Though it’s safe to say that Martin Scorsese’s stellar career has been defined by considerably more ups than it has downs, there was a precarious period when it almost came to an end–and the movie that turned things around is an unexpected one. Enter 1985’s After Hours, a zany, anxiety-ridden, Kafkaesque dark comedy-thriller penned by Joseph Minion, the writer of the unhinged Nicolas Cage bloodsucker classic Vampire’s Kiss. The film concerns lowly word processor Paul Hackett (Griffin Dunne) who ventures downtown to Manhattan’s quirky SoHo district for a late-night fling with Rosanna Arquette’s winsome café dweller, Marcy, only for the universe to seemingly turn on him as his evening becomes a surreal nightmare of cosmic-scale bad luck. At first glance After Hours is a non-essential Scorsese film, but in some ways, it may well be the most important film he ever made.
The success of 1976’s Taxi Driver afforded Scorsese the freedom to pick his next project. Unexpectedly, he chose the underappreciated 163-minute musical drama New York, New York, which flopped both financially and critically. Afterward, Scorsese would direct back-to-back masterpieces in Raging Bull and The King of Comedy; the former garnered immense acclaim but lost money, and the latter completely dumbfounded critics and was soundly rejected by audiences. Adding to the director’s streak of frustrations, the cancellation of his passion project The Last Temptation of Christ left Scorsese contemplating quitting feature filmmaking altogether. After this Sisyphean chapter, it’s easier to understand why Scorsese was attracted to the comical desperation of After Hours.
Scorsese directed After Hours as if his career depended on it. After the aforementioned series of box office bombs, this project allowed him to rekindle the penchant for experimental filmmaking that launched his career, as it only required a small budget and a minimal crew. Scorsese ditched the freeze frames but deployed extensive whip-pans, breakneck cinematography, and disorientating sped-up footage to translate the frantic, ultra-caffeinated lunacy of Minion’s script to the screen. Meanwhile, Scorsese’s long-time editor Thelma Schoonmaker matched the relentless pace with lively quick-fire editing. These techniques, which would soon be recognized as unmistakably Scorsese, would serve the filmmaker incredibly well during the next phase of his career, informing such films as Goodfellas, Cape Fear, and Casino–and it all started with After Hours. Fortunately, the film was a minor success; more crucially, it instigated the much-needed rejuvenation of his career.
Were After Hours not the mini-masterpiece it is, it might not be so important. It’s not particularly rare for filmmakers to revive their careers by returning to their roots—see Francis Ford Coppola with The Outsiders, Brian De Palma with Raising Cain, or David Lynch with Blue Velvet. What makes Scorsese’s After Hours different is just how much of the film the director took with him going forward. It’s a superbly crafted film that more resembles the work of an eager filmmaker at the beginning of their career than it does one who was over two decades deep. In fact, the only reason After Hours is still considered a minor work is that audiences are often inclined to compare it unfairly to the director’s more prestigious films, with admittedly iconic staples like Taxi Driver and Goodfellas largely dominating the conversation.
As such, this weird, unsung dark comedy gem is far more important than its modest reputation suggests. It enabled Scorsese to work himself out of a creative, financial, and spiritual rut and allowed him to emerge renewed for the second (and arguably most successful) phase of his career. After Hours was a key movie for Martin Scorsese as it enabled him to finally make his beloved The Last Temptation of Christ in 1988, and, by extension, go on to cement his status as one of America’s greatest filmmakers. Whether it be the seduction of Goodfellas, the moral knots of The Departed, or the hedonistic delirium of The Wolf of Wall Street that is being celebrated yet again, remember After Hours–without it, those films might not exist.
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