Martin Scorsese's New York Fever Dream
Christmas 1983 was not a merry one for Martin Scorsese. On December 23rd, still smarting from the commercial failure of The King of Comedy earlier that year, the director was hauled into the chairman’s office at Paramount Pictures and told the studio would no longer be making The Last Temptation of Christ, his long-gestating Biblical epic.
Scorsese, then 41, had had a hunch this literal passion project was in trouble, after word of its earthier content had prompted an evangelical pressure group to embark on a letter-writing campaign, issuing dire threats of boycotts and protests. So in the hope of keeping his initial backers on side, he had just spent a month frantically scaling back the shoot – even as over in Israel, the sets were already being built. He cut his proposed $14m budget by almost 50 percent. He waived his own remaining fee. He convinced the cast to fly economy. He even offered to direct a sequel to Flashdance, which had been a huge surprise hit for Paramount that year, as soon as he got back from the Middle East.
But it was all in vain. The plug was pulled. That frenzied, Herculean effort had got him nowhere. So, licking his wounds, he scurried back to the familiar terrain of New York City, and made a film about…well, that very kind of experience.
The result – After Hours – rarely figures in lists of the most highly prized Scorsese pictures. In the sweep of the master’s career it’s a wriggly outlier: neither of a piece with the explosive early period that yielded Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and The King of Comedy, nor his monumental 1990s, which took in Goodfellas, Casino and The Age of Innocence. But in 2023, it might be the most fun you can have discovering a Martin Scorsese film. Between the giant, canonised classics, it’s a loose, unexpected, uproarious ride – the sort of movie that has you thinking during its entire opening half: what on Earth even is this?
Its hero of sorts, Griffin Dunne’s Paul Hackett, certainly couldn’t tell you. This trendy, self-possessed yet sexually thwarted young Manhattanite is a word processor – these were the days when that was a job, not an app – who gets talking to a beautiful woman, Rosanna Arquette’s Marcy Franklin, in a diner one night after work. Later, bored in his apartment, he calls her up and arranges to come over, in the hope a romantic tryst might follow. Instead, shortly after his arrival at her place, utter havoc ensues. For Paul, even the simple business of getting home becomes an absurd odyssey through the city’s various witching-hour nooks – until at 4am he finds himself being chased through the streets by an angry mob led by an ice cream truck, while his stylish day-to-night ecru suit is soaked in rainwater, papier-mâché and blood.
The critic Leighton Grist grouped After Hours with Something Wild, Blue Velvet and Fatal Attraction – more Reagan-era cautionary tales in which comfortable urban types came face to face with the manic and menacing forces that still lurked beneath the city’s new glossy facade. Grist called this run of films the ‘yuppie nightmare cycle’: heady cocktails of classic noir and screwball devices, mixed expressly to sting their own victims’ palates. Last year, however, the comedy writer Stephanie Bencin opened up the genre’s limits a bit, adding in both older and newer contenders such as What’s Up, Doc?, Eyes Wide Shut and Punch-Drunk Love, and rechristening it: ‘Horny Nerd in a Suit Has the Worst Night of his Life’.
Even the origin of After Hours’ screenplay was suitably murky and madcap. Initially titled One Night in SoHo, it had been written by one Joseph Minion as part of his Columbia University coursework. But its first act was also, ahem, liberally inspired by a ten-minute radio monologue by the writer and broadcaster Joe Frank that had been broadcast in 1982. Frank never received official recognition of his contribution – the similarities only came to light after a friend urged him to see the movie on its 1985 release – though it’s believed he was handsomely compensated for not making too much fuss.
For Scorsese himself, both the making and viewing of After Hours felt like “recuperation”. “It’s the only movie of mine that I can watch over and over again,” he told an interviewer in 1987. “Someone called it a ‘farce of the subconscious.’ That’s what it is… I thought it was a whole metaphor for the way we are living and for what I went through in LA trying to get The Last Temptation made.”
In the intervening 38 years, its relevance has only ripened. In half of the films of the Coen brothers and almost all of the Safdie brothers’, in the trials of Carmy Berzatto in The Bear, in virtually every frame of Curb Your Enthusiasm, a strand or two of After Hours’ DNA is jangling away. As for Last Temptation, a few years later, Scorsese found his brush with the divine a new home at Universal. But given a free evening – and a triple espresso to set the mood – I’d rather relive the scramble through purgatory it took him to get there.