The mantle of "America's greatest living director" has been hung upon Martin Scorsese for so long that it's become easy to overlook his somewhat uneven output over the last 15 years. Don't get me wrong, like most cinephiles I still bow at the altar of Scorsese and credit his best movies for cementing my interest in finding the "personal voice" in filmmaking. Still, while I would argue he has only made one truly bad film in his career (the garish, sadistic 1991 remake of "Cape Fear"), the years since 1990's "GoodFellas" (his last nearly universally acknowledged masterwork) have had their ups and downs.
"The Age of Innocence" (1993) flirted with greatness and last year's "The Aviator" marked his most impressive film since then, but those years have also given us the "GoodFellas" re-run of "Casino" (1995), the sumptuous visuals but dry narrative of "Kundun" (1997), and "Gangs of New York" (2002), so engrossing in some regards and so disappointing in others (particularly its closing scenes). I'll stand up for the overlooked "Bringing Out the Dead" (1999), but I can also see the arguments that it's a little too video-generation slick and Nicolas Cage's lead performance is distractingly showy.
But is this nitpicking over a very admirable career that continues to produce many fine films? You bet. That "greatest living director" tag comes with unrealistic expectations. Excluding "Cape Fear," all the films Scorsese has made are worth seeing – something you can't say for most directors – and a couple are worth seeing several times. This hardly suggests a major career slump.
The notion of a letdown in Scorsese's work comes from looking at his very best films ("Mean Streets," "Taxi Driver," "Raging Bull," "The King of Comedy" and "GoodFellas") and waiting for that next undisputed home run. But even in his so-called glory years, he made films that were problematic ("New York, New York") or more decidedly and safely mainstream ("Alice Doesn't Live Here Any More," "The Color of Money") than his loyal following might expect. And with the exception of "The Last Waltz," his ongoing documentary work (from early short films to this year's PBS profile on Bob Dylan, "No Direction Home") is rarely included in career surveys, probably because the varying structure and presentation of those films don't fit comfortably with critical "definitions" of the director.
The "home run" mentality also results in serious undervaluing of some films. Bogged down in needless controversy when first released, "The Last Temptation of Christ" (1988) improves for me with each viewing, to the point where I'm almost ready to rank it alongside Scorsese's very best. "The Age of Innocence" is also knocking on that door.
But of all Scorsese's feature films, the most underrated is surely 1985's "After Hours." It's strange that it remains overlooked because the film in so many ways epitomizes the signature Scorsese style: high energy, dramatic and inventive camera movements, and stunning visual composition. By contrast, the much more critically lauded "The King of Comedy" is deliberately stylistically conservative. Watching "After Hours" it almost feels like Scorsese needed to let his wild side run amok after holding it back for the earlier film.
Wild is as good an adjective as any for "After Hours," which follows data processor Paul Hackett (Griffin Dunne) through a surreal nightmare of an evening that begins when he meets an attractive young woman (Rosanna Arquette) in a coffee shop. Her unexpected call to him for a late night rendezvous seems like the perfect thing to break Paul out of his dull, routine existence, but it sends him into an increasingly bizarre, complicated and dangerous series of events.
To give too many plot points away would spoil the ongoing series of astonishments we experience vicariously through Paul. But his evening of insanity includes encounters with death, sexual aggressors, paranoid neighbors, artists gone awry, public transportation woes, and a run for his life. Our hero is guilty of one act of cruelty that might give some spiritual reason for the hell he endures, but mainly he seems to be caught up in chaos well beyond reason or his control.
Dunne, also a producer of this film, is one of those familiar faces from many a supporting role. While he has continued to act and produce and has branched out successfully as a director, "After Hours" shows him as a great leading man and it's a bit of a shame he didn't go on to star in more films of this caliber. Relatable and utterly believable as panic and bewilderment sets in, he is perfect as the face of normalcy lost in a labyrinth of lunacy.
The strange, sometimes sinister characters engulfing Paul are brought to life by a top-notch supporting cast. Arquette manages to be alluring, sympathetic and perplexing as the coffee house girl who launches Paul into the madness. Linda Fiorentino is intimidating sexuality incarnate as her bohemian roommate. Teri Garr puts sad-eyed ditziness to work in her role as a lonely, beehived waitress. John Heard (one of my favorite character actors) comes across first as a refuge of comfort as an everyman bartender, until circumstances make him one of the bigger threats to Paul's safety. Catherine O'Hara, Verna Bloom and comics Cheech and Chong (blending their personas into the film surprisingly seamlessly) also make memorable contributions.
The cast is great and Joe Minion's screenplay is a true original, but the real star here is the unflagging energy and visual playfulness provided by Scorsese, cinematographer Michael Ballhaus and editor Thelma Schoonmaker. The juiced-up style they inject the film with makes "After Hours" a dazzling black comedy instead of the exercise in anguish it could have become with more conventional filmmaking. After all, much of what happens to Paul really isn't very funny. The absurdity comes from how we see the events play out – the vantage point given to the audience by those behind the camera.
"After Hours" is available on a Warner Brothers DVD with good picture and sound quality, a short documentary on the making of the film, some deleted scenes, a theatrical trailer, and an audio commentary track with contributions from Dunne, Scorsese, Ballhaus, Schoonmaker and co-producer Amy Robinson. The film is also available as part of Warner's Martin Scorsese Collection boxed set, which also includes "GoodFellas," "Mean Streets," "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore" and his first feature, "Who's That Knocking at My Door?"
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© 2005 Joel Wicklund