After Hours

by Charlie Largent Aug 24, 2023

After Hours
1985 / 1.85 : 1
Starring Griffin Dunne, Rosanna Arquette, Linda Fiorentino
Directed by Martin Scorsese

“After hours” usually means a late night at the office, but it also portends the Witching Hour, a time of day when spells are cast and ordinary objects—like a set of house keys or a dog-eared copy of Tropic of Cancer—become enchanted. It’s still early in Manhattan but that particular book is already working its magic on Paul Hackett, a weary middle-manager currently nursing a burger in one of the borough’s cheaper diners.

The solitary Hackett is finding temporary solace in Henry Miller’s freewheeling tales of Paris in the ’20s when a honey blonde at the next table breaks the spell. One look at her and Paul is happy to be distracted: her name is Marcy Franklin and she too is a fan, capable of quoting Miller verbatim; “This is not a book… this is a prolonged insult, a gob of spit in the face of art.”

If After Hours is Martin Scorsese’s cinematic version of a prolonged insult, the filmmaker reserves his ridicule for poor Mr. Hackett who suffers so that we may laugh; his chance meeting with Marcy will unlock a Pandora’s Box of trouble, a portal into a Hipster Hellscape where he becomes a kind of human pinball, bouncing from one outrage to the next.

Though Scorsese’s nightmare comedy is littered with hints and clues from The Wizard of Oz to Ulysses in Nighttown, those signposts are just nudging winks shared by the director and his screenwriter Joseph Minion, who seem more interested in nasty fun than pop culture Easter Eggs—they have a blast devising the kind of endurance test suited for a Greek hero, a farm girl from Kansas, or even a mid-level office manager who, like Dorothy Gale, just wants to go home.

The new friends plan to meet that night with Paul taxiing from the Upper East Side to the neighborhoods between Houston Street and Canal that constitute Marcy’s domain. Thanks to cinematographer Michael Ballhaus that domain exudes an unearthly glow just right for this glamorous but sinister underworld (the cobblestones shine like jewels—helped along by an industrial strength rain machine, one of the pricier entries in Scorsese’s tight budget).

It’s a tricky area to navigate for a rare visitor like Paul and he’ll need the assistance of whatever gods he can summon—his cabbie certainly isn’t going to help, the hack is a speed freak whose windblown taxi robs Paul of what little cash he has—a twenty dollar bill—leaving him broke and vulnerable on the mean streets of Soho.

Marcy isn’t the only attraction on Paul’s downward spiral, everywhere he turns another Siren materializes to lead him on a new adventure, each one an artist in her own right. Linda Fiorentino plays Marcy’s roommate Kiki, a papier-mâché sculptor who specializes in figures that resemble Circe’s petrified victims—her inscrutable beauty hints at forbidden pleasures and perhaps one too many Quaaludes.

Teri Garr is Julie, a woman out of time who dresses like a carhop in an Elvis movie—she memorializes the men in her life in a sketchbook filled with haunted faces just like Paul’s. Catherine O’Hara plays Gail, a chaos agent, unrepentant joker and firm believer in vigilante justice. Verna Bloom is June, a melancholy barfly and… a papier-mâché artist—a teasing suggestion that these four spellbinders are in fact the same woman, a quick-change sorceress with Paul’s fate in her hands.

Fiorentino, Garr, O’Hara, and Bloom are splendid, but in a cast of irresistibly funny but quickly sketched cameos, Rosanna Arquette paints a complete portrait of a woman teetering on the brink—the actress unleashes a roller coaster of conflicting emotions that is both funny and frightening—especially when that thrill ride takes an abrupt turn into the spook house.

Paul is played by Griffin Dunne, a man handsome enough to attract this string of desirable women but insecure enough to leap at each and every opportunity. Other varieties of the male sex pop up along the way including John Heard as an unusually friendly bartender, Dick Miller as Marcy’s guardian angel, and Will Patton as Kiki’s no-nonsense consort. But it’s Cheech and Chong as two streetwise Pucks who bring Paul’s night to an end, depositing him at the doorstep of his office at the break of dawn, still smelling of perfume and papier-mâché. There’s no place like home.

As the commentary on Criterion’s new Blu ray suggests, Scorsese was operating under constraints he hadn’t known since the catch-as-catch-can days of Taxi Driver. Under the gun or not, by 1985 was he was a director without peer and a whiplash camera still seemingly connected directly to his nerve ends. Thelma Schoonmaker contributes to the magic, her editing keeps all the enchanted objects in After Hours dancing—including a set of house keys that is one of the more unique supporting characters in movie history.

Criterion’s set includes both standard Blu ray and 4K, each beautiful representations of Ballhaus’s work. Glenn Erickson’s comments about the 4K version are mouthwatering: “It looks really great in 4K, like a new movie … so many older pics don’t immediately look much different in 4K but this one really jumps out— great texture, color, and granularity. Ballhaus’s deep focus night photography is stunning.”

Included in the extras is a new conversation—both funny and revealing—with Scorsese and Fran Lebowitz. Those familiar with this duo’s Netflix series, Pretend It’s a City, know what to expect—and they always leave us wanting more. Scorsese is forthcoming about The King of Comedy‘s then-recent box office failure and the depression brought on by the (temporary) cancellation of The Last Temptation of Christ. For the director, Paul Hackett was not only a reflection of his own “lost” status, the movie itself was a needed wake up call.

Criterion has also included a selection of deleted scenes, an audio commentary featuring Scorsese, Schoonmaker, Ballhaus, Dunne, and producer Amy Robinson. Wrapping the package is a documentary about the making of the film and a new production about the “look” of After Hours featuring costume designer Rita Ryack and production designer Jeffrey Townsend.

Here’s Brian Trenchard Smith on After Hours:

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This is my favorite Marty Movie.


I’ve been waiting since college for a decent copy of this movie to arrive on home video. And now here it is, in 4K, from Criterion! One of my cinematic Holy Grails, given the best treatment by the best producers.

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