Those who follow my articles closely know that there is no film genre I love more than the black comedy. When a filmmaker can take a serious subject and turn it on its ear so that we are laughing at something that would normally shock or upset us is an amazing feat. Great black comedies are few and far between and for my retro review I would like to take a look at one of the best, if not the best black comedy ever made.
Martin Scorsese’s After Hours is an overlooked masterpiece. When Scorsese’s name comes up we hear mention of most of his film repertoire but you rarely hear this film mentioned when it belongs right up there with his others. Released in 1985 the film received generally positive reviews but was met with low box office numbers and it’s really no wonder. This is a hard film to watch. It’s not violent or cruel but Scorsese creates such an atmosphere of discomfort that many audience members squirmed in their seats the final hour – those that were able to stay in their seats. The last time I watched this I watched it with my nephew, who was seeing it for the first time. About 75 minutes into it he turned to me and said, “I can’t take how uncomfortable this is making me but I have to see how it turns out.” That is the secret to Scorsese’s brilliant handling of the material. You may go crazy watching the story unfold but you will want to see how it all ends.
Joseph Minion’s biting script stars Griffin Dunne (best known as the rotting corpse of a best friend in An American Werewolf In London) as computer programmer Paul Hackett and twenty-four nightmare hours in his life. The film opens with Paul at work doing his mundane job and training a new employee who has no intention of staying there and has much bigger and better plans for his life. Paul’s look almost suggests that he had those same ideas and dreams several years earlier. After work he meets Marcy (Rosanna Arquette), a nice enough looking woman who invites him to travel from Manhattan to Soho. He figures, why not?
The nightmare begins in the cab ride to Soho. Paul has placed his last twenty dollar bill in the container for the driver but the cabbie drives so fast and recklessly that the twenty goes flying out the window. The look on the cabbie’s face as Paul tries to explain what happens is priceless.
Paul and Marcy meet after Paul’s meeting with Kiki (Linda Fiorentino), Marcy’s roommate who almost becomes a little too familiar with him too fast. Paul and Marcy go to a diner to get to know one another and right away flags are raised as Marcy talks about her ex-husband. She explains that he had an obsession with The Wizard of Oz and that when they made love he would scream out “Surrender Dorothy” at the moment of climax. It’s even funnier trying to picture it.
Soon after Paul realizes things are not going to work out and he ditches Marcy at her apartment and from then on it becomes Paul’s odyssey trying to just get home. He goes to catch the subway only to find out the rates went up at midnight and he doesn’t have enough money. He tries to reason with the cashier to give him a break but the cashier is steadfast in his refusal. Paul finally inquires as to who would know if he let Paul slide to which the cashier responds, “I could go to a party, get drunk, start talking.” This is the kind of night Paul Hackett is in for,
Paul’s continuing odyssey will include sadomasochism, burn cream, a shocking suicide (complete with hand written notes to map out where the body is), a neighborhood burglar, a bartender who has seen it all more than once and has an amazingly unexpected connection to Paul, an overly trusting waitress, and a mob convinced Paul is the burglar. Let’s not forget the trip to the S&M bar where Paul almost loses his hair and the very same bar a few hours later where Beatniks might have seeked comfort. And let’s not forget Cheech and Chong who delightfully pop in and out of the movie at the most inopportune times for Paul.
Scorsese pours one thing onto another for poor Paul. The audience is exasperated but laughing all at once. There are moments of unexpected and shocking hilarity such as Paul talking to the bartender while two men passionately kiss unnoticed behind them. Paul finally goes home with a man (who thinks Paul is a gay hookup) and Paul unloads the events of the evening on this man so pointedly that Scorsese uses the brilliant tactic of a dissolve on Paul to later in the story to show the long passage of time. At the end of the story Pay, totally exasperated, announces, “I came here for a date. Do I have to die for it?”
Griffin Dunne plays Paul spot on. You feel for the guy right away. It’s obvious he is in a lonely job and goes home to a lonely apartment so the thought of having any sort of company must be overwhelming to him. Scorsese fills his supporting roles with capable actors including Arquette, Fiorentino, John Heard, Teri Garr, Catherine O’Hara and Verna Bloom.
Michael Balhaus’s photography is quite effective. Shots of the Soho streets with steam rising from the manholes will remind film buffs of Scorsese’s earlier Taxi Driver. There are many memorable shots including the camera following the descent of a twenty dollar bill to the ground and a point of view shot of keys hurling towards the ground.
After Hours is terrific all the way around. Many people complained of a lack of story to which I say the story is this man’s nightmare and everything that happens in it. Things happen so illogically that eventually it all becomes logical in a nightmare-ish sense. No one can possibly have this much bad luck can they? The film also ends about the only way it can.
Watching After Hours is almost like spying on a neighbor. You can’t help but watch but no matter what you see you don’t turn away even after you feel weird about it. Only here you find yourself laughing and then laughing harder at yourself at the shock of laughing at such things in the first place. Scorsese is in firm control as he always is and creates a masterpiece that needs to be found by more film lovers.
It needs to be seen just to hear Paul say, while hiding on a fire escape and witnessing a wife shoot her husband, “I’ll probably get blamed for that.”