Essentials #21: AFTER HOURS (1985)

Martin Scorsese’s midnight movie has the unique attribute of being part comedy, part Kafkaesque thriller, so it’s a blend of comedy and suspense. Stylistically, Scorsese winds up his camera and shoots a movie technically on par with Hitchcock.

NOTE: This is the movie for nite-owls.

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Halfway through Martin Scorsese’s AFTER HOURS, you might question whether or not the movie is a comedy. There are certainly funny moments throughout the story but the execution of each scene are in the style of an action thriller. Every edit, camera move, and even nuance to the performances creep up on the viewer, foreshadowing both paranoia and fear.

From a pure cinematic standpoint, it’s a beautiful tight-wire act to balance two opposing genres and make them work with one another. For this reason, AFTER HOURS is a dazzling display of filmmaking.

GRIFFIN DUNNE (of AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON fame) plays Paul Hackett, a 9–5 everyman who works in a soul-sucking office in New York City. On the Scorsese scale, Paul is the most straight-edged, likeable protagonist he’s ever had. He’s more or less what you would call, ‘a nice guy.’

But even nice guys have their bad days. During a training session on word processing, Paul dozes off from the office minutiae and gets all existential about his job.

That night, Paul randomly meets a beautiful, intelligent young woman named Marcy (ROSANNA ARQUETTE) at a coffee shop; after chit-chatting about literature, their chemistry is just right and she leaves him her number. A few hours pass by and Paul decides to give Marcy a call — she picks up and says, “Come over.”

Paul does. And the quest for harmless booty call ends up being a night he will never forget.

This is where the film enters Franz Kafka territory.

What does the term Kafkaesque mean?

A good example is in Kafka’s Before the Law. There’s a story about the man who goes to see ‘the law’ but decides to wait for permission from the guard before entering. The man waits outside the gate for years…and years…before finally giving up. On the man’s death bed, the guard tells him that only the man was allowed to enter the gate, no one else.

Now it is too late and the guard will permanently close the door.

Bottom line: Kafkaesque refers to a nightmarish world where logic goes out the window and the bizarre and surreal are fair game. Think as if entering THE TWILIGHT ZONE, where you know you’re fucked from the beginning.

I won’t spoil what exactly happens but Paul’s journey becomes an absurdist New York City survival tale where Murphy’s Law reigns supreme.

PAUL: My god… Was he, uh… did they get this guy?

MARCY: No. Actually it was a boyfriend of mine. To tell you the truth, I slept through most of it. So… there you are.

Aside from Scorsese’s direction (I’ll get to that in minute), Joseph Minion’s screenplay constructs a brilliant rubik’s cube of problems that keeps the audience in a permanent suspension of disbelief. Minion does such a great job at doling out information without being too obvious about it, the surprises are fresh and never feel contrived.

  • IMPORTANT TO NOTE: Radio artist Joe Frank sued Minion for plagiarizing Frank’s short monologue “Lies.” I’ve listened to it and yeah, there’s a lot of copy-and-paste on Minion’s part.
  • Check out Joe Frank’s “Lies

Also, the actors in this film are all great. Griffin Dunne, in particular, deserves high marks for his performance. He can be sympathetic, funny, and serious at the drop of a hat. He needs to be in a movie like this where the emotions of a scene are constantly switching. A lesser actor would try too hard to be funny and ignore the other nuances. Dunne balances all the right emotions for the given situations Paul gets into.

Not to mention, he’s a great physical actor, especially for a nebbish character like Paul. Just pay attention to his eyes and the way he runs. And I’ve mentioned this before in my other essays, but Griffin Dunne is reminder of a time when movies casted actors that actually looked like real people, which is partly why he gets my sympathy.

But whatI love about this movie most and ultimately, what keeps me returning to it, is Scorsese’s craft. If you’ve read my other reviews, you can probably tell I’m as fascinated by the construction of movies — camera, editing, sound, etc. — just as much as the overall idea of the movie.

