Basic Instinct

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Everyone involved was having a bit of a moment when Basic Instinct was being made in 1991. Sharon Stone had just had her breakthrough in Total Recall. Michael Douglas was peaking as the go-to guy for reptilian charm – Fatal Attraction, Wall Street and The War of the Roses were in his recent past, Falling Down would follow shortly. Director Paul Verhoeven’s two most recent films were RoboCop and Total Recall, Showgirls was in the works. And Joe Eszterhas at this point was known as the man who’d written Flashdance and Jagged Edge.

Basic Instinct‘s reputation precedes it, thanks to the bit where Sharon Stone in an interrogation room full of male cops crosses her legs in her short white dress to reveal her alibi. If you’ve only ever got as far as the trailer you’ll know a bit more – that Douglas plays one of those cops, Stone plays an author and that a dangerous game of cat and mouse is already underway at this point. Detective Nick Curran (Douglas) knows that author Catherine Tramell (Stone) is guilty of a particularly sex, drugs and rock’n’roll murder but she’s so damn foxy that he doesn’t know whether to lock her up or set about perverting the course of justice in a very particular way.

What is this basic instinct of which Joe Eszterhas speaks? From the evidence on screen it would appear to be that men are from Mars and women are from Venus, to borrow a title from John Gray’s book (which first hit the bookshops at the same time). Nick Curran is a dick-driven male addicted to whatever’s going; Catherine Tramell is an aberrant female whose sexuality has become dangerously unmoored. It’s cardboard cutout psychology (you could say the same about Gray’s book) but no one has ever accused Eszterhas of writing for the politically correct (though it must be said that in Basic Instinct Tramell is refreshingly her own woman).

Eszterhas is in good company with Verhoeven, who chucks nudity at the screen just because he can. Most of Hollywood’s big names had turned down the role of Catherine Tramell before it was offered to Stone, who threw caution in the same direction as her clothes and signed on.

The sex, being Verhoeven, is a bit over-emphatic. It’s circus sex, really, overdone on purpose to make a point. Commodification of the human body, perhaps, as he’d go on to explore in Showgirls.

Jeanne Tripplehorn and Michael Douglas
The shrink and the cop… Tripplehorn and Douglas