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Five years after releasing his 1980 masterpiece Raging Bull, Martin Scorsese found himself at a low point in his career. A dark 1983 drama/comedy called The King of Comedy had bombed, and the director had just seen an intensely personal project, The Last Temptation of Christ, fall apart in preproduction. It would be a little film called After Hours that would put Scorsese back on the map, both professionally and personally. After Hours would also pave the way for another commercial hit, The Color of Money, which would sufficiently fatten his wallet and spark his creative energies to finally bring us his brilliant take on the final moments of the life of Jesus and rocket him toward further artistic success.
After Hours is my favorite Scorsese film, the one I go back to more often than any other, the one that, each time I watch it, reaches its long ticklish fingers into that dark, pulsing pleasure center way back there in the moist hidey-hole at the back of my brain. It's not an outright comedy, in the strictest sense of the term. It's filled with the stuff of nightmares—crime, anger, suspicion, suicide, a vigilante mob, and reluctant mohawks. But its deadpan black humor, combined with a masterful straight-man performance by Griffin Dunne, just happen to speak to me as eloquently and mischievously as anything I've ever seen on film. The brilliance of this quirky little black-as-pitch comedy is that its humor isn't to be found in broad strokes or set pieces but rather in tiny moments and gestures, in awkward exchanges and appalled glances, all of which add up to a thing of twisted, surreal beauty.
Paul Hackett (Dunne) is a hopeless Manhattan yuppie word processor who's living a life of quiet desperation. He hates his boring job and his boring existence. At an all-night diner, absently reading Henry Miller, he shares a brief, entertaining moment with the beautiful Marcy (Rosanna Arquette), and she gives him her phone number. He calls her later that night, and when she invites him down to her SoHo loft, Paul is in for the strangest evening of his life. Things start off promisingly when he dabbles pruriently with Marcy's artist roommate Kiki (Linda Fiorentino), who's creating a deranged sculpture that foreshadows Paul's ultimately horrific plight. But, in a subtle escalation toward madness, things start getting stranger. His encounter with Julie (Teri Garr), a waitress with an attitude and a hairstyle stuck in the '60s, is the first of a few darkly comic episodes that will comprise After Hours. He also meets Tom (John Heard), a kind-hearted bartender with a suspicious streak, and Gail (Catherine O'Hara), a mean-spirited shrew with a mob-justice mentality. He repeatedly runs into Neil and Pepe (Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong), local thieves with an eye for art, and as the night approaches its dawn, he has further encounters with the meek Mark (Robert Plunket) and the easy June (Verna Bloom). Each crazy interlude feeds into Paul's increasingly nightmarish predicament.
Consider the plot of After Hours as a twisted, modern-day retelling of The Wizard of Oz. A direct reference to the classic film occurs early on when Marcy speaks animatedly about her ex-husband ("Surrender Dorothy!")—but that's only the starting point of this film's homage. Notice the fluttering, twisting $20 bill that flies out the cab window during Paul's crazy ride through the streets of New York. The film's descent into dark fantasy begins when that bill lands facedown on the street—showing us the "house" side of the currency, echoing Dorothy's tornado-spun crash into Oz. In the magical underworld of SoHo, Paul finds himself caught up in a series of episodic adventures that mirror the structure of the 1939 film. If you want to get into the nitty-gritty of the parallels, consider that Terri Garr's flighty beehive waitress Julie mirrors the "brainless" Scarecrow, Catherine O'Hara's casually vicious Gail has a lot in common with the "heartless" Tin Man, and Robert Plunket's meek, bearded, still-in-the-closet Mark—who admits up front that "there are just some things I will not do"—shares some characteristics with the "cowardly" Lion. Perhaps the Wizard is Scorsese himself, glimpsed on an elevated platform in Club Berlin, manically wielding a searchlight. And, you know, all Paul wants to do, desperately, is go home.
Cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, in his first of many films with Scorsese, gives the film a loopy intimacy, reminiscent of the eccentric camera work of Barry Sonnenfeld. Shot exclusively at night, the physical darkness of After Hours matches its dark heart. The performances are uniformly excellent, and you won't be surprised when you learn from the supplements that all involved were totally in tune with the mood Scorsese was going for. The standout is Griffin Dunne, in a performance so perfectly pitched that you want to study every movement of his eyes, every inflection of his voice.
