#11 in my ranking of Martin Scorsese’s films.
Martin Scorsese obviously has a dark sense of humor. After Hours, his only outright comedy, is the tale of a young man who travels across Manhattan to meet a girl in the middle of the night and ends up being chased down by a mob convinced he’s a thief, trying to kill him. Inspired by Kafka and Hitchcock, After Hours is a very funny look at a night gone wrong, with our yuppie hero lost at how he got into the mess and how he could possibly get out of it.
We begin with Paul Hackett, a word processor for a large company in New York, instructing a new employee on the specifics of how to load data into the company’s system. Right away we see Paul as he is: disinterested in other people. The new employee tries to tell him about his plans for the future, which includes creating a new magazine, and Paul just walks away. That night he chooses to go to a small diner for dinner alone, reading Tropic of Cancer, when a pretty young woman, Marcy, begins to talk to him about the book. She mentions that she’s going down to Soho to stay with a friend who sells papier mache donut with cream cheese paperweights. Would he be interested in buying one? If it gets Paul a phone number to contact Marcy, then yes, he would. When he calls her later that night, she invites him down to Soho, and he goes without a second thought. That’s when things start to go wrong.
He has a single twenty dollar bill for cab fare there and back again that flies out the window of the cab. When he gets to the apartment, the friend, Kiki, throws the keys to the place down and he lets them drop to the pavement. Marcy’s not there and calls Kiki, and it’s obvious that Marcy regrets having invited Paul over at all. Paul gives Kiki a massage, obviously with hope that the night won’t be completely wasted, but she falls asleep. Things seem to be perking up with Marcy comes back and seems open to him, but he gets freaked out by a medicated cream he finds in her things for second degree burns made no better by a text book filled with images of such injuries. Feeling like he’s not getting what he wants, he picks a fight with Marcy and bugs out of the apartment, but he has only ninety-seven cents and the subway fare went up to a dollar fifty just that night.
He goes to a bar where the waitress begs him through a note to save her from this job she hates and the bartender offers to give Paul the money for the fare from the register, but the register won’t open. The bartender offers to give Paul his keys to go up and check on the bartender’s apartment, afraid of the robberies going on around the neighborhood, but Paul offers up his own keys as collateral. He floods the guy’s apartment. The waitress quits her job, attributing her move to Paul and seems interested in sleeping with him. And all he wants is to get home. When he finally turns her down, she whips up the mob against him, and literally everyone in the neighborhood goes after him.
Paul, you see, refuses to connect with anyone throughout the night. He enters into this foreign land for himself only to find that everyone knows everyone else. When the bartender gets a phone call that his girlfriend died, we instantly know who she is, and so does Paul, even though we’ve never heard the bartender mention her before that moment. A lot of what Paul goes through would have been avoided if he had simply tried to connect with anyone on any level other than his own desires throughout the film. He could have found out the truth about Marcy’s burns. He could have had a place to sleep with the waitress if he had just listened to her. If he hadn’t been so dismissive of everyone, maybe he could have gotten what he wanted for any of them.
There are two major interactions that dominate the final portion of the movie. In the first, Paul goes up to a man’s apartment, with the man expecting a sexual encounter, and Paul just screams the story of his horrible night to this man. The second is when Paul finds shelter in the Club Berlin, and he actually, finally, tries to connect with someone. She’s an older woman, alone at a table, and he doesn’t scream or harangue. Instead he talks to her like a person, asking for help, giving her a dance as the bar closes up. Because he finally treats someone like a human being, he finds a way out.
Being a borderline absurdist comedy inspired by Kafka, though, his way out isn’t as simple as getting a few dollars for a taxi. Instead, the woman encases him completely in papier mache. He gets stolen as a piece of art, and then he falls out of the back of the van right in front of his workplace. He staggers to his desk, covered in dust.
On the surface, this is a very funny movie of a night from hell where one man goes to an unfamiliar part of town and gets sucked into everyone’s business, none of which he’s interested in. His frustration with being unable to get home becomes the center of humor in a dark way, much like people trying to navigate life and bureaucracies in Kafka’s work. Underneath all of that is the tale of a man who just wants to live a selfish little life, and he gets punished for it, barely escaping with his life and ending up right where he began. Will he have learned anything? It seems like he did by the end, turning this tale of mistaken identity into a moral one.
Funny, satirical, almost manic in energy, and well performed, After Hours is Scorsese at his most playfully comedic. That it’s also a rather dark adventure makes it all the more entertaining.