This is an image from 1:00:00 into one of Martin Scorsese’s less-appreciated movies, After Hours (1985). It’s an odd little entry in Scorsese’s filmography, coming amidst lots of stories about Robert De Niro’s wounded machismo; this one’s more about wounded yuppie confidence. That yuppie is Paul Hackett (An American Werewolf in London‘s Griffin Dunne), who becomes trapped on the streets of SoHo in the rain by one unfortunate coincidence after another. Hackett isn’t especially incompetent or malicious. He’s just a normal, well-intentioned schmuck, trying to gently extricate himself from these situations, but always dragged in deeper by forces beyond his control.
When this scene rolls around, Hackett’s just been through hell. He discovered that the girl he came to visit in SoHo, but later walked out on, has overdosed on sleeping pills. Then he tried to follow up on a previous deal he’d made to get some money from a bartender, only to find out that he was the dead girl’s boyfriend. Then he returned to the apartment of Julie (Teri Garr), an emotionally unstable waitress, concerned that she too might commit suicide. As you can tell, the movie’s very concerned with cause-and-effect, thanks to Joseph Minion’s brilliantly organized screenplay. Paul just wants a way to get home, but instead of finding a Good Samaritan, he finds some very eccentric, sometimes hostile people, and accidentally messes up their unexpectedly tight-knit community.
Julie is one of the most interesting obstacles in Paul’s path, largely because of Garr’s talent for playing borderline-hysterical women. As played by Garr, Julie is a little ditzy and behind the times (the bartender calls her “Ms. Beehive 1965,” and she plays Monkees records), but she’s insecure and very sincere. She wants Paul’s companionship – and probably something more – and makes that very clear. But even though Paul originally came to SoHo for sex, by now he’s very out of the mood. After all, he’s just been accused of being a burglar, seen a girl kill herself possibly as a result of his actions, and had to cope with her boyfriend’s reactions. He’s physically and emotionally exhausted, has a hard time finding a way to subtly tell Julie “no,” and it doesn’t help that she’s unwilling to take no for an answer.
In some ways, Julie resembles an old, sexist stereotype – the unattractive woman who’ll do anything to get a man to stay with her. But she’s a little more complex than that. Although the viewer already identifies with Paul, Garr still evokes some sympathy; she’s not just unappealing and man-hungry. Like Paul, she’s trying to endure in a big, vicious city, and she’s looking for a kindred spirit. She also has to put up with his refusal to directly speak the truth, whether he’s doing it to avoid hurting her or because it’s far too complicated to get across. So although she is somewhat unbalanced, and although he doesn’t have much of a choice, Paul is still partially to blame for the conflict that ensues between him and Julie.
Beyond these gendered intricacies of their brief relationship, Paul’s problems with Julie are more than anything demonstrative of how incomprehensible he finds every other character’s behavior. In this over-the-shoulder shot, we’re basically seeing Julie from his perspective; she looks strange and potentially dangerous, and Paul has no idea how best to get away from her. Ironically, she’s just about to ask Paul, “What’s with you, are you nuts or something?” Each one thinks the other is insane. After Hours is a film about a man struggling to adjust to a foreign environment, like a more darkly comic rendition of Taxi Driver. Here he’s unable to interact with Julie on the same emotional level, and it amounts to one more little persecution he doesn’t understand in the irrational maelstrom that is SoHo.