10 great films set over one night

As Martin Scorsese’s After Hours returns to cinemas, we’re staying up late watching these all-nocturnal gems.

After Hours (1985)1986 WBEI

“Different rules apply when it gets this late, you know what I mean? It’s like, after hours.”

Connoisseurs of spoken title drops in movies will delight when the name of Martin Scorsese’s 1985 pitch-black comedy appears roughly midway through its running time. Ironically, it’s in the context of perhaps the only unambiguously generous gesture granted to hapless computer programmer Paul Hackett (Griffin Dunne) throughout his torturous nocturnal New York odyssey, when a late-night diner proprietor gives Hackett and his prospective date, Marcy (Rosanna Arquette), drinks on the house. Every other encounter Paul endures between midnight and the next morning seems designed to inflict maximum psychological confusion and anxiety and, ultimately, even physical harm. All for having the temerity – to title drop two other 1980s yuppies-in-peril films – to venture into the night, looking for something wild.

After Hours has a great deal of wicked fun at Paul’s expense. Anyone who’s ever done shift work knows that there’s a whole other world that awakens when most people go to bed, one that can easily unsettle or disorientate us. Stories have long exploited the potential of a single night’s restricted timeframe and the manifest possibilities therein. From romance (Before Sunrise, 1995) to action (Die Hard, 1988; Collateral, 2004) to pure horror (Night of the Living Dead, 1968), night-time provides a proving ground for characters to undergo a figurative ‘long dark night of the soul’, either purified or damned by dawn. 

Here are 10 less heralded films that expertly show how, at night, different rules apply.

That Night’s Wife (1930)

Director: Yasujiro Ozu

That Night’s Wife (1930)

The films that established Yasujiro Ozu’s global reputation – Tokyo Story (1953) and a clutch of seasonally titled domestic dramas – and their dominant aesthetic of static camera, tatami-mat vantage point and interstitial ‘pillow shots’ are but one part of the Japanese master’s oeuvre. Early Ozu can look very different. This crime drama set over one night, in which a man pulls off an armed robbery to help his ailing daughter, with a savvy detective in pursuit, feels more like an American film noir, even if it actually predates that genre’s US golden age.

The roving camera and volley of close-ups and reaction shots, along with the dual tensions of criminal apprehension and sick child, are more melodramatic than his typical family dynamics. Yet even if wall posters of Broadway Scandals (1929) and a Walter Huston movie are explicit, affectionate nods to Hollywood, the intimacy and moral complexity displayed are Ozu all night long.

All Night Long (1962)

Director: Basil Dearden

All Night Long (1962)

Shakespeare has rhyme and meter, but did it ever have a jazz groove? True, the verse is ditched here, and the ending somewhat switched, but otherwise Basil Dearden guides his cast through Othello set in a London demi-monde: inside a nightclub run by Richard Attenborough, populated, and often accompanied, by genuine musical greats including Dave Brubeck, Johnny Dankworth and even Charles Mingus.

Patrick McGoohan is the scheming Iago-like drummer, desperate to separate imposing bandleader Aurelius Rex (Paul Harris) and his devoted wife, retired singer Delia Lane (Marti Stevens), in order to win her over to his new jazz combo and Delia-dependent record deal. As the wee small hours pass, McGoohan manipulates everyone’s pride, greed and jealousy to dazzling effect. Meanwhile, Brubeck and co’s musical interludes keep the tempo swinging along, and even more impressive for the time is the film’s matter-of-fact depiction of not one but two interracial relationships.

Mikey and Nicky (1976)

Director: Elaine May

Mikey and Nicky (1976)

Much-maligned and mismanaged on initial release, Elaine May’s study of desperate, toxic masculinity now clearly stands as one of the great American movies of the 1970s, its teaming of Peter Falk and John Cassavetes easily the match of Cassavetes’ own tales of raw, street level, often-improvised artistry.

Ostensibly a thriller – Cassavetes’ paranoid Nicky has ripped off small-time mobsters and, on the run, calls on his old pal Mikey (Falk) to help him evade retribution – May uses genre conventions and one long, dark Philadelphia night to chart the quicksilver-shifting dynamics between these men: one upmanship, past grievances, perhaps even present betrayal, as well as their often-degrading attitude towards women. Allowing her two real-life buddy stars free rein, there’s a vibrant authenticity to their halting, riffing dialogue. May’s trademark barbed humour is there, but so too is something bleaker, more final in its harrowing climax, revealed, fittingly, as the sun comes up.

Miracle Mile (1988) 

Director: Steve De Jarnatt

Miracle Mile (1988)

Steve De Jarnatt’s Miracle Mile lines up as if intending to be an insomniac-hour romcom, when Harry (Anthony Edwards) meets Julie (Mare Winningham) and they plan a late night post-coffee-shop-shift date. Then Harry oversleeps, misses Julie, answers a payphone and is told that the end of the world is nigh. In about 70 minutes, when the nuclear missiles hit.

A stealth 1980s disaster/B-movie, complete with California pastel colours and Tangerine Dream score, that’s verrrry slowly become something of a cult film, the above summary suggests little of where De Jarnatt will take Harry, Julie and the band of nighthawk diners alerted to the imminent apocalypse. Inspired, and occasionally awkward, shifts in narrative and tone actually make the nightmarish scenario more convincing. It’s a heartfelt, hushed rejection of the individualistic ‘Morning in America’ Reagan-era, imploring its citizens to truly connect and wake up before it’s too late.

