In Martin Scorsese’s After Hours (1985), you never forget the presence of the camera. It careens forward on the diagonal in the opening scene, making a beeline for Paul Hackett (Griffin Dunne), a word processor in a Manhattan office. The shot is alarming: you expect to hear chairs clattering out of the way or people shouting as they’re hit. As Paul trains a new employee at his desk, a woman walking past catches his eye, and the camera follows her, suggesting that she’s enormously important. But then Paul’s gaze moves on, and the camera does too—the woman wasn’t important after all. From this early point in the film, Scorsese and cinematographer Michael Ballhaus (a frequent collaborator of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s) make it impossible for viewers to get their bearings.
When everything is important but nothing is understood, the world is a maddening place. Paul is dragged deeper and deeper into his bewilderment, until SoHo—the edgy downtown neighborhood, located directly south of Houston Street (hence the name), where he goes looking for a night of adventure—becomes a fun-house mirror reflecting illusory escape routes. The film’s disorienting mix of dread and humor evokes Paul’s mental state. Scorsese envisioned After Hours as “a parody of film noir and also a parody of a thriller,” and he beckons us with genre tropes that imply meaning but ultimately signify nothing, while also deploying humor as “a device . . . a game,” as he saw it. What lies beneath the laughter, though, are primal feelings that most adults don’t want to express aloud: everything is so unfair; the deck is stacked against me; why can’t I catch a break?
Sitting in a diner by himself after work, reading Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, Paul is pleasantly surprised when a quirky blond woman named Marcy (Rosanna Arquette) starts talking to him. She’s appealing, with a confiding, conspiratorial manner. She loops him into her world, telling him about her roommate, “a sculptress” who has “been making these plaster-of-paris bagels and cream cheese.” She says that he should come down to SoHo and check out her friend’s work. To an uptown-dwelling office drone like Paul, SoHo is the dark side of the moon. But Marcy is so alluring that he takes a cab to the address she has given him—a terrifying ride that ends with his last bit of cash being sucked out of the car window. And that’s when his troubles begin. Once he’s inside the loft, Paul is confronted by the spectacle of Marcy’s friend, Kiki Bridges (Linda Fiorentino), stripped down to her bra and working on a project. She slaps wet newspaper onto a sculpture of a crouching man whose hands are raised in supplication and whose face is contorted in fear. Paul weakly observes that the piece reminds him of an Edvard Munch painting that he misnames The Shriek.
He’s clearly out of his depth, and Marcy is nowhere to be seen. When she finally does appear, she’s different somehow. Less friendly. Secretive. Paul makes a pass at her, and she rejects him. She mentions scars, a rape, burns. Freaked out, he flees the apartment, Kiki’s anguished sculpture watching him go. As the night unfolds, Paul loses Marcy, meets other people, loses them too—all while trying as hard as he can to get back home. He’s Ulysses in khaki pants.
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