Criterion Review: AFTER HOURS (1985) [4K-UHD]

The piece below was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the art being covered in this piece wouldn't exist.

Surrender, Dorothy!

NOTE: All screencaps are from the disc(s) in question with no editing applied, but may have compression or resizing inherent to file formats and WordPress’ image system.

After the powers that be failed to raise funding for his biblical epic The Last Temptation of Christ, Martin Scorsese teamed up with actor-producer Griffin Dunne and producer Amy Robinson and jumped headfirst into After Hours. It’s a film whose protagonist reflects the powerlessness that Scorsese felt during this fruitless gap between films fresh from The King of Comedy, with his biggest passions snatched away without rhyme or reason. Here, adrift and bored office worker Paul Hackett (Dunne) embarks on a whim of an adventure pursuing the elusive Marcy (Rosanna Arquette) to her apartment in the East Village–where love and plaster-of-Paris bagel paperweights may lie in wait. However, a fatal conclusion to the date strands Paul in the surreal underworld of lower Manhattan–where his every move to try and get home is increasingly foiled by bizarre characters and recurring plot strands that seem to prove that Paul is in a Kafkaesque hell of his own design.

What truly sets After Hours apart in Scorsese’s filmography is how much the film is defined by its whimsically grim sense of humor. Scorsese and screenwriter Joseph Minion perfectly capture the random delirium of Paul’s late-night misadventures, as if each zig-zag in the plot seemed wholly ripped from the emotional pivots of one’s worst nightmares. There’s such a perverse thrill in watching just where Paul’s misery takes him: the slightest of decisions can have life-or-death consequences for this hapless being over the span of mere seconds, let alone minutes or hours. The storyline magically feels both heavily plotted and entirely improvised, diverting into unexpected tangents for much of its refreshingly brief runtime before doubling back on some of its most insane plot points when we–and Paul–least expect it. That, and there’s gasp-inducing cameos by everyone from Cheech and Chong as mistaken burglars to Catherine O’Hara wielding a Mister Softee truck, lending the film a fitting Wizard of Oz-esque quality. While everything from The King of Comedy to Mean Streets to The Wolf of Wall Street injects a key levity amidst their drama After Hours is very much a comedy–albeit injected with equal parts paranoid thriller and surreal horror film. 

Plunging headfirst into the chaos of Paul’s night proves to be as cathartic as it is comical. By the point Paul nearly avoids being subjected to trial-by-mohawk at an S&M club or avoids a growing mob of East Villagers convinced he’s the serial burglar they’ve been targeting for weeks–it’s clear that all Paul and his audience can do is surrender to the whims of the world that they’ve been resisting the entirety of the film. Much of After Hours’ production was spent deliberating just how the film should end; many of the film’s creatives and even fellow directors Steven Spielberg and Terry Gilliam chimed with their own surreal ideas on how to cap off Paul’s adventures. It’s fitting that Scorsese’s longtime idol and editor Thelma Schoonmaker’s husband Michael Powell devised that the film should end right where it began–at Paul’s soulless job–giving Scorsese’s outlandish nightmare a deviously ouroboros-like quality. The truth, after all, is that the nightmares of After Hours never really end; like the best of nightmares, Paul’s journey is never explained, never resolved, and never-ending. 

A long-awaited Criterion release of an American auteur’s most sought-after cult classics, After Hours returns to shelves to thrill and provoke a new generation of audiences.


Criterion presents After Hours in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, with a Dolby Vision HDR presentation on the UHD and a 1080p transfer of the same restoration on the accompanying Blu-ray. The restoration is sourced from the film’s 35mm original camera negative, with director Martin Scorsese’s personal 35mm print used as a color reference, and final picture and sound approved by editor Thelma Schoonmaker. The monaural soundtrack was additionally restored from the film’s original magnetic audio track. SDH subtitles are provided solely for the feature film.

