Some found “The King of Comedy,” Martin Scorsese’s vehicle for Jerry Lewis, baffling when it opened in 1983. The same was true of Mr. Scorsese’s 1985 follow-up, “After Hours.” It’s “not an easy comedy to get the hang of,” Vincent Canby wrote in The New York Times, “until you realize that it’s as much about emotional disorientation as it is disorienting in itself.”
Mr. Scorsese’s disconcerting screwball noir should have opened at midnight — not just because of its subject but also its outré humor — and will have two such screenings this weekend at the IFC Center in a 35-millimeter print. (It can also be streamed by stay-at-homes on Amazon Video.)
“After Hours” appeared amid a cycle of films known as comedies of yuppie angst, among them Albert Brooks’s “Lost in America,” Susan Seidelman’s “Desperately Seeking Susan,” and Jonathan Demme’s “Something Wild.” All concern staidly settled characters who suffer identity crises and worse upon leaving their socio-economic comfort zones.
Mr. Scorsese’s contribution is notable for exuding a sinister quality akin to the Weimar antecedents of film noir. In “After Hours,” a proper bourgeois, tempted by a femme fatale, finds himself caught in an urban vortex. The script, by a Columbia student, Joseph Minion, apparently borrowed elements of a 1982 monologue about a hookup gone awry by the radio storyteller Joe Frank, but the pervasive atmosphere of sexual guilt is characteristic of Mr. Scorsese’s work.
The protagonist Paul (Griffin Dunne) is an uptight data-inputter who, reading Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer” in a Manhattan coffee shop, strikes up a conversation with Marcy (Rosanna Arquette). Inviting him to pay a late-night visit to her SoHo loft, Marcy is the first of the strange, increasingly menacing women with whom Paul will become entangled. The others are Marcy’s roommate (Linda Fiorentino), a sculptor; a waitress and Monkees fan (Teri Garr); the driver of a Mister Softee truck (Catherine O’Hara); and another artist (Verna Bloom). Some seem to be channeling Sandra Bernhard, who had made her alarming film debut as Jerry Lewis’s most delusional devotee in “The King of Comedy.”
Women are not the sole source of Paul’s travails. He loses his money, precipitates a flood, discovers a suicide, is chased by a mob and gets trapped inside a sculpture as well as a dive called Club Berlin on a punk coiffure “mohawk night.” References to the works of Franz Kafka are both subtle and overt, although it would seem Henry Miller is the cause of Paul’s nightmare.
In addition to its cast, “After Hours” is distinguished by its locations. Most of the movie is shot on the streets of SoHo, a neighborhood made to seem a dangerous, deserted labyrinth. As a resident who had lived there long enough to see the factories leave and the yuppies arrive, I found “After Hours” seriously anachronistic back in 1985, complaining in The Village Voice that it really should have been set in Williamsburg or Dumbo.
Revisiting “After Hours,” three decades later, I was impressed by how fondly Mr. Scorsese and the cinematographer Michael Ballhaus captured SoHo’s nocturnal desolation. Along with the movie’s Checker cabs, rotary phones, outsized answering machines and clunky desktop computers, these mean streets have a Pompeian quality, relics of the past.
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