Lurching lost and lonely with Martin Scorsese’s low-key black comedy
Have you ever missed the last bus or the last train? No way to get home? Stuck in a place which seems cold, unforgiving and dangerous? Maybe you’re just feeling alienated from everyone in the big city, ‘lost in a strange town’ to quote Paul Weller, where it feels, inexplicably, like almost everyone’s against you, and even the ones that aren’t are just one step away from being your worst enemy. Martin Scorsese’s After Hours is that feeling prolonged for the length of a whole film. Even though it is multi-layered and rewarding enough to reward you on further viewings, nothing quite beats that first time of watching it, where the screws are tightened to breaking point as you wonder just how much worse Paul Hackett’s night is going to get.
For all of the many 1980s films that celebrated and encouraged wealth, greed and indulgence, there were many films that showed a dark, dangerous flipside. Lots of sub-genres fall into this category, be they the ‘yuppie-in-peril’ or ‘lost in the big city’, but essentially it was any film that depicted the wealthy, the workaholic, the comfortable, the complacent or the bored finding themselves (although often it’s by choice) on the wrong side of the tracks, be it morally, literally or psychologically. Examples include Michael Douglas’ infidelity in Fatal Attraction, the students looking for a stripper in Vamp, Jeff Daniels’ infatuation with Melanie Griffith in Something Wild or Kyle McLachlan’s amateur sleuthing in Blue Velvet.
And yet, what starts off as an exciting dalliance with danger usually becomes something very disturbing indeed. Sometimes not everyone makes it out alive, and the ones that do survive often end up forever changed. Of course, sometimes the pleasure of these films came from seeing these well-to-do, occasionally obnoxious types get taken down a notch or three, but there are other times when you just felt so damn sorry for these unfortunates — yeah, they may be well-off, but don’t hold that against them. They just happened to wake up one day and found themselves thinking ‘how did I get here?’. All they wanted was a little fun, a little excitement, and this is what they get. By the way, I exclude Michael Douglas in Fatal Attraction from my sympathy vote. He was a total dickhead.
Paul Hackett: [on his knees, screaming to the heavens] What do you want from me? What have I done? I’m just a word processor, for Christ sake!
After Hours is one of the key examples of this era. It’s a ‘lost-in-the-big-city’ film and one of the reasons it works so well is because the character of Paul is utterly relatable. We can sympathise with Paul because most of us have been, or are in, a dull job. He may be part of the go-get-em, upwardly mobile 80s generation, but he’s on the lower rungs of this corporate ladder. This was a rare lead role for Griffin Dunne, who is still best known for his performance as Jack, the doomed best-friend-turned-zombie in An American Werewolf in London. His boyish, enthusiastic charm from that film, where all he dreamed of was having sex with Debbie Klein (great body but dull personality) and having a slap-up meal at The Slaughtered Lamb pub, has now been dulled as he’s forced to work the rat race in New York, and the sadness in his eyes shows through. In the opening sequence he’s training a new employee at an unidentified data entry division, and the tedium is evident. What burns is that the newbie admits to Paul that this is just a ‘temporary thing’ and that there’s no way he’d want to eke out his life in a job like this. While he runs off his list of ambitions, Paul prefers to drift into a sad reverie, probably wondering just what the hell he’s doing with his time on Earth.
Paul lives alone, has no on-screen friends and is clearly wanting — romantically, spiritually, you name it. He tries to relax at home with some TV but that doesn’t seem to work so he ends up at a cafe, losing himself in Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, and this is where Marcy (Rosanna Arquette) steps into his life. It’s one of those classic ‘meet-cute’ moments. Their love of Miller is a starting point, followed by curiosity over the oddball dancing cashier, which is an excuse for Marcy to leave her table and sit with him so they can speak privately. This is how true love begins, right? They’d make a sweet couple too. Okay, so we can expect some ups and downs, boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-gets-girl back, that sort of thing. Fair enough, that’s part of the deal. It will hurt to see them temporarily separate, but deep down we know everything will be alright. Right?