After Hours’ deliciously nightmarish qualities are vividly realized in this new restoration, rife with deep, blocking-free shadows, harsh streetlights and interior spotlights, with the occasional flame. The minute grime of Michael Ballhaus’ cinematography and Jeffrey Townsend’s production design only builds as the terror continues, contrasting well with the superficial sheen of Paul’s pristine apartment at the film’s beginning. Sequences in the labyrinthine Soho streets as well as in the climactic Club Berlin are standouts visually, in addition to the lonely homely glow of the bar that Tom and waitress Juliework at, lit by hanging lamps and the radiance of an isolated jukebox. 

Criterion has proved to be quite adept at getting as much range out of a monaural track as possible, and After Hours is no exception. It’s a film that relies just as much on the diegetic noise of ringing phones, footsteps, and the clatter of other ephemera as it does on Howard Shore’s ticking, paranoid score. Both elements are effectively utilized in this presentation, each working in tandem to heighten the already surreal world Paul descends into over the course of the film.

Special Features

Like other Criterion 4K releases, all special features are presented on the accompanying Blu-ray Disc. However, the audio commentary is available on both the Blu-ray and the 4K UHD discs.

  • Audio Commentary: A 2004 archival commentary featuring director Martin Scorsese, actor Griffin Dunne, producer Amy Robinson, cinematographer Michael Ballhaus and Editor Thelma Schoonmaker, with select 2023 updates by Dunne and Robinson recorded by Criterion. Scorsese is open about how After Hours was realized as a placeholder film after his first attempt at Last Temptation of Christ fell through, but eventually grew into a way for Scorsese to return to his roots as a filmmaker. Ballhaus and Scorsese are also candid about the wild experimentation used for some of the film’s shots, notably the near-disastrous usage of bungee cord on a camera that was then dropped above Dunne’s head for a shot that would only last a few frames on-screen.
  • Martin Scorsese and Fran Lebowitz: A new 20-minute interview between Scorsese and author/collaborator Lebowitz, featuring their mutual memories of growing up in New York in the 1980s and how those experiences informed the development and filming of After Hours–with lots of fun anecdotes involving the occasional trouble the crew would get in (or avoid) filming on Village streets after dark.
  • Filming For Your Life – Making “After Hours:” An 18-minute 2004 archival featurette tracking the development, production, and release of the film, anchored by interviews by Scorsese, Dunne, Robinson, and Schoonmaker. Dunne in particular speaks to his experience as both producer and lead actor of the film, and interesting moments include side-by-side comparisons of the film’s shot list and their final edit in the film. A truly entertaining segment involved the many voices who tried to give After Hours a satisfying ending–only for the film’s savior to be none other than Scorsese’s idol and Schoonmaker’s husband, British director Michael Powell.
  • The Look of “After Hours:” A newly-cut 18-minute featurette from Criterion featuring audio interviews with costume designer Rita Rack and production designer Jeffrey Townsend, where they discuss creating the seedy and layered world of After Hours amid film clips, production stills, call sheets, photo inspirations, and other myriad sources.
  • Deleted Scenes: Seven deleted scenes totaling around 8 minutes. Picture quality is surprisingly good for cut film from the ‘80s–presented in SD with occasional marks of scratched emulsion or hair in the gate. Most of the scenes are brief extracts or extensions of extant scenes, but feature some of the film’s most memorable characters. Among the inclusions are a new intro to Catherine O’Hara’s Gail, John Heard’s Tom discussing a pivotal suicide note with Paul, another appearance by the beloved Dick Miller, and an incredibly-edited sequence of Paul attempting to stay the night at Tom’s apartment before triggering a strobe light.
  • Trailer for After Hours’ theatrical release.
  • Booklet featuring an essay by film critic Sheila O’Malley, which examines the wild and surreal underworld Scorsese conjures out of Lower East Side New York, in particular the repetitive and increasingly sinister usage of ordinary objects like clocks and light switches. Also discussed are the influences of fellow artists and directors like Alfred Hitchcock and Franz Kafka on Paul’s increasingly hellish journey of unprovoked misery.

After Hours is now available on 4K UHD and Blu-ray courtesy of The Criterion Collection.

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