The Furious Fever Dream: Martin Scorsese’s “After Hours” (1985)

Rosanna Arquette smoking a cigarette in Martin Scorsese's "After Hours" (1985)

‘It’s funny – the world is so different in the daylight. In the dark, your fantasies get so out of hand. But in the daylight everything falls back into place again…’ – Mary Henry, Carnival of Souls

Never has a statement been more pertinent (other than in Carnival of Souls itself) as it is in Martin Scorsese’s After Hours. Just what is daylight in relation to night? And why does everything seem out of the ordinary once the sun sets? Martin Scorsese’s After Hours is an outstanding film, but not for the conventional reasons one might think. On one hand, the story is simple—a man goes out late at night to presumably meet up with a girl, only for his rendezvous to not work out, and then, amid his continual bad luck, he is unable to get home. Trying, trying, he continues to fail. Moreover, as I write this, the world is readying for the 2024 eclipse, and news stations have little else to discuss. As result, people have become hyper-fixated, and a little distracted, somewhat like the characters in After Hours.

The film begins with Paul Hackett (Griffin Dunne) at work, training a new employee on his company’s word-processing system. Since this is 1985, the screens look archaic and appear much more difficult to navigate than now. ‘I do not intend to do this for the rest of my life,’ the trainee says (played by Bronson Pinchot from Perfect Strangers). Paul is only half listening, as we can tell he’s been through this many times before. ‘Hmm?’ he asks, more so out of politeness than concern. The trainee goes on to speak about starting a literary magazine and forum for intellectuals—which are big dreams for an entry-level word processor. Meantime, we see a disinterested Paul gazing off into a daydream until he excuses himself.

Already, the film carries an echo of Kafka’s The Trial, with just the right amount of absurdism and ennui (think of the scene in Welles’s film where Anthony Perkins is being accosted but has yet to put on his pants). Paul is not only lonely but suffers from a sort of existential dread, and ironically it is through his ‘connection’ with others that he likely realizes aloneness is better than insanity. When he meets beautiful Marcy (Rosanna Arquette) in a cafe, she comes across as charming and flirtatious. She informs him about her sculptor roommate’s plaster of Paris bagel and cream cheese paperweights and asks if Paul would want to buy one. ‘Yeah,’ he says, not because he wants one, of course, but because he wants to get close to Marcy.

Arquette performs Marcy brilliantly, as she comes across as vulnerable and flaky, paranoid and manipulative. At one moment she flirts with Paul, but then seems disillusioned by something she doesn’t wish to share—and at other times she shares too much. Upon his arrival, he is greeted by Kiki (Linda Fiorentino), who saunters about in a bra and skirt while making sculptures out of paper mâché. Her deadpan, matter-of-fact manner is hilarious as it is off-putting, so much so that when Paul compliments her body, she replies, ‘Not a lot of scars. I know some who are covered with them.’ Then, when Paul begins sharing a story about his childhood while massaging her shoulders, she falls asleep.

‘The streets of SoHo are dark and deserted. Clouds of steam escape from the pavement, as they did in Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver”, suggesting that Hades lurks just below the field of vision,’ Roger Ebert notes in his review. Indeed, this world Paul has entered seems off, and sort of like Alice at the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, he’s the only ‘normal’ one here. Then, when Marcy arrives, the usual first date small talk diminishes into tidbits of trauma. ‘I was raped in this room,’ she says, no differently than one describing an unfavorable restaurant. ‘It lasted six hours. I slept through most of it.’ Of course, no consideration is given to Paul, who only just met her, and maybe might not feel comfortable hearing such personal revelations so soon. Trying to be sympathetic, he eventually learns she has a husband and a boyfriend, and so…this is not going to work out. Escaping into the rain, Paul’s night continues.

Linda Fiorentino handing a black dress shirt to Griffin Dunne in Martin Scorsese's "After Hours".
Linda Fiorentino and Griffin Dunne

Perhaps the film’s cleverest aspect (other than the intricacy of the writing) is the willingness of the individuals that Paul encounters. Unlike the stereotype of ‘unfriendly New Yorkers,’ those in After Hours seem to genuinely want to help, though none of them can. After his money blows out the cab window, Paul does not have enough cash to ride the subway (the fair went up as of midnight, which makes me wonder, were there no credit cards in 1985? Nowadays, one would just call an Uber and charge it to their app). However, when a bar owner (played by John Heard) offers to give Paul the subway fare, he is unable to open the register. Then, when the waitress (Terri Garr) invites Paul up to her apartment so he can wait out the storm, her emotional needs border on psychotic. Paul then gets part of his head shaved at a club, chased by a mob led by a woman driving an ice cream truck, learns that Marcy has killed herself, and on and on. The universe must be out to get him: What do you want from me? I’m just a word processor. On his knees, he begs God for an answer.

One would think that these bad coincidences, one piled after another, would seem shoehorned within any other film, but not this one. Rather, After Hours demonstrates great screenwriting, as we’re presented with just the right amount of absurdism and annoyance that doesn’t linger for too long. Interestingly, in Roger Ebert’s 2009 re-review, he mentions that Scorsese shot the film without an end in mind, suggesting that maybe the story should finish with Paul’s death within the sculpture. However, it wasn’t until Michael Powell, hired as a film consultant, insisted that, ‘Paul not only had to live at the end, but to end up back at his office.’ This circular aspect alludes to the idea that the previous night could have possibly been a furious fever dream told through allegory. After all, in daylight, everyone is calm and mannered. Dreams seem out of reach and locked away rebellions of the everyday ennui (think back to Paul’s trainee and his dream of forming a forum for intellectuals).

Other film touches involve Hitchcock-style elements, such as the up-close shots of doors and locks, coupled with a score that evokes a haunting nocturne, yet we can’t help but laugh at this unfortunate man’s luck. I recently reviewed another 1980s film, Cocktail, that also involves ‘nightlife,’ but the writing is so contrived for the sake of plot pushing that were the film not so easy to mock, it would have lost that ‘so bad it’s good’ quality. In contrast, never does After Hours feel forced or contrived. The events unfold naturally (and unfortunately) for Paul, as each encounter leaves him more fatigued than the previous. He speaks, and yet no one listens to his woes. Those he encounters think they’re helping, but end up doing more damage. Ironically, it is the local thieves (played by Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong) who end up doing Paul the favor he needs, by unknowingly abducting him in a sculpture that accidentally falls out of their truck at his place of work. He’s not home, but at least he is somewhere familiar. Better than being abandoned in a giant sculpture—in the daylight everything falls back into place again. Exhausted and covered in plaster, it’s just another workday for Paul. Now, was this too much to ask for?

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