I remember watching this film for the first time and being just as swept away by Marcy as Paul clearly is, and these days you could be forgiven for thinking Marcie’s a proto-Manic Pixie Dream Girl — after all, Paul is dissatisfied with his life and here comes Marcy to make it all better, serving as his dream woman. She likes the same novel he does, she’s utterly beautiful, she’s exotic and strange and she has the aura of salvation around her. Usually however, the girl or woman in question rarely has much agency of her own, or her own independent dreams and desires. She’s a wish-fulfilment. Could After Hours be another example of a film serving up that kind of reductive character?
Er, no. Paul wants a fling, a roll in the hay, but it soon becomes obvious that Marcy does not offer salvation and does not exist to serve Paul’s desires. In fact, Paul seems to be projecting his own darker anxieties onto her. He thinks he sees what look like wounds on her thigh during a conversation in her room, but later on we realise it’s merely a tattoo. He must have imagined them. This ties in with an earlier moment when Paul tells Marcy’s sculptor friend Kiki (Linda Fiorentino) that he has a childhood memory of being taken into hospital and, due to overcrowding, is given a bed in the burns ward, and being told not to open his eyes lest he see the other patients, and this seems to be a very traumatic moment in his life. He also sees that Marcy has an ointment for burns in her handbag, and she also has a book about burn victims lying around. Well, maybe she does. Like the imagined wounds on her thigh, these could merely be innocuous items that Paul is imagining are other things, his brain creating excuses not to proceed with a relationship by playing on his deepest fears. Was that childhood trauma so extreme that it now threatens to derail any chances of an adult relationship? Is this one of the reasons he’s so alone?
Those references to a disturbed past, however, are blips in an opening half-hour that’s a total thrill of expectant tension. The pacing, right from the start, feels like the energised zest of a debut director — never mind that this was Scorsese’s umpteenth film — the hyper fast cab ride Paul takes to see Marcy in downtown SoHo was inspired by the times Scorsese would take a cab in the height of summer, with the windows rolled down and the sense that you were at the mercy of the elements, gravity and a wired driver. There are familiar visual cues that anyone with a passing interest in Scorsese will recognise. One of my favourites — in fact, one of my favourite directorial touches by any director ever — is that fast dolly zoom towards a character that he’s so fond of. You may have a favourite — crashing into Ray Liotta after he slams the car boot shut in the pre-credits sequence of GoodFellas, or when Paul Newman turns around after hearing Tom Cruise deliver a killer shot in The Color of Money, or when Sharon Stone rolls a winning dice in Casino or when WIllem Dafoe raises his drink in The Last Temptation of Christ. There are literally dozens of these zooms in Scorsese’s films, and I never, ever tire of them. It is one of the most perfect encapsulations of cinema’s ability to excite and thrill.
There are plenty of these moments in After Hours. Indeed, the very first shot is an utterly brilliant example, but the one that really gets me is the one of Marcy as she leaves Paul in her room whilst she goes out to take care of some private business. Just before she proclaims that “something incredible is really going to happen” and she’s giddy with excitement. The camera (as Paul’s POV) goes right into Marcy as she gives him a flirtatious smile that sets the screen alight. It’s a magnificent moment. This was the first collaboration between Scorsese and former Rainer Werner Fassbinder regular Michael Ballhaus, and not their last. When Scorsese teams up with a killer cinematographer, be it Ballhaus, Michael Chapman or Robert Richardson, the results are spellbinding.
Unfortunately, the promise given by that wonderful shot proves to be brutally cut short. True, ‘anything’ does happen, but not in the way Paul or Marcy wanted. Marcy’s own problems and insecurities prove too much for Paul to handle, be they her revelations about her ex-boyfriend’s fixation with The Wizard of Oz during sex or, horrifically, her rape at the hands of another ex. Cruelly, and maybe only to mask his own fear, Paul acts impatient and unpleasant to Marcy, which leads to their perfect night being curtailed. He’s in over his head and just wants to get home, but fate has other plans, be it the surprise increase in train fare after midnight, a misunderstanding over a burglary, a lonely bar waitress with romantic designs on him, a busted till… it goes on, and it’s all kind of funny in a tear-your-hair-out kind of way.
