After Hours

United States, 1985

Directed by Martin Scorsese

With Griffin Dune (Paul Hackett), Rosanna Arquette (Marcy), Linda Fiorentino (Kiki), Teri Garr (Julie), John Heard (Tom), Catherine O’Hara (Gail), Verna Bloom (June), Tommy Chong (Pepe)

The film borrows from “Taxi Driver” (1976) a nocturnal, strange, tough atmosphere, and a peculiar sense of danger and tension but it inverts that movie’s dynamics. A New York on the edge and on the move is not just the perfect background, or the quirky reflection, of the leading character as his mind seems to spiral out of control; actually the locus morphs into a danger and a disorientation that challenge, upset, threaten the otherwise sound and nice fellow.

As one of the many bartenders Paul Hackett meets in his bizarre, night-long odyssey, puts it, after the hours, rules change. They rather collapse to let people moving freewheeling, through free will and in freestyle, for better or worse, and in fact increasingly for the worse, turning nighthawks into real birds of prey. Yet for the computing worker the night started with a promising encounter, holding the prospect of an unexpected opportunity for sex, if not love.

Alone and adrift in New York during an eventful, eerie, exhausting night: Paul Hackett

But when Paul Hackett pays a visit to Marcy he comes in a dark and eccentric place, a loft in Soho owned by an impassive but magnetic modern art sculptor, Kiki. Chatting with Marcy proves to be an awkward, unsettling business and he eventually flees the apartment – a turning point that ushers in a discombobulating series of comings and goings across Soho doubled with preposterous twists and turns around a few elements: an elusive bartender, Tom, who holds Paul’s keys, or the rising anger of some inhabitants fed up with a growing number of robberies, or the antics of these hyperactive burglars. This frenzied narrative is hard to sum up and on the face of it seems an improbable screenplay – indeed, when Paul tries to summarize all the events he has been part of to a man who shelters him in the hope of having gay sex even if neither he or Paul are gays, the guy hangs his head in disbelief.

“After Hours” clearly borrows from cinema history both a key, well-loved trope of the noir genre and a mythic figure of entertainment, the femme fatale who is also a perfect, endearing blonde lady. Paul’s adventures can be summed up as a series of encounters with unusual blonde women who are as nice as they can be real troublemakers; each new contact just compounds the unwieldy problems Paul ends up coping with. Marcy dies, Kiki lets him down, Gail, who works with Tom, drives him crazy and, offended by his rejection of her sexual desire, portrays him as a dangerous burglar, and Gail offers to help him and then leads the hunt for his skin; only June would sympathize and save him, but this turns into a double-edged gesture, ironically.

Irony and more broadly comedy matter in this film, casting the life of New York after hours as a wholly absurdist, Kafka-like world, upending the decency and logic Paul naturally embodies. But it also somehow make his narrative arc more easier to apprehend and to countenance for the audience: the nightly, quirky life that engulfs him is not just outré but decidedly savage – night-clubbers as well as nice neighbors can lose control and take up wild, bellicose attitudes while a place can swing from one extreme situation to the stark opposite (like the nightclub hosting crowds of wild punks and then, in a blink, just a middle-aged woman). Out of the ordinary comes the uncanny, that Unheimliche defined by Sigmund Freud, but then that uncanny does not just stuns or troubles, it threatens and paranoia becomes the unavoidable response for Paul who ends up, quite literally, frozen and still by the terrible force the city has unleashed upon him.

The film presents a remarkably dark, unnerving vision of the city, exploring the place and capturing the events through a fluid, imaginative camerawork, with quick lateral tracking shots sliding away from the face of the lead actor, stunning vertical drops of the camera, low-angle track-in shots on his torso as he runs away – tricks that emphasize step by step his astonishment and how it gives way to fear and terror. The compositions on the various places and streets are powerful and quick to focus on the most disturbing detail – a toilet suddenly overflowing or a crowd coming out of nowhere. This is a nervy and elaborate work from Martin Scorsese who seems eager to play with the worrying, treacherous atmosphere of the mystery and crime stories to create an even more bizarre tale that is in part parodic.

This feels as a very personal creation, a production that was not easy to complete and has a low-key profile, with no big stars cast (this is the first time since 1976 that Scorsese and Robert De Niro part ways). Scorsese definitely expresses an ambivalent sentiment about the Big Apple, but it is harder to gather the broader meaning of “After Hours”. It is probably best to go back to the daylight prologue, when Paul acts as a tutor to a rookie who readily explains he is not interested in a career in the computing business but hopes to put aside enough money to become the publisher of a new kind of literary review. Paul barely listens to him as he ogles the female staff; but fantasizing on women is precisely what would lead him into a real nightmare; the film may well be an ironic, off-center attack on certain ideas of social conformism and manliness – by the way, how gay people are depicted is intriguing, as clichés are co-opted to people Paul’s strange adventures in a way that sounds remarkably ordinary (a couple straight from a leather bar is quietly kissing and petting at Tom’s bar as if they were just given straight lovers) and yet fosters confrontations (the angry crowd is first made up of gays). The real suspense may lie in the last shots, as Paul is back at work, stunned and dirty – what consequences he could draw from his night? But that is left off-screen to be guessed while on-screen the audience is pulled back to the comfort of daylight routines.

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