunne), from knocking-off time at the computer company where he works, to signing-on time next morning. The film’s mood shifts from the acceptable hours before midnight, through the small hours into which we all occasionally stray out of choice or by mistake, and into the hour of the wolf, when the world seems dying or dead. As the proprietor of a diner into which Paul strays three times in the movie puts it: “Different rules apply when it gets this late. It’s, like, after hours.”

First, Paul meets Marcy (Rosanna Arquette) in (another) diner. She gives him her phone number and, when he calls, invites him round. As she gets weirder, however, Paul slips gracelessly away (his original sin, perhaps), sensing he is among crazies.

Stranded and (through a quirk of chance) broke, he wanders into the magnificently named Terminal Bar, where he meets Tom (John Heard) and Julie (Teri Garr), a beehive-coiffed renegade from another era, who lives in a moulded plastic apartment with a complete collection of Monkees albums. From there, his night goes all to hell, in a series of interlocking situations that shade into one another with all the brutal, clockwork efficiency of a Feydeau farce rewritten by Louis-Ferdinand Celine.

The measure of the achievement of Scorsese and his writer, Joseph Minion, is that the single funniest (sic) moment is the one at which he realises that Marcy, to whom he has been addressing an earnest monologue, is not simply staring blankly at the wall, but is dead, from a barbiturate overdose. By now, Paul reacts according to the hour of the night: he flees the apartment, leaving helpful signs for the cops, with arrows, saying: ‘Dead person this way’. And plunges back into the farce.

It is, of course, only in the late 20th-century world of television sitcom that we have come to expect comedy to be only about nice things, and to have a happy ending. The greatest comedies are merely tragedies in which the mechanism is random. And this is where After Hours reconnects with other Scorsese films, as Paul assumes responsibility for a world he can neither understand nor control, but cannot evade either.

Unlike Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, though, there is no real sense of redemption. The bleakest thing about After Hours is that Paul learns precisely nothing from his nocturnal odyssey, neither about himself nor about the world. He has his work cut out reacting.

Paul’s journey to the end of the night is edifying to us, however, Firstly, because it affords the satisfaction of watching an integrated system run its course — a system with humans, not data, like the computer systems Paul operates in the daytime. Secondly because it shows (as Hitchcock did, rather more cheekily, in The Trouble with Harry) that people die and the world might just as well go on laughing. But finally because, through its escalating strangeness, the horrific consistence of the world it portrays and the unity of tone it maintains, it reasserts something which Scorsese demonstrated in Taxi Driver and Raging Bull: the uniquely troubling power of cinema.
– Nick Roddick, Cinema Papers, July 1986.


Criterion’s 4K restoration looks spectacular, improving significantly over previous releases when it comes to black levels (crucial to a film that was shot at night), which are now properly nuanced and completely uncrushed, as well as color saturation, with a more dynamic representation of hues. The audio is an LPCM mono mix that’s perfectly sturdy, cleanly putting across the dialogue, and keeping Howard Shore’s compellingly off-kilter score front and center.
– adapted from Budd Wilkins, Slant Magazine, 20 July 2023.

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