But soon Paul discovers that Marcy has killed herself with an overdose of sleeping pills. This is when the film completely pulled the rug from under me as a first-time viewer. I wanted Paul and Marcy to get together, even if it became obvious that they were clearly not a good fit at all, and all I was doing was projecting my own romantic ideals onto the film. Now, it could be argued that by killing her off, the film has treated her just as callously as it would had she really been one of those Manic Pixie Dream Girls. Maybe that would have been the case if her death was merely an excuse for Paul to ‘grow’ as a character, but it isn’t. Her death haunts the film, or at least it does for me.
Admittedly, After Hours, with its relentless pacing, doesn’t look back from that tragedy, not until near the end when Paul unloads the history of his night to a man who isn’t really listening, a man who thought he was going to have a sexual encounter and not have to be a counsellor for the night. That’s the cruel twist of this film — almost nobody cares about Paul’s situation. They all have their own problems. We are invited to sympathise with Paul’s plight and his obstacles, be they bloodthirsty vigilante mobs who think Paul is responsible for the wave of burglaries in the area, overflowing toilets, unwelcome head shavings, and so on, but at the same time the film maintains an amused distance from him for a lot of the time.
It’s telling that Scorsese cameos as a member of staff in the nightclub that Paul just talked his way into but is soon struggling to escape from, elevated over everybody else, singling him out with a spotlight, almost like a sadistic child holding a magnifying glass over a burning ant on a sunny day. Later, we tower over Paul like an omnipotent spectator as he falls to his knees and asks whoever’s up there just why he is being made to suffer. The poor guy just can’t get a break. The biggest laugh in the movie comes after what is in theory the film’s most horrific moment — Paul is hiding amongst a fire escape and witnesses an argument between a couple in one of the apartment blocks that culminates in her shooting him point blank half a dozen times, presumably killing him. “I’ll probably get blamed for that”, Paul deadpans.
Street Pickup: Why don’t you just go home?
Paul Hackett: Pal, I’ve been asking myself that all night.
By the time we reach the end, Paul has somehow found himself trapped inside a life-size papier mache cast, the locals out for his blood. The sense of dread is palpable. It’s a nightmarish image, seeing him imprisoned like that. Could the film really end this way, with him stuck forever? It seems to be that way. But it doesn’t. Some may be disappointed at the relatively happy resolution. Maybe the twisted part of you or me wanted Paul to stay in that sculpture and never make it home, but saying that, the seemingly tidy ending we see on screen might not be as conclusive as we think. Paul re-enters his work place, having had no sleep all night, and sits back down at his desk, which is where we first saw him at the start of the movie. The screen greets Paul with a personalised message and we’re back to square one. The music starts up, the credits begin, and the restless camera retreats from his desk and begins navigating the rest of the office.
Oh well, I guess Paul is destined to be part of the rat race, the nine-to-five grind, the – hey….wait a minute. The camera has now navigated the office and arrived back at Paul’s desk, only he’s no longer there. It’s very easy to miss, given how giddying the route of the camera has been these last few moments. So what are to make of that? The literal answer would be that he’s immediately decided to quit his job, as he’s no longer the same person and there’s no way he could possibly go back to his old life after a night like that. That’s the version I prefer to go with. However, there are other theories that Paul is dead. The theories are out there. Make of them what you will.
Despite being released on Friday the 13th, After Hours turned out to be the lucky break Scorsese needed. Following the box office failure of the magnificent The King of Comedy and his dejection over failing to get The Last Temptation of Christ off the ground, it marked a cleansing of the palate, a back to basics, an attempt to get his mojo back. It worked. With a wonderful cast (it’s quite amusing to see John Heard and Catherine O’Hara share screen space before they reunited as a married couple in Home Alone), predictably ace soundtrack, sparse but atmospheric score by Howard Shore and flawless technical prowess, it’s a relatively modest gem in Scorsese’s formidable canon of work.
Obviously, watch it late at night.