AFTER HOURS is a feast for your eyes if you love great filmmaking. There are so many well-staged, beautifully filmed and edited scenes that you are immediately pulled in as a viewer. While it can be agonizing to watch Paul try to survive his bizarre night in SoHo, it’s deliciously fun to have your eyes and ears be directed by a master like Scorsese.

If Hitchcock was still alive, I’m sure the maestro himself would stand up and applaud Marty’s mastery of the form because as Hitch said, “a director should play his audience like a piano.”

As a director myself, I can truthfully say I am in more admiration of the craft knowing how difficult some of these scenes and shots can be to orchestrate.

Scorsese has fast eyes.

His camera always moves with supersonic speed — everyone nowadays copies his patented dolly zoom — and his edits are very aggressive, in your face. Like a dagger hitting your pupils. He’s actually one of the handful of directors that actually became less subtle as their career progressed. Editor Thelma Schoonmaker also deserves a mention for her contribution to his style; she’s edited every one of his films since RAGING BULL (1980) — they actually first met for his debut feature, WHO’s THAT KNOCKING (1967).

But these cinematic tricks are not there to show off [at least I don’t think so]. I think the outlandish camera moves and editing push the viewing experience to a visceral and physical level that Paul has escalated to because there are genuine moments where your heart will beat faster and you’ll find yourself on the edge of your seat, talking to the character, “No, don’t go there!”

  • Roger Ebert wrote in his 4 Star review of AFTER HOURS that he was so emotionally exhausted, he thought about leaving the theatre 2/3rds of the way to gather his thoughts.

And that’s the joy of great filmmaking. A director should be in total command of what we, the viewer, see and hear. We should be so wound up in its narrative and style that we ultimately forget that we are watching a movie. In my opinion, that’s great cinema.

Martin Scorsese made this movie back in 1984/85. For those who don’t know, the 1980s were not a good time for directors like Marty as studios began taking less chances on films that made the 1970s great and more on cash cows that demanded sequels and spectacle. Nowadays, we look back with great admiration at the silliness and tongue-in-cheek style of the 80s, but it really was a turbulent time for the auteurs of the 1970s.

Scorsese had spent almost 10 years trying to make his personal project, THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST (1988) and become a sort quasi director-for-hire during the decade (even directing an episode for Spielberg’s TV show AMAZING STORIES).

As a result, Scorsese returned to his roots. Indie filmmaking. And not the indie cinema that nowadays we refer to as hipster cinema, but the kind of indie projects that were shot fast, cheap, and super small-scale. Watch this movie, THE KING OF COMEDY (1983), and LIFE LESSONS (1989) — all great indie works by Scorsese.

Today, Martin Scorsese is a Hollywood juggernaut who can make films that are both commercial and artistic, but it’s always to nice to see what a great filmmaker does when their resources are limited.

AFTER HOURS is a movie that could not be made today. New York City is way different nowadays and much safer than 1985. A cell phone would have eliminated 95% of Paul’s problems and even if he didn’t have a cell phone, there are easier methods at finding a way home now. In that sense, it’s a bit dated. But we could hold the same criticisms for I LOVE LUCY or SEINFELD, yet those shows are still revered as classics.

AFTER HOURS is just that. A classic midnight movie for nite owls. In fact, it’s probably the king of nite owl movies (sorry ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW — I was never a fan to be honest).


  • Take note of the CLOSE-UPs. They’re so quick and slippery. You won’t notice it but there’s an abundance of them used to disorient the audience.
  • Cheech and Chong guest star in this
  • As always, Scorsese’s choice in music is perfect
  • Michael Ballhaus’s lighting is wonderful. Particularly, he always lights ‘bars’ a certain way. Look at this movie, Scorsese’s COLOR OF MONEY (1986), GOODFELLAS (1990), THE DEPARTED (2006) and there’s a consistency in ‘bar lighting’
  • The camera movement in this film is innovative
  • Great opening and ending titles. Fast. Fast. Fast.
  • Rosanna Arquette is gorgeous and having Linda Fiorentino as a roommate. Jesus.
  • Smoky NYC streets are a classic Scorsese touch

This is part of an ongoing series where I will be doing movie reviews from my original ESSENTIALS Film List.

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