“Scorsese has become the threnodist of frustration”: After Hours reviewed in 1986

As Martin Scorsese’s dark screwball comedy After Hours returns to UK cinemas this week with a 4K restoration, we revisit an original review of the film from our Summer 1986 issue, where writer Richard Combs observed a director in a state of suspension, ready for the next big thing.

Griffin Dunne and Rosanna Arquette as Paul and Marcy in After Hours (1985)

There have been signs recently of something of a religious transformation in Martin Scorsese’s work. Not a conversion, exactly; more a change of temper. It may be that some component of his ethnic temper has gone, the Italian Catholic connection (which was still very evident in the WASP Middle America of Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974) or the echt movie fantasy of New York, New York (1977)). It may be that his theology – and his sense of life in Manhattan – has shifted from its first scorching premise (go straight to hell, do not pass go, do not receive redemption) to include some cooler, more indeterminate state: instead of burning in hell, the protagonists of his two most recent films look as if they are stalled in purgatory. Or it may be the influence of his sometime screenwriter Paul Schrader: since their last collaboration, on Raging Bull (1980), the Catholic Scorsese seems to have partly become the Calvinist Schrader, with despairingly comic storylines locked in predestined patterns. Or it may be that the collapse of his plans to film Nikos Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation has put Scorsese’s own religious project into limbo, artistic purgatory.

Certainly, both The King of Comedy (1982) and After Hours (1985, Columbia-EMI-Warner) might be described as comedies of frustration. If all Scorsese’s heroes are driven and obsessive, overreachers hellbent for success in the Mafia, show-business or life, they’ve never seemed less likely to make it than in these two films. Or rather, success has begun to look just as limiting and defeating as failure: Rupert Pupkin, would-be ‘personality’ in The King of Comedy, is so sealed in self-delusion that one can’t even tell how real or imaginary the film intends his final success to be. Once the lyricist of big-city alienation and paranoia, and of his characters’ desperate leaps of faith to transcend them, Scorsese has become the threnodist of frustration. One notices how muted (often literally, in terms of the sound level) his films have become, how much like circles in a void his characteristic camera movements seem.

In one way, this makes them the most brilliant, original comedies since middle-to-Iate Billy Wilder (say, Kiss Me, Stupid (1964) and The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970)), mainly because they seem too despairing even to be comedies. In another, their strangely frozen, suspended subjects make them susceptible to being read, by default, as social satires. The King of Comedy was widely taken to be a critique, a la Day of the Locust (1975), of show-business success, of the psychotic envy the not-famous are made to feel for those who are. And After Hours could be taken as a satire on a New York demi-monde, on the freakishness, pretension and tribal hostility an uptown boy encounters when he travels one night to the loft-divided reaches of SoHo in search of sexual adventure. The mood here is ostensibly lighter, more pixelated. The camera that scuds at boot level through the streets of neon and drifting steam intimates magic rather than the menace of Taxi Driver (1976), which is confirmed by the waiter who glosses the meaning of the film’s title: ‘Different rules apply when it gets to be this late.’ But magic can be mean, too: when things begin to go wrong, the hero’s money acquires a life of its own, and subway fares rise at midnight, it can turn into a nightmare of frustrated flight.

Griffin Dunne as Paul in After Hours (1985)1986 WBEI

On the surface, the hero, Paul Hackett (Griffin Dunne), a self-effacing word processor operator by day, is the kind of hopeful innocent one might expect if this were a Neil Simon comedy about the rigours of urban life (think of The Out of Towners, 1970). The way Scorsese shoots Paul’s early scenes, however – his mind drifting away amid the high-tech hum of the office; his hesitant movements at home, as if the prowling camera had caught him invading his own living space – suggests someone several degrees more dislocated, as remote from himself as the Jerry Lewis character in The King of Comedy. Paul is actually a modest mix of that film’s two lead characters – more modestly alienated than Lewis’s Jerry Langford, more modestly ambitious than De Niro’s Rupert Pupkin. It’s the latter that gets him into SoHo: reading The Tropic of Cancer in a diner one night, he attracts the interest of a girl, Marcy (Rosanna Arquette), who invites him to the loft where she is staying with her sculptress friend, Kiki (Linda Fiorentino). The assignation turns out weirder than he expects, and by the end he’s fleeing the attentions of a vigilante mob, two art thieves and various women. He’s finally landed by luck (or predestination) back outside his office, where he returns to the reassuring hum.

With perfect, impossible, dreamlike logic, everything that happens to Paul this night originates with himself, asserts an independent existence from him, then returns to haunt him. The twenty-dollar bill blown from his hand during his demonic taxi ride downtown turns up on Kiki’s papier-mache sculpture of a pensive/distressed Rodin-like figure; when Paul later reclaims the money, it leads him into further trouble. The scantily clad Kiki seems to promise an erotic sidetrack from the temporarily absent Marcy, except that she falls asleep while Paul is telling a story about how he was put in the burn ward when he had his tonsils out as a child, and had to be blindfolded from the horrors around him. He subsequently finds an illustrated book of such horrors, and glimpses a similar wound on Marcy, only to have it later turn into something else, a little top-hatted death’s head tattoo, which he ‘picks up’, as an association, from a key ring.

Keys, like money, drift magically through this supercharged atmosphere, teasing talismans. What really proves Paul’s undoing, however, are other people’s expectations which, innocently, he excites. The plot of The King of Comedy is neatly resumed in the episode of Paul’s encounter with a waitress (Teri Garr), who leaves a message (‘Help. I hate this job’) on the back of his bill, takes him to her apartment and makes him a gift of a sculpted cream-cheese bagel paperweight (perhaps something of Kiki’s), then repays his ‘desertion’ by plastering the neighbourhood with notices accusing him of being a burglar. She’s a fair artist herself, having sketched his likeness for this wanted poster. Which suggests a view of art as the final presumption/projection onto someone else, and the final alienation of oneself. Paul only escapes the vigilantes when another obliging sculptress, June (Verna Bloom), covers him with papier-mache. He is then mistaken for the ‘real’ thing by two thieves (Cheech and Chong) and stolen – only his eyes visibly ‘alive’ in their sockets, an image shockingly fit for Poe, or the Corman who made the art as murder joke in A Bucket of Blood (1959).

It’s the genuine horror of that premature burial which suggests why After Hours is not just social satire (it could be to the current art scene what A Bucket of Blood was to the Beats of the 50s), and more like a trip to the void. That’s an area between life and death that might be called art, or cinema: it’s at a ‘conceptual art’ party, after all, that Paul meets June, who will immortalise him in papier-mache, when his ambitions have sunk to their most modest, or risen to their most grandiose: ‘I just want to live’. 

It follows that After Hours throughout works best as a comedy when it is closest to this and other terrors: a wonderful first half, when events in Kiki’s loft, far from being just bohemian comedy, suggest that something quite nasty could happen at any moment. Pixillated horror is not an easy note to sustain, as the film occasionally demonstrates when it slips into something else: a Bogdanovich screwball comedy when Paul teams up with a girl in a Mr Softee ice-cream van, or something Neil Simonish when he sinks to his knees in the street, looking up: ‘What do you want from me? What have I done? I’m just a word processor, for Christ’s sake.’ As the only moment in the film, though, which indicates that the deity is watching over this turf, it suggests the state of suspension, the limbo, in which Scorsese himself is now working.

After Hours is in UK cinemas now.