A flamenco-dancing twenty-dollar-bill.
Plaster-of-paris cream-cheese-and-bagel paperweights.
Mousetraps arranged like stations of the cross.
An ex-husband with a disturbing “Wizard Of Oz” fetish.
Just a few of the indelible images that come one after another in this dark comedy that came at a very interesting moment in the career of Martin Scorsese.
And why not start with Scorsese?
One thing you’ll notice, I’m sure, as we get deeper into this column, is that like any film viewer, I have my particular favorites, the themes or filmmakers or actors or ideas that I come back to over and over. The genres that have a particular affinity for. The ones I don’t. And Scorsese is a huge subject of interest for me as a film geek. He’s an artistic hero. A guy who is all about voice, and absolutely one of the most polished, controlled filmmakers of his generation. Of all time, for that matter. “Taxi Driver,” “Goodfellas,” and “Raging Bull” were all on the List Of Duh the other day. Those movies have been fully absorbed at this point, woven into the fabric of film culture in a million little ways. Those are movies that you’ve got some sense of even if you’ve never seen them, because they’ve been imitated and referenced and sourced to death.
But there was a point when Scorsese was basically unable to get a film made, tied in knots, at an artistic standstill. And in many ways, “After Hours” is the film that kept him alive at the exact moment he needed it. The fact that it’s also very, very good is a minor miracle.
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The film started life as a script at the Sundance Labs by a young writer named Joseph Minion. The script found its way into the hands of Amy Robinson, who was producing movies with actor Griffin Dunne. Their earlier pictures as co-producers, “Baby It’s You” and “Chilly Scenes Of Winter” are both great small gems, and they had obvious taste. Amy Robinson’s the one who got the script to Scorsese, and by that point, Dunne had already decided he had to star in the film as Paul Hackett, the hapless office drone who spends one long insane night lost in the heart of New York. Scorsese was interested, but he was neck-deep in development on his dream project, “The Last Temptation Of Christ.” So he had to pass on “After Hours,” and Robinson and Dunne went looking for another director. They saw a short film they liked a lot and decided to take a chance on an unproven young filmmaker named Tim Burton. And the funny thing is… I can imagine what the Tim Burton version of the film would have looked like. When “Last Temptation” imploded, Scorsese was left without a film to make, and he came back to Dunne and Robinson. Burton stepped aside the moment he heard, saying, “I don’t want to stand in the way of Martin Scorsese doing anything he wants to do.” And just like that, Scorsese jumped into this low-budget affair. He was reportedly upset by his inability to get “Last Temptation” made and frustrated by his overall lack of traction as a filmmaker, and in making this small, focused burst of anxiety, he rekindled his own belief in the simple pleasures of filmmaking.
And like I said… it’s actually really good.
This is a distinctly New York movie. It couldn’t really be set anywhere else. Every major city in the world has its own energy, its own pace, its own nightlife, and one of the things about New York that I love, especially when a movie gets it right, is that feeling that there’s always some corner you can turn where some other depraved something is just getting underway, some new trouble you can get in if you just look hard enough. Paul (Dunne) isn’t looking for trouble. His whole night starts while he’s innocently reading a Henry Miller novel in a diner and a girl (Rosanna Arquette) strikes up a conversation with him. She’s one of those ’80s actresses who was quirky hot more than conventionally, and Scorsese makes her an obtuse object of desire in the film. She’s striking, but mercurial. At first, she seems like she’s coming on to Paul, but when he calls the phone number she gives him and then actually goes out to see her, he immediately starts getting mixed signals. And then as they start talking, the most demented stories start pouring out of her. Paul starts getting more and more freaked out… by her, by a photo book of burn injuries, by her roommate Kiki Bridges (Linda Fiorentino at her husky-voiced sexiest), by Horst (a disturbingly leather-clad Will Patton), and by a parade of loonies who all seem to be conspiring to not only keep Paul from returning to his apartment, but to actually make sure he ends the night dead. Teri Garr, Catherine O’Hara, John Heard, Vera Miles, Cheech and Chong, and Dick Miller are among the familiar faces he sees over the course of his long night in what seems to be Dante’s Manhattan.
The script is a marvel of set-ups and pay-offs, and the way it introduces ideas casually, seemingly abandoning them before bringing them back in the most insidious and often-hilarious ways is impressive. It seems like the structure energized Scorsese, who was obviously drowning in personal anxiety when he made it, and the film has this crazy shaky manic energy that just keeps getting worse and worse as things unravel for Paul. Even better, editor Thelma Schoonmaker knows exactly when to let the air out, hit you with absolute quiet, just when you can’t possibly take any more racheting up. It’s an exercise in control. Michael Ballhaus (one of Scorsese’s greatest visual collaborators on films like “Gangs Of New York,” “Goodfellas,” and “Age Of Innocence”) was working fast, working loose, and he still manages to give the film a unique palette and a sweaty sort of sheen that matches Paul’s toxic energy.
Griffin Dunne had two great roles as an actor… this and “An American Werewolf In London,” and in both, his own innate bitter sarcasm is his secret weapon. He can take a throw-away line and turn it into a nail-studded baseball bat. His exasperation is perfectly natural in the film, but he turns it up to a degree that becomes increasingly hilarious as the night keeps crapping on him. If he has one concrete enemy in the film, it’s Scorsese himself, a snickering God to Dunne’s Job, trying to hide his tears of laughter as he heaps each fresh torment on the shmuck, leading to an abrupt ending that was suggested as a reshoot by no less than Michael Powell. As Scorsese’s camera finally abandons Dunne at his desk and dances away across the rows of desks in his office, it’s a giddy moment, and you can practically feel the director, drunk on the joy of of each set-up, each angle, each shot, each scene. This may not be one of Scorsese’s most well-known films, but it’s one of the most complete things he’s ever done.
IN SHORT: Scorsese doesn’t often make comedies, but he managed to make this a finely-calibrated roller-coaster ride of anxiety, packed with great character actors doing eccentric and finely-etched work. Energetic cinematography and a creepy broken-funhouse score by Howard Shore only amp up the mood in this low-budget but richly detailed winner.
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