Making sense of and in Martin Scorsese’s “After Hours” (Pt. 1)

by dropstring

Scorsese’s 1985 black comedy – and that’s where the problems start. Even the genre is impossible to grasp. After Hours seems to be a film that’s exceptionally hard to talk about. Most viewers, and critics alike, try to define it as comedy, yet add the predicate “tense” or “nightmarish”. Satire also fits the bill. Scorsese himself said that he took up trademark shots from Hitchcock, and a lot of people sense a screwball set-up in the story of a man exposed to 1000 mishaps and catastrophes in the course of what must be the most unlucky night of his life (an excellent sypnopsis is part of Dennis Schwartz’s review). The friction that sends sparks through the audience expectations concerning genre and its consequences, might well be part of the intended effect.

Ebert thought it to be an utterly self-reflexive example of pure filmmaking and: “”After Hours” could be called a “hypertext” film, in which disparate elements of the plot are associated in an occult way.” This fits well with another statement by Scorsese concerning his artistic ideas for After Hours: “All style. An exercise completely in style.” The elements of the plot and, as I would argue, the message are arranged visually, not necessarily in rational, causal manner. Thus style and film grammar indeed become an essential part in the understanding of the film’s narrative.

***Massive Spoilers Ahead***

An example of how paralleling shot set-ups and perpectives connect the dots: four special instances of things falling on the ground. Fairly early in the movie Paul Hackett, the movie’s protagonist (a staggering performance by Griffin Dunne), loses his last money: it gets blown out of a cab window. Apart from the symbolic value of losing the last material wealth right in the exposition of the story, the camera ominously stresses the event. It follows the 20 dollar bill (think American Beauty) until it lands flat on the street. The bill in the gutter becomes the center of an extreme close up, with one half of the note filling the whole screen. Later on another 20 dollar bill appears in a papier-mâché sculpture. And though nothing in the plot would justify the assumption that both banknotes are actually one and the same, the visual priming of the money in gutter overlaps into the plot structure (and with a certain panache in story-telling this second banknote is lost again to the same taxi driver we met earlier in the movie).

The next fall into an extreme close-up that Paul and the viewer witness, is the often-quoted “key drop”-scene. A key is dropped out of the window and thecamera  takes a falling POV-shot from the perspective of the key, right up to the face of Hackett, before the keys land on the pavement. Again the movement is broken by a jump cut onto a high angle shot of the keys in centerscreen. Like the money, keys appear again and again throughout the whole movie. None of them open public spaces or lockboxes, etc., but each of them belongs to a private apartment that Hackett has to enter. This intrusion into private spheres attains a special empasis in a story of a man that desperately wants to go home but cannot. Therefore it is not surprising that his own keys get traded off after about a third of the movie and only reappear fairly late. A pattern emerges: the technical mise-en-scène of a (pardon the expression) “fall-into-a-peculiar-shot” is connected to images of loss.

The third time it is Paul himself who falls after he barges in a door. The camera catches the movementl in a top-down perspective; it is positioned above the inner side of the door frame. We see him fall diagonally away from us until he hits the floor (still lying on the door). The final frame is measured to the door height on the ground with Hackett filling a good bit of vertical screen axis in dead center. Now the set-up has to fill in the blanks: linking him to the images of loss conveyed by the peculiar camera setup for another falling movement, it can be inferred that he is about to lose himself. This can be confirmed from his increasingly erratic behavior in the movie’s second half. Also: the symbol “door” is inherently linked to the symbol “key” – coding the protagonist’s forced entry as a transgression into private space that is not his. He is literally losing his place and therefore has to fall. At that point it should be added that the movie also plays out a bit of Kafka’s “Before the Law” (part of The Trial) in verbatim. This intertextual connection turns doors into passages in a mythical place (I abstain from openly talking about kingdom come or hereafter or else in that vein), a decision of one’s own fate; a motive that can be found again in the movies invocation of mythical land of Oz, resp. The Wizard of Oz (see here). Therefore the image of breaking down a door and entering only to fall, gains almost existential gravity .

The fourth and last fall also finishes the After Hours‘ plot (and, as I hope to still show, its story). The script and its realization by Scorsese invoke several expectations concerning the fate of the protagonist in the end. One of them (next to burning up or being lynched) is falling to his death. But in a clever twist Scorsese turns the fall into a positive metaphor. Hackett ends up in a papier-mâchè sculpture (yes, the plot is really that far out) that shatters after falling from a truck. The final shot of this fall is breathtaking. Similar to the “breaking and entering” sequence, this one is not a close-up, but a long shot with Hackett in the centre and the doors to his office filling the background. He crawls from the broken sculpture and enters his office. Usually this event is considered to be Hackett’s rebirth, literally hatching from an egg shell. Instead of dying Scorsese inverts the symbol (arguably one of techniques that undercuts audience expectations in the whole movie) by letting Hackett live after his fall.

But enough for today. It is late. Tomorrow I want to wrap these ideas up by showing how these techniques of visual priming, paralleling, synchronization und intertextuality help to find a counterplot to Hackett’s becoming and how Hitchcock may help in unearthing it. Good night!