After Hours: A Passive Journey Home

After Hours | art by Tony Stella
illustration by Tony Stella

Perhaps no other film in Martin Scorsese’s filmography carries more intriguing mystique than After Hours, a cinematic maze that relishes in its lost-ness. It’s yet another portrait of “God’s Lonely Man,” capturing the solitude amidst the urban decay—not in the violent gaze of a cabbie hell-bent on justice, but in the manic sexual narcissism of a stiff office worker.

After Hours adopts the kinetic editing of a Nicolas Roeg film and the performative stiltedness of a David Lynch nightmare, all while still feeling inherently tied to its director. Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks—which embraces its darkness with the insomnia-inducing fluorescence of the SoHo district—comes to mind whenever I think of this nocturnal story. Natural light is practically non-existent throughout its 97-minute running time. In fact, there’s nothing natural about After Hours at all. Its lean yet fragmented story revolves around the disturbing and weighty themes that Scorsese often portrays with remarkable weightlessness: loneliness, guilt, urban decay, sexual repression, and God’s silence. These motifs float in and out of After Hours‘ narrative with all the grace of one of Scorsese’s languid dolly shots.

If The King of Comedy is Scorsese’s distorted version of an existential comedy, After Hours is a twisted sort of self-contained Hitchcockian thriller. Like Marnie and Rear Window, it is set in one location, and like Rope, its events unfold within the span of a one night. And through this constricted form, Scorsese is liberated from the machinations of plot and structure. Instead, the film dips its toes into the absurd, the maligned, and the macabre.

The reductive simplicity of After Hours can be summed up by its logline: on a Friday night, upon meeting a young woman named Marcy in SoHo, Paul Hackett (Griffin Dunne) is led on a journey through weird diners, punk clubs, and mysterious women’s apartments, and then must find his way back home. Simple enough, and yet nothing can prepare the viewer for the frenetic and disjointed experience of the film proper. Paul appears as a pawn in some twisted God’s game of chess. His goal isn’t to kill the king, though—it’s simply to get home. Multiple locations bear the black-and-white checkerboard floor design to reinforce this idea. Are the variegated characters that Paul encounters actually villains attempting to thwart his mission, or are they simply tests of his will?

As the night transpires, notions of “character” and linear time become increasingly unsettled. At first Paul is at a sculptor’s house, a loft that feels firmly rooted in contemporary ’80s New York. Soon, he’s in a 24-hour diner resembling those that cropped up in the city throughout the ’50s (though not the amicable kind found in Barry Levinson’s Diner the previous year). Next, he’s in the apartment of a server (Teri Garr) which looks uncomfortably stuck in the ’60s, decked-out with a Bob Dylan sketch and Byrds records. Eventually, he finds himself in the middle of Club Berlin, a venue that echoes the ’70s heyday of New York punk.

Gilles Deleuze spoke of a change in cinema after Luchino Visconti’s Obsession, where “objects and setting take on an autonomous, material reality which gives them an importance in themselves.” By building an almost hyperreal setting, Scorsese demonstrates that he is fully aware of the story’s restrictive dusk-to-dawn form, and therefore elasticizes the nature of time, and its perception, by using a single SoHo city block to explore the transmutation of a city through different eras.

Griffin Dunne in After Hours (1985) | Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

The maze which Paul navigates becomes an entry-point into a grappling with his own mortality; of time eclipsing one’s place in the world. How strange it can be that life can flash before your eyes like a single nightmarish odyssey through a night predicated on sexual desire. As such, After Hours feels like a companion piece to Visconti’s Le Notti Bianche (translated in English as White Nights), a rather melancholic adaption of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s short story. That tale, too, is one of a young man who roams the streets of a small town, aimlessly looking for love. Masculinity becomes a fragile and isolating sphere for Mario (Marcello Mastroianni) who gets lost in his own romantic obsession.

Visconti’s work was criticized as a “formalistic nightmare,” and just as Le Notti Bianche may very well be the closest he came to making a horror film, After Hours also orbits this genre closely through its use of mounting tension. Scorsese deliberately avoids a direct relationship to horror, hinting at it but refusing the categorical bondage of his later genre-definitive works Shutter Island and Cape Fear. But Deleuze was more gracious with Visconti, regarding White Nights as a “system of exchange between the imaginary and the real,” a dance between the objective and subjective.

White Nights looks rather banal by the standard of events that unfold during Paul’s treacherous night in After Hours. And although they could objectively transpire within the strict parameters of time, it would be horrific to think of such a continuum of tragedy compressed within the sunless hours of the night. Save for Paul’s comically impassive puncture of Marcie’s door, both Mario and Paul are tragic figures of forcible passivity.

