There is a Martin Scorsese that not even some of his most vocal fans seem fully aware of. While the director of “Goodfellas,” “The Wolf of Wall Street,” “The Departed” and other modern day classics know him as the director of sprawling, graphically violent, highly profane and intimately character-driven crime stories, many would be surprised to discover how versatile his overall body of work is. For starters, if one were willing to look into his lengthy, mostly stellar body of work, they’d find that Scorsese once directed a musical (“New York, New York”), a drama on the struggles of a single mother (“Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore”), a horror film (“Cape Fear”), a literary costume drama (“The Age of Innocence”), a controversial biblical drama (“The Last Temptation of Christ”), a sequel to a movie he didn’t make (“The Color of Money”), a Dali Lama bio-epic (“Kundun”), and even a world famous music video (Michael Jackson’s “Bad”). Among his many great overlooked works that don’t involve the mafia and showcase a different side to the multi-faceted filmmaker, Scorsese’s “After Hours” is his film school-small, eerie, and hilarious 1985 masterpiece.
In one of his few starring roles, Griffin Dunne (best known by film goers as the doomed best friend in “An American Werewolf in London”) stars as Paul Hackett, an office worker who is alone and appears cut off from the world around him. One night, while reading Henry Miller alone in a diner, he encounters a strange but lovely young woman (Rosanna Arquette) who gives him her number. Their loosely planned “date” and odd courtship, that unfolds over the course of the evening, makes up the backbone of the narrative. Along the way, Paul encounters a wild child SOHO artist (Linda Fiorentino), a bartender with explosive emotions (John Heard) and a waitress (Teri Garr) who comes on to him. These are the most normal individuals he encounters, as the night becomes increasingly stranger.
The famous story of “After Hours” is that it was supposed to be Tim Burton’s debut film. Scorsese was shown the screenplay, liked it, but decided to make “The Last Temptation of Christ” instead. Dunne encountered Burton’s short film, “Vincent” and met with him to make “After Hours”. When word got out that Scorsese wanted back in (after his first try at making “Last Temptation” was shut down), Burton humbly stepped aside. Both filmmakers turned out winningly, as Burton’s generous handing of the project over to Scorsese freed him up to make his feature film breakthrough, “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure.” For Scorsese, “After Hours” was something of a comeback, since his prior work, “The King of Comedy,” was beloved by critics but didn’t fully gain a cult following until much later. While not a hit with audiences, “After Hours” won Scorsese the Best Director award at the Cannes Film Festival and, like “The King of Comedy,” saw its audience grow substantially over time.
Full of tracking shots that are smooth, exhilarating and swoop past the characters, this displays Scorsese’s filmmaking zest and playfulness as a cinematic master craftsman. Set to Howard Shore’s ticking, echoing and exciting score, “After Hours” elicits an addictive energy that sustains itself for 90-minutes. I couldn’t get enough of this movie. Part Kafka nightmare, part SOHO artist satire, part commentary on yuppie cluelessness and part deadpan black comedy, it fits in Scorsese’s chronicling NYC experiences, albeit one more surreal and comic than his usual output.
The film understands how the city (and, for that matter, any city) is different at night. There are different rules, a detached feel from the openness of daylight and a landscape of endless possibilities, all of them bad. Set in The Big Apple of the 80’s, that scary metropolis of the Ed Koch years that resembled a Ralph Bakshi cartoon, Scorsese is making a goof on the very real dangers of being lost and walking aimlessly alone, down a strange city street during the midnight hour.
“After Hours” thematically mirrors the same year’s “Brazil” on the need for escape from bureaucratic complacency. What makes Paul Hackett and “After Hours” both so funny and kind of scary is that it recognizes how late night city dwellers don’t act the same in broad daylight. When societal norms, expectations and etiquette are gone, anything goes.