Right now, you could make a pretty iron-clad case that Martin Scorsese is our greatest living director. There’s a handful of solid runners-up, to be sure. But I can’t think of another filmmaker (American or otherwise) who’s compiled as many masterpieces and near-masterpieces as he has during his six decades behind the camera. Even now, at age 77, there’s no shortage of major studios and steaming services who would kill to be in business with him. I mean, who else could have gotten Netflix to fork over $160 million to make a three-and-a-half hour gangster epic like The Irishman with no strings attached and no questions asked?
And yet there was a time back in the early 1980s when Scorsese was written off as box-office poison. Even after having made Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, and Raging Bull, no one wanted to touch him with a ten-foot pole. It was a dark time for the director. And even after he eventually bounced back with The Color of Money and Goodfellas, that feeling of rejection was never far from his psyche. In fact, I remember meeting the director at his brownstone on the Upper East Side of Manhattan back in the early 2000s when he told me a story about that period. It was a story I found hard to believe. But it was one hundred percent true. It went like this:
“I remember it was the last day of 1983,” he said. “The King of Comedy had come out earlier that year. And on New Year’s Eve, I was getting dressed to go to Jay Cocks’ house. I had the TV on in the background and for some reason it was tuned to Entertainment Tonight. And I heard them say as sort of a tease before they went to commercial, ‘Coming up: The Movie Flop of the Year!’ So I sort of stuck around to see what it was. What was the Movie Flop of the Year? And when they came back, they said it was The King of Comedy! I was the flop of the year! And on top of that, I had been planning to make The Last Temptation of Christ, which had just been canceled on me. So it was a double whammy. I had nothing lined up next. And I knew I was going to have to start all over.”
Scorsese was just 41 at the time this all happened. And that “double whammy” as he called it made him start to believe that maybe he was all washed up. Or, if not washed up, then certainly in some nightmarish maximum-security wing of Director’s Jail. With no new offers from the big studios forthcoming, Scorsese quickly realized that it was time to get back to his low-budget indie roots and get a movie going fast. Something small and personal that no one could lose a lot of money on. Something that would make being a director fun again. The movie that would emerge from that dark, winter-of-the-soul period would turn out to be 1985’s After Hours—a deliriously tense and twisted comedy that remains one of his most under-appreciated films to this day.
Released on this day in 1985, After Hours is the story of an uptight New York City office drone named Paul Hackett (Griffin Dunne, never better) who returns to his depressingly non-descript apartment after work one night, finds nothing worth watching on TV, and heads out to a diner with a copy of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer for company. There, he meets a mysterious and alluring woman named Marcy (Rosanna Arquette) sitting nearby and strikes up a conversation with her. She tells him about her friend, an artist who sculpts Plaster of Paris bagel-and-cream cheese paper weights. They exchange numbers. He leaves. And then, figuring why the hell not, he calls her for a date. It’s late, but she invites him downtown to the SoHo loft where she’s staying. On the cab ride there, his only money (a $20 bill) flies out of the window. Oh well, he thinks, he still might get lucky anyway. But Paul doesn’t get lucky. In fact, he gets very unlucky.
Over the next 98 hyper-caffeinated minutes, Scorsese takes us on a harrowing series of existential trials in the wee-hour nocturnal desolation below Canal Street. After his date with Marcy turns weird, he splits. And with no money to get back uptown, he loiters around a bizarre, avant-garde Manhattan ghost town populated by a put-upon bartender (John Heard) who gets some bad news about his girlfriend, a clingy waitress with a beehive hairdo and a fondness for The Monkees (Teri Garr), an S&M dominatrix with “not a lot of scars” (Linda Fiorentino) and her leather-daddy boyfriend Horst (Will Patton), a manic Mister Softee ice cream truck driver (Catherine O’Hara), and a couple of dazed and confused burglars (Cheech and Chong). At every turn, just when it looks like Paul will be able to get home thanks to the kindness of strangers, some new cruel twist of fate’s knife lands him worse off than he was just a minute earlier. At one point, looking like a Yuppie version of Job, he looks to the heavens and screams, “What do you want from me?! What have I done?!” You don’t know whether to laugh or cry for the poor schmuck.
Unlike most of the movies that he’d made up until that point, After Hours didn’t begin with Scorsese. Joseph Minion, a 26-year-old aspiring filmmaker had written the script for a film class while studying at Columbia. He’d called it Lies and then A Night in Soho. The script would end up in the hands of An American Werewolf in London’s Dunne, who wanted to star in it. And after attracting the interest of Tim Burton, who had just finished his short film Frankenweenie, Dunne thought he was about to make the film. But after Paramount pulled the plug on Scorsese’s passion project, The Last Temptation of Christ, he knew that this was exactly the kind of giddy, guerilla-style cheapie he needed to do to keep his career momentum going and distract him from his heartache. The story was also set just blocks away from where he’d grown up in Little Italy. He knew this artsy, open-all-night demimonde of freaks and hipsters by osmosis. Burton graciously stepped aside. Although he’d end up doing okay for himself, quickly landing his feature-directing debut, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure.
Scorsese kept Dunne on as his onscreen Everyman, Paul, and he rounded out the cast with great comic actors who weren’t required to be movie stars since After Hours’ relatively small $4.5 million budget would seem like a rounding error to the movie’s financier, The Geffen Company, and distributor, Warner Bros. He had total artistic freedom…which is exactly what he was after. “After Hours was like an independent film,” Scorsese told me. “It was shorter and cheaper. I just wanted to see if I still had the energy to shoot quickly. There’s a certain passion that you have to have to make Mean Streets or Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. I had to find that again.”
Thirty-five years later, After Hours remains all energy and passion. And if you weren’t around to experience New York City before SoHo was turned into a glorified mall of chic high-end chain stores, overpriced art galleries, and $10,000-a-month studio apartments, it’s also a love letter to a gloriously gritty bygone era. With After Hours, Scorsese was working at the height of his powers—a man driven by a newfound sense of urgency, playfulness, and freedom. It’s the only movie I can think of that manages to include on its soundtrack both Bach and Bad Brains (and Peggy Lee, to boot!). And Scorsese, the merry prankster finally unburdened of the weight of world, seems to be having a blast in every frame. Especially when he makes a split-second Hitchcockian cameo in an after-hours punk venue called Club Berlin on “Mohawk Night.”
Watching After Hours today is like watching a master filmmaker rediscover what made him want to be a filmmaker in the first place. It has that over-stylized anything-goes spirit. It’s a hysterically frenzied and fizzy Kafka-esque cocktail of horrible bad luck, insane misunderstandings, screwball chaos, sweaty paranoia, and Plaster of Paris bagel-and-cream cheese paper weights. It’s also absolute perfection (even if Paul’s odyssey would be over in five minutes if the film was set just a decade later in the brave new world of ATMs, Metrocards, and cell phones).
But never mind all of that, just do yourself a favor and watch it. Because aside from being one of the strangest and most unsung entries on the resume of our era’s greatest living director, if you squint just a little while you’re watching it, you’ll also see an artist finding his own personal salvation via celluloid. And that’s exhilaratingly rare. After all, while it’s clear that absolutely nothing has changed for Paul Hackett by the final scene of the After Hours, for Martin Scorsese, everything had. He remembered his calling.