In White Nights, Mario drifts through the streets of Italy like a ghost, his silhouette nearly vanishing amidst the snow-laden streets like a phantom. With Paul, Scorsese introduces the character as a sentient extension of the stiff culture of corporatization. Scorsese juxtaposes the rigor mortis of the scene with his trademark whirling wide lens, traveling through a labyrinth of desks in an attempt to elevate the arthritic environment into a waltz. You sense Scorsese is in a threefold conversation with:

  1. Himself, as he tries to self-reflectively enliven his own foreboding entry into the stiffness of the Hollywood system (he would follow After Hours with the star-laden The Color of Money).
  2. His audience, feeling the first sprouts of anxiety and malaise of the digital revolution, chained to their brand new computational overlords.
  3. Film history, specifically Il Posto, a semi-autobiographical and reluctantly comedic portrayal of the dehumanization within the corporate enterprise from the standpoint of an adolescent man.

The latter example, Il Posto, mocked the “Hero’s Journey,” as many Europeans did throughout the later half of the ’60s (My Night at Mauds, Playtime). Set in the crushing landscape of postwar corporate bureaucracy, its protagonists ultimately became increasingly inactive—victims of the systems in which they operated. And what better place to continue such satire than in New York in the ’80s? The city’s ambient din encompassed more liveliness than its inhabitants, constantly transforming, especially with the gentrification that would displace native New Yorkers for decades to come.

Paul Hackett himself becomes a displaced figure, maundering between bars and diners, confronting police and thieves, forcibly made passive until he’s a criminal wanted by the very city he’s trying to escape. Nothing is ever quite settled in After Hours, and it relishes in this unsettled nature; even the camera movements—extended dolly-ins on the faces of the characters, long running tracking shots—induce a kind of dizzying discord with the idea of remaining still, at peace.

Teri Garr and Griffin Dunne in After Hours (1985) | Warner Bros.

And escape to where exactly? The word “home” abounds in Paul’s dialogue, a thing we constantly hear mentioned but which never quite materializes.

Considering the theme of home, and the distinction between the passivity of New Wave Cinema and the active characters that preceded them in classical Hollywood cinema, The Wizard of Oz serves as a worthwhile counterpoint. During Paul’s encounter with Marcie at her apartment she makes mention of the film, an object of obsession for her ex-boyfriend—and After Hours’ plot and characters seem casually interchangeable with the classic story. Paul is a homesick doppelgänger to Dorothy, led on an odyssey by a yellow taxi (or yellow-brick road). His journey is disrupted when his $20 cab fare gets whisked out the window (performing a cyclical dance not unlike a disruptive tornado spinning). Upon his first attempt at returning home by subway, he’s confronted by a curmudgeonly attendant in a Müeller-esque green cast who denies him access, not unlike the gatekeeper in Emerald City.

The commonalities are plentiful, though After Hours’ comedic ending illustrates the story’s main contradiction with The Wizard of Oz. Paul ends up “home” by no choice of his own, whereas Dorothy returns home by physically destroying the Wicked Witch of the West and clicking her heels. Even though the activity is in a passive dream state, it’s interpreted by the audience as part of Dorothy’s impulse to awaken. In After Hours, the impassivity of early cinema is put into question: Perhaps we are merely byproducts of a larger design, one beyond our control. Perhaps we are pawns in a game not of our choosing.

There’s a running gag throughout After Hours: a paper maché sculpture of a horrified (and horrifying) figure, Munchian in its depiction of terror and pain. “Was it the ‘The Shriek?’” questions Paul upon first seeing it. “The Scream,” replies sculptor Kiki Bridges (Linda Fiorentino). Bridges continues to work on the piece in her apartment—which eventually gets stolen by two thieves played by Cheech and Chong—until it mysteriously shows up in the wet basement of Club Berlin. In a bizarre turn of events, Paul finds refuge by hiding in it, essentially becoming the fixed sculpture, screaming silently into the inertness of the night. 

Despite featuring yet another lone male drowning in his own self-destructive nature, After Hours remains a minor schism in Scorsese’s usual stable of heroes. Jake LaMotta’s explosive action in and out of the ring in Raging Bull, Howard Hughes’ soaring efforts in the sky in The Aviator, or Jordan Belfort’s hedonistic climbing up the corporate ladder in The Wolf of Wall Street all appear like locomotives compared to Paul Hackett, a character who winds up buried by his own inactivity under the strips of black-and-white newspaper clippings that, at best, seem to guarantee a kind impermanence―and at worst a faded tapestry of obituaries.