Night on Earth (1991)

Director: Jim Jarmusch

Night on Earth (1991)

Jim Jarmusch’s affinity for anthology films (see also 1989’s Mystery Train or 2003’s Coffee and Cigarettes) adopts its most international guise as five cab journeys take place simultaneously around the globe: from a seductive 7:07pm twilight in Los Angeles to a bleary-eyed 5:07am dawn in Helsinki, via stopovers in New York, Paris and Rome; but there’s no overriding connection across these sequentially delivered stories, save the general cross-purposes between driver and passenger(s) and Tom Waits’s gruff soundtrack.

Instead Jarmusch invites us to ride shotgun and enjoy unusual actor combinations (Winona Ryder and Gena Rowlands in LA, Isaach de Bankolé and a blind Béatrice Dalle in France) and varying moods, from outrageous Roberto Benigni comedy to the bittersweet Kaurismäki-esque finale. As with all portmanteau films, some vignettes succeed better than others – surprisingly, Jarmusch’s native New York storyline stalls – but his quirky, low-key, laconic gear-changes smoothly navigate us through the night.

PTU (2003)

Director: Johnnie To

PTU (2003)

Swiping the premise from Akira Kurosawa’s Stray Dog (1949), Hong Kong action director Johnnie To unravels a police officer’s mission to retrieve his stolen handgun to more brutal, cynical ends. When hapless Lo Sa (Lam Suet) loses his weapon to cocky street thugs, rather than come clean he enlists his ally, Police Tactical Unit’s tough sergeant Mike Ho (Simon Yam) and crew, to help fix the problem before he would need to report the gun missing at dawn.

On one hand, the PTU’s willingness to back their colleagues to the hilt could look admirable; their methods, however, are not, starting with abusive coercion of informers to encouraging open gang warfare on Hong Kong’s hauntingly deserted city streets. It’s relentlessly effective, but reveals precious little honour among law enforcers, let alone thieves. As To’s blackly comic opening scene proves, with its roundelay of restaurant seating, cops and crooks occupy the same place at the table.

Horse Money (2014)

Director: Pedro Costa

Horse Money (2014)

Most of us associate night with sleep, and therefore the realm of dreams. Pedro Costa’s ongoing documenting of the now-cleared Lisbon slum Fontainhas (which began with 1997’s Ossos and 2000’s In Vanda’s Room) assumes an even more hallucinatory tone here, as he brings back Ventura, the aging Cape Verde protagonist from 2006’s Colossal Youth, to mine an interior excavation of public history and personal memory, staged as if it’s one long dark night of the soul, unmoored in time.

Ventura’s hands shake with tremors as he confronts re-envisioned incidents from his and fellow nocturnal travellers’ traumatic pasts. Costa’s grasp of his allusive, reflective mission is altogether more secure. He connects these disenfranchised characters to a wider social context through the opening montage displaying Jacob Riis’s photographs of 19th-century New York tenement life. Costa frames his own chiaroscuro tableaux in abandoned corridors and desolate streets, backed by whispered voiceover and steeped in shadows real and imagined.

Victoria (2015)

Director: Sebastian Schipper

Victoria (2015)

You probably don’t recall what you were doing between 4:30am and 7am on 27 April 2014, but director Sebastian Schipper and those involved in Victoria certainly do. They were performing the third and final possible take, one continuous shot, that would comprise the entirety of this immersive, nocturnal thriller.

Victoria’s story is gripping enough: a young Spanish woman (Laia Costa) out clubbing in Berlin falls in with a group of charismatic local men who embroil her in a robbery and its dangerous aftermath. And, shuttling around the city, the cast, including a raw Franz Rogowski, convincingly deliver an improvised script. But as with other one-shot films (Russian Ark, 2002; Utoya: July 22, 2018), it’s impossible to separate the onscreen action – kudos to DP Sturla Brandth Grøvlen – to what one knows is occurring just off-camera to facilitate it; the film’s present-tense filmmaking is itself a high-wire act of unbearable tension.

The Invitation (2015)

Director: Karyn Kusama

The Invitation (2015)

‘Survive-the-night’ horror is a genre tradition, be it in old dark houses, cabins in the woods or thwarting unstoppable boogeymen or living dead. What makes Karyn Kusama’s variation on this theme – it’s also part deadly-cult chiller, part home-invasion thriller – so effective is its insidious, insistent normalcy. For the longest time, grief looks like the weapon of choice.

Will (Logan Marshall-Green) reluctantly accepts a dinner invitation from ex-wife Eden (Tammy Blanchard) at their former LA deluxe hillside home. They lost their young son two years back, and this reunion among friends, and Eden’s new partner David (Michiel Huisman) and his odd associates, is her public show of moving on. Only Will feels something is off… Slowburn storytelling and a protagonist’s fragile mental state makes the climactic, full-on horror pay-off even more satisfying. If something like The Wicker Man (1973) meets Get Out (2017) sounds appealing, Kusama’s invite is worth accepting.

The Vast of Night (2019)

Director: Andrew Patterson

The Vast of Night (2020)

The late 1950s. It’s the night of the high-school basketball game, so the entire small town of Cayuga, New Mexico is gathered in the gym, except for peppy switchboard operator Fay (Sierra McCormick) and wiseacre local DJ Everett (Jake Horowitz) – which is why they’re the ones who hear a strange audio frequency buzzing across the airwaves. And when they broadcast the signal, their findings demand that they watch the skies…

Andrew Patterson’s low-budget sci-fi sleeper is a marvellous example of technical and artistic innovation through limitations. Beautifully rendered as if it’s a vintage TV artefact (Twilight Zone-esque ‘Paradox Theater’), it pays homage to classic UFO tales, yet feels entirely modern with its lengthy tracking shots, atonal soundscape and overlapping dialogue. The concentrated timeframe builds considerable tension as Fay and Everett get embroiled deeper into the central mystery, with Patterson’s team conjuring up a grounded, haunting ambience and genuine sense of wonder.