There's a dark paranoia fronting After Hours' black humor, and it's the kind of delicious weirdness that not many people truly appreciate. I remember my first viewing of the film, in theaters, in the company of a like-minded friend. It was in a mostly empty auditorium, and even then, I remember marvelling when a couple of people actually walked out halfway through the film. To my young mind, this minor event was a revelation that spoke to my developing sense of humor: After Hours was connecting solidly with my increasingly out-of-bounds mind, and my friend and I couldn't contain our copious, belly-aching laughter as we watched poor Paul's yuppie predicament. After Hours isn't a film that will appeal to everyone, but if it hits you just right, you'll love it forever.
HOW'S IT LOOK?
Warner presents After Hours in a sensational anamorphic-widescreen transfer of the film's original 1.85:1 theatrical presentation. I'm so pleased with this image, I'm practically giggling. (God, what a nerd.) I'm blown away by this presentation! Warner has really outdone themselves here to give us a transfer that boasts incredibly strong detail, vivid and natural colors, and, overall, a brilliant filmlike look. Fleshtones are strong and accurate, if a tad pink. Keep in mind that my frame of reference is a dismal, worn-out, full-frame VHS edition that I've played perhaps 5000 times, but even mustering all the objectivity in my power, I can find little wrong with this image. I noticed no edge enhancement, and no obvious digital filtering. I saw only minor debris in the print itself, nothing major for a nearly 20-year-old film. (Oh, man, I'm old.) Perhaps the only complaint I have is that shadow detail can be murky, but I have the feeling that's true in the source, which was shot with available light in nighttime New York City. But you'll take one look at this image's detail and depth, and you'll be in love all over again.
HOW'S IT SOUND?
The news isn't so terrific in the sound department. The disc contains only the original mono presentation, and the elements have lost some fidelity, resulting in a thin, brittle, center-lodged soundfield with no low end. Dialog suffers from lack of timbre, and high-end screams and yells tend to break up in distortion. The score is high and thin, which isn't entirely unacceptable because the Bach and Mozart pieces and sparse, quirky arrangements by Howard Shore don't have much low end to begin with.
Don't get me wrong: Given the choice between the original, accurate mono presentation and some gimmicky 5.1 track, I'll go with the mono. It's just disappointing to hear such lackluster audio presence married to such pristine visuals.
WHAT ELSE IS THERE?
Eagerly, I approached every aspect of these supplements as if it was found treasure. After having devoured them, I come away feeling satisfied and thankful that Warner expended the effort to include them, but I can't help but feel mild disappointment that other major players in After Hours weren't available to participate.
The Commentary by Martin Scorsese, Griffin Dunne, Producer Amy Robinson, Editor Thelma Schoonmaker, and Cinematographer Michael Ballhaus is an edited-together track that, unfortunately, covers only selected scenes. That's the bad news. The good news is that its running time is about 1 hour and 17 minutes, meaning that it leaves out only about 20 minutes. The conversation is dominated by contributions from Scorsese and Ballhaus, and therefore it tends toward the technical. Scorsese talks at length about the origins of After Hours (mostly in a failed first attempt at The Last Temptation of Christ), and speaks about how some of the more creative shots were achieved. The best anecdotes come from Griffin Dunne, making you wish that more cast members had been involved in the conversation. I enjoyed Scorsese's comments about the film's original 2-hour-and-40-minute rough cut that was "deadly dull" and "unfunny." I also listened with interest to the comments about how the original script had no ending, and that it was thought up during filming.
The 19-minute Filming for Your Life: Making After Hours involves the same contributors as the commentary but goes into a little more depth about the film's origins and production (although there's a fair amount of redundancy). The most interesting tidbit to be found here is that Tim Burton was originally approached to direct. What a different film that might have been! There are more good Dunne anecdotes here, as well as a wild alternate ending presented in brief storyboards. It would have been a weird, surreal ending, but I think I might have liked it better than the theatrical ending.
The 8 minutes of Deleted Scenes comprise eight separate scene snippets, and all of them are fascinating in their own way. Although, I would like to have seen the hour of scenes that Scorsese cut from that long cut he mentions in the commentary! We get a heartless Gail meltdown, an exchange involving Horst and Kiki, more of Marcy's fate, a conversation between Tom and Paul on the street (a snippet I swear I've seen before, perhaps in a TV cut), two scenes with Paul in Tom's apartment, more Dick Miller, and a funny scene involving June at the end.
Finally, you get the film's Theatrical Trailer, presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen.
WHAT'S LEFT TO SAY?
Go out and buy this edgy, sly comedy as soon as humanly possible. The DVD of After Hours offers spectacular image quality (for its time), below-average sound, and a pretty good collection of extras. This is one DVD that will be often watched in my home theater.