Is there any name in cinema today with more heft and credibility than Martin Scorsese? The ultimate master of filmmaking, he is not only the greatest living filmmaker, but one of the greatest and most influential directors of all time. These days, Scorsese can do almost anything and be hailed as a saint. However, the 1980s were a tumultuous period for the man, as he had just come out of a decade of public recognition, and in the 80s, he had arguably his most brilliantly diverse career – book-ended by his two greatest films – Raging Bull and Goodfellas, what happened in between included masterpieces, misfires and experimentation. Somewhere in the cracks lies After Hours, a film so bizarre and idiosyncratic, and one that paints a completely different portrait of a great director like Scorsese.
I always wonder why Scorsese stays mostly away from comedy. Out of his two dozen films, only three have been comedies, and his third was only released a few years ago. Comedy has never really lurked far from Scorsese – even his most serious films have moments of light-hearted brevity or very darkly comical situations. However, only three of his films have ever been straight-out comedies, and After Hours is by far his most brilliant and resounding success at making something genuinely funny. After Hours takes the form of a misadventure film, where our lead character encounters all kinds of obstacles on his or her way to a certain destination. It is a subgenre we see all the time, and one that is great to watch, but very tricky to get right. Of course, we’re talking about Marty here, so of course he manages to get it absolutely right.
Our lead character is Paul Hackett, a normal guy who just wants to exist at peace with the rest of the world. Of course, this is impossible because as we know, the universe loves to eat up the nice guys and spit them out soon after. Griffin Dunne plays Paul, and Griffin, being probably the most likable actor of the 80s, just makes us more frustrated, because his everyman realism just further contributes to our feelings of deep connection with his misfortune. Paul Hackett is not an extraordinary man – he is the most basic and simple example of a normal human being as there can be. Scorsese used Dunne’s awkward charm and dark side to perfect effect, and we are given a protagonist that is both parts likable but also very tragic.
The best part of misadventure films are the casts – because the events of the film are never stagnant, and the protagonist is constantly on the move, there is not much time to linger on a certain location or detour in the story, which means that all characters are fleeting, and are very rarely the focus of the film for too long. This allows a variety of new characters to come and go, and often those roles are filled out with some interesting performers. In After Hours, the supporting cast consists of some great performers, such as Rosanna Arquette as the mysterious femme fatale, comedy legend Catherine O’Hara as a kooky ice-cream truck driver, Teri Garr as an absent-minded waitress and Cheech and Chong as a pair of crooks. They all play very small roles in the film, but they contribute so much to it, and the revolving cast of supporting characters is a device very few filmmakers get right, but Scorsese obviously does perfectly well with it.
There are many, many words to describe After Hours. Kooky and brilliant are the most succinct. The screenplay is snappy and smart, the music is haunting and energetic, and the performances are excellent. It feels like Scorsese was trying to pay tribute to Alfred Hitchcock (but not in an overtly obvious way like Brian DePalma), and with small flourishes – such as camera angles, editing and Howard Shore’s score – Scorsese achieves a film worthy of Hitchcock. After Hours is the perfect marriage between a film noir and a screwball comedy, and it is equal parts dark as it is hilarious, and that’s quite an achievement.
It seems hard for someone to choose a favorite Scorsese film, and if one had to choose, they would probably play it safe and go with one of his more grandiose films, such as Taxi Driver, Raging Bull or Goodfellas. However, I won’t play it safe, and instead say that After Hours beats out all of those films to be my favorite film Marty has made – and that is purely because of how audacious, brilliant and inventive the film is. Definitely Scorsese’s most underrated and under-appreciated film. If you haven’t seen it, go see it. It’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen before…