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After Hours (1985)

by | Jan 15, 2013

A bored young office worker becomes embroiled in the surreal world of the late-night Soho neighborhood and attempts to return to the unexciting comfort of the world he knows.

Medium: Film

Writer(s): Joseph Minion

Director: Martin Scorsese

Production Co.(s): Co.(s): The Geffen Company, Double Play

The Story on the Screen

When we-the-audience first meet Paul, the main character in After Hours, he is teaching a coworker how to use an office word processing system (in an era when such systems were not readily available on every personal computer). The work is mundane, and he seems largely disinterested in the task. When the coworker begins to share his own aspirations to transcend his current position and someday publish a magazine, Paul surveys the office in which he works, and we understand that his disinterest extends well beyond the task at hand—to his work life in general. A brief glimpse of his private life that evening reveals, as well, a general ennui that pervades his home life as a single man living in New York.

The main character, Paul, is dissatisfied with his life, which seems to him without adventure or promise of advancement.

Late that night, while sitting alone in a local diner reading a novel—just to free himself of the confining boredom of his apartment—Paul encounters Marcy, a nervous and attractive young woman who engages him in small talk about the odd behavior of the cashier and about an artist friend she lives with who makes and sells plaster-of-Paris paperweights in the shape of a bagel with cream cheese. Under the pretense of an interest in the paperweights, Paul obtains her telephone number and thereby lays the groundwork for the ordeal that will define the rest of his night.

When he calls the number shortly after returning to his apartment, Marcy invites him to visit her in Soho—an invitation that he might ordinarily be hesitant to accept given the lateness of the hour (11:32pm). But he is compelled to accept in this case, not only by the prospect of a sexual encounter with her but by the chance to take a brief excursion from the life that he finds so stultifying.

A chance encounter with a woman named Marcy leads to mishap after mishap that strand Paul without money in an unfamiliar part of town.

The cab ride to Marcy's Soho apartment proves to be a harrowing preview of his night as it will unfold. The driver races through the streets of New York as if the taxi were being chased by demons. And when Paul places a twenty-dollar bill (his only cash) in the payment cradle en route, it blows out the window, leaving him nearly broke and unable to pay the cab fare—which angers the cabby and leaves Paul stranded in an unfamiliar place with almost no money.

As soon as Paul steps into the large, artsy loft that Marcy shares with her sculptress friend Kiki, it is clear that he is on unfamiliar ground and has entered a world whose denizens are prone to behaviors that are out of the ordinary. Kiki is frank in her conversation and uninhibited in her manner of dress, and Marcy appears to be emotionally unstable and subject to wild mood swings, having married a man who now lives far away (and to whom she writes every day), having just broken up with her boyfriend, and possibly sporting burn scars that might recall to Paul an uncomfortable memory from his youth.

After a brief attempt to get along in Marcy's late-night Soho world, Paul attempts to return to the understandable comfort of his ordinary existence, but his effort is thwarted at every turn by a host of unusual characters until his very life is threatened.

After a brief and halting attempt to get along in Marcy's late-night Soho world, largely in pursuit of the prospect of sexual adventure, Paul abruptly abandons the effort—demonstrating a sudden annoyance that seems unnecessarily vehement given the circumstances (and leads to her suicide)—and begins his attempt to return to the plain-but-understandable comfort of his ordinary existence. But his lack of money leads to a cascading set of circumstances that trap him in the surreal goings on of the late-night Soho neighborhood and heighten the importance of his escape to the safety of his home.

In his efforts to return to the world he knows, Paul encounters a host of unusual characters, including (in no particular order): Horst, Kiki's bondage-partner boyfriend; Tom, a bar owner who turns out to be Marcy's boyfriend (and is devastated by the news of her suicide); Julie, a flighty bar maid who seems stuck in the late 1960s Go-Go era; Pepe and Neil, two burglars of whose recent work Paul is wrongly suspected; Gail, the friendly driver of an ice cream truck who turns suddenly angry when she discovers that he is suspected of the thievery; and June, a conceptual artist who lives below a punk-rock dance club but dresses conservatively and may harbor twisted, murderous quirks of her own. Each character has his or her own special niche in the alien world of late-night Soho, and together they are woven into a net that appears to trap Paul in that world and threaten his very life.

