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Criticwire Classic of the Week: Martin Scorsese’s ‘After Hours’

Criticwire Classic of the Week: Martin Scorsese's 'After Hours'

Every now and then on the Criticwire Network an older film gets singled
out for attention. 

This is the Criticwire Classic of the
“After Hours”
Dir: Martin Scorsese
Criticwire Average: A

In 1983, “The Last Temptation of Christ” fell apart when Paramount pulled the plug weeks before filming was about to start, and Martin Scorsese needed to make something, anything, to keep his career going. The script he picked, “Lies” by Joseph Minion, was mostly an excuse to shoot something quick and cheaply like he did back in his film school days. But “After Hours” turned out to be one of the director’s most stylistically adventurous films, and one of his funniest.

Griffin Dunne plays a New York yuppie who, after meeting Rosanna Arquette in a cafe, goes to her SoHo apartment late at night, only to find himself in for a night of misfortune. Dunne loses his money, inadvertently causes a suicide, becomes a suspect in a series of robberies (committed by Cheech and Chong!), and eventually turns most of the neighborhood against him. 

Scorsese and editor Thelma Schoonmaker cut down “After Hours” from over two hours to a lean 97 minutes, resulting in a film that’s all nervy energy and jittery rhythms. Schoonmaker’s editing and Michael Ballhaus’s camerawork actually serve as a punchline to some of best jokes, like Dunne insisting to a cab driver that there’s no need to rush, only for the camera’s frame rate to speed up to look like it’s racing like a bat out of hell, or a series of dissolves that show Dunne soliloquizing about his insane night to a bored listener. It’s not hard to see Scorsese, who’d just had a pair of back-to-back disasters (the critical and commercial failure of his brilliant “The King of Comedy,” the cancellation of “Last Temptation”), seeing something of his own plights in the world-against-one-man narrative, but “After Hours” is exhilarating, not self-pitying. It’s Scorsese’s chance to channel his own misfortunes into a film, then laugh them off. 

More thoughts from the Criticwire Network:

Edward Copeland, Edward Copeland’s Tangents

For the uninitiated, to spoil much more of the plot developments would ruin the twisted fun of a truly unpredictable comedy, a comedy that will tie your stomach in knots as you wonder whether or not Paul Hackett can survive this evening or not. At the same time, After Hours contains so many kooky characters played by such a talented ensemble and delivers so many classic moments and memorable lines, in its own way for those who have shared in its madness, it’s as quotable as “Airplane!” Read more.

More thoughts from the web:

Geoff Andrew, Time Out

Scorsese’s screwball comedy is perhaps his most frightening picture to date as Dunne slowly but inexorably sinks into a whirlpool of mad and murderous emotions; but a tight and witty script and perfectly tuned performances, perilously balanced between normality and insanity, keep the laughs flowing, while the direction is as polished and energetic as ever. Read more.

Jason Bailey, Flavorwire

In 1984, Scorsese was about to fulfill a decade-long dream to make “The Last Temptation of Christ” — only to have Paramount pull the plug at the 11th hour, terrified by the protests and threats of evangelicals. Devastated by the cancellation, he had to throw himself into a new project, immediately (“I’ve got to work. I’ve got to do something,” he remembered saying). And he wound up making this pitch-black, almost Kafka-esque comedy, in which a numbers cruncher (Griffin Dunne) is swallowed whole by Soho over one long, very weird night. It’s a funny and peculiar picture, yet also one of Scorsese’s most energetic; you can feel that spirit of working to stay sane in nearly every askew frame of this unsung masterpiece. Read more.

Vincent Canby, The New York Times

The best thing about ”After Hours,” however, is the photography by Michael Ballhaus. At what I assume was Mr. Scorsese’s direction, Mr. Ballhaus’s camera takes on an aggressive, willful personality of its own. Racing across images, like a dog straining at a leash, to scrutinize small details, or watching with rapt attention as a $20 bill floats to earth, the camera plays the role of a narrator whose manner is amused, skeptical and not at all inclined to allow itself to become sentimentally involved. Read more.

Jake Cole, Film.com

Infused with Michael Powell’s reds and camerawork to make Ophüls blush, the film plunges into a comic nightmare shade of New York in which S&M, modern art and light hellraising shake up the rota of Griffin Dunne’s desk jockey. The amount of time and effort put into the most innocuous, unnecessary moments (especially the carefully timed camera drop to follow a tossed key) confirm that Scorsese’s larks are more thoroughly mapped and considered than some magnum opuses. As ever, the ostensibly apolitical filmmaker produces a work that summarizes its time, a vision of a desperately maintained Reagan-era fantasy of capitalist overwork eroded by, then rebuilt around the carnal pleasures hidden by that system of labor value. Read more.

Mike D’Angelo, The A.V. Club

“After Hours” rarely gets included on lists of the great Scorsese films—it’s too slight, too goofy, too clearly the work of a director trying to burn off some nervous energy. (The film came together quickly after initial financing for “The Last Temptation Of Christ” fell apart.) But that restlessness perfectly complements the feeling of creeping, comic paranoia that Paul experiences over the course of this long night’s journey into day. It’s as if the camera itself is attacking him, forever lunging and whirling and feinting in a way that keeps everything off-balance. Read more.

Roger Ebert, RogerEbert.com

“After Hours” could be called a “hypertext” film, in which disparate elements of the plot are associated in an occult way. In “After Hours,” such elements as a suicide, a method of sculpture, a plaster of Paris bagel, a $20 bill and a string of burglaries all reveal connections that only exist because Paul’s adventures link them. This generates the film’s sinister undertone, as in a scene where he tries to explain all the things that have befallen him, and fails, perhaps because they sound too absurd even to him. Read more.

Dave Kehr, The Chicago Reader

Martin Scorsese transforms a debilitating convention of 80s comedy—absurd underreaction to increasingly bizarre and threatening situations—into a rich, wincingly funny metaphysical farce…Scorsese’s orchestration of thematic development, narrative structure, and visual style is stunning in its detail and fullness; this 1985 feature reestablished him as one of the very few contemporary masters of filmmaking. Read more.

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