Martin Scorsese’s terrific After Hours suggests – somewhat surprisingly – a version of Desperately Seeking Susan (1985) made by Blake Edwards.
It has the premise of Susan – a mistaken identity/crossed wires/Mr Normal-goes-to-Soho-underworld plot – and a similar texture of accelerating coincidences, tie-ups and crossovers. But it is flatter, emptier and starker than that film; no sparkle, no love of a city, strangely depopulated grey-blue streets.
This is because (à la Edwards), After Hours is a castration comedy (its imagery is quite literal on this point: check out the toilet graffiti), a flipped-out portrait of the paranoiac male’s fear of women.
And, as befits the hyper-logical, hallucinatory structure of paranoia, the movie is one, long, escalating nightmare, with the brake applied only at the very end.
It’s fascinating to see Scorsese work over, lightly and comically, with a refreshing air of self-distance and self-critique, those aspects of the masculine crisis he so ambivalently both glorified and demolished in Raging Bull (1980) and The King of Comedy (1983). But the hero here, Paul (Griffin Dunne), is a total cipher, and his problems are pretty clearly ones that start in his own, projective imagination.
As emblems of, and incitations to, this paranoid imagination, Marcy (Rosanna Arquette), Julie (Teri Garr), Kiki (Linda Fiorentino), Gail (Catherine O’Hara) and June (Verna Bloom) are all remarkable figures – edgy, strange, neurotically loopy, and thus able to loop themselves (and the entire film) in a split second from seductive to terrifying.
From the traces of a burn fetish to the mousetraps around a bed – and not forgetting that toilet graffito of a shark biting a man’s cock – After Hours traces a male pathology that is hysterical, in all senses of the word.
Scorsese thickens the soup with several other Blake Edwards-type ingredients – particularly the fabulous play on the basic unbelievability of the entire plot; and the extensive use of gags and plot threads hinging on the duplicity of appearances (eg., all the stuff around Cheech Marin & Tommy Chong, wacky signs of their time).
It’s also a fine catastrophe narrative, providing a veritable compendium of props and objects that can begin and sustain a character’s Descent into Hell: telephones, keys, doors, money taken by the wind … (The script by Joseph Minion, then in his mid 20s, was later contested in a plagiarism case brought by comedian Joe Frank in relation to his NPR Playhouse monologue, “Lies”. Minion has had a spotty career as writer and/or director in the general murk of “cult cinema” since After Hours).
In and through all the unnerving frissons of the fiction, there are chains of motifs that tie up along the same, catastrophic trajectory – like the movement from one woman falling asleep, to another dying in her sleep, to a man getting walled alive in plaster.
Cinematically, Scorsese leaves no trick unturned (single-frame montage, wildly careening tracking shots, nutty ellipses and transitions). Although such energetic exhibitionism (integrated with Howard Shore’s tick-ticking score) can seem somewhat arbitrary and even irritating at moments, ultimately it manages to fit in well with the whole mental set of scattiness, distraction and hallucination at the heart of the anti-hero’s dilemma (he’s a schmuck but, still, you gotta feel sorry for the guy when he collapses in the night street and cries “Why me?” to his Lord … ).
Despite a perfunctory, too-symmetrical cap-off, After Hours is a welcome addition – funky and experimental rather than chiselled or rigorous – to the canon of a splendid director.
Postscript: I returned to After Hours in detail – and appreciated it even more – when Cristina Álvarez López and I made an audiovisual essay about it in 2014, with a brief accompanying text that is also reprinted in my 2018/2020 book Mysteries of Cinema.
© Adrian Martin May 1986