Behind the Scenery

Although Paul is lured into his adventure by means of a gain intent (the pursuit of a possible sexual encounter with an attractive girl), the type of intent that drives his story lies in the realm of regaining—specifically, attempting to return to the familiarity and safety of "home" from an alien world into which he has been displaced. In this sense, his journey may be likened to that of Dorothy Gale in The Wizard of Oz and Marty McFly in Back to the Future, each of whose stories is driven by the attempt to return "home."

Paul is regain character whose journey can be reasonably compared to that of Dorothy Gale in The Wizard of Oz.

The only major deviations in his intent to go home occur when he returns to the artsy loft to restore to Kiki a sculpture that he mistakes as being stolen by Pepe and Neil and when he races back to Julie's apartment to make sure that she is okay after he realizes that his blunt rejection of Marcy is part of what led her to commit suicide. And in both cases, the deviations complicate his overall intent of regaining his proper place in the world of his "home."

Although the type of intent for the main character in After Hours is fairly straightforward, the issue and theme are less so, in part because several issues seem to be involved in Paul's adventure. At first glance, for example, the story might seem to involve issues such as "pursuing excitement and adventure" or "abandoning the boring safety of regular life." But even though such actions lead to the creation of Paul's circumstances at the end of Act I, neither constitutes the fundamental issue that plays out in Acts II and III. Likewise, although Paul's predicament can be directly related to rash action—for example, his sudden anger when he decides to leave Marcy and return to his home—such rashness itself does not play a large role in his major efforts in the story.

The matter of "pursuing opportunity" serves as common thread for Paul's actions in the story.

If there is a common thread to be drawn among Paul's actions in the story, it may be said to lie in the realm of "pursuing opportunity." After all, it is the pursuit of sexual opportunity with Marcy that lands him in late-night Soho in the first place. And his efforts to return home, when he makes the decision to do so, are directed primarily toward taking advantage of opportunities when they present themselves rather than employing resourcefulness to make them appear. His first attempt, for example, involves nothing more imaginative than purchasing a subway ticket. And when circumstances prohibit him from doing so, he does not employ resourcefulness to achieve his goal, he simply seeks refuge from the rain to wait out the night—whereupon the opportunity to earn subway fare is presented to him (by Tom).

In this way, his adventure is defined largely by the opportunities that are either presented to him or taken away from him, each of which is directly related to the satisfaction of an immediate desire or need.

Because Paul is a sympathetic character, his endeavor to pursue opportunity may be seen as advisable.

Because Paul is presented by the storytellers as a sympathetic character whose safe return to his ordinary world we-the-audience are invited to support, it is reasonable to suggest that the storytellers consider the pursuit of opportunity as the basis of an advisable endeavor. Therefore, the proposition for this story can be stated (somewhat vaguely) as:

  • One should attempt to pursue opportunity when it presents itself, because success in the attempt will help him to achieve his immediate goals and enrich his life with experience.

The vagueness of the proposition in this case is due, in part, to the fact that its issue is general in nature and comprises merely part of the method (how) by which Paul attempts to achieve the goal of his regain intent. And the pursuit of opportunity is most often associated with gain actions, which further muddles the theme in this case.

In the end, Paul succeeds in returning to his ordinary world, albeit with the scars of his experience. But his return is largely the result of happenstance, rather than the direct result of his efforts, which is part of the reason that the theme is difficult to identify. When he returns to his office the next morning, a bit shell-shocked from the experience of the night, it is clear that he has been affected but unclear whether or not he has been fundamentally changed by the experience. Consequently, although we-the-audience sympathize with his narrow escape from danger, the ending cannot be clearly defined as happy.

For More Information

For details regarding the concepts and terms mentioned in this article, please refer to the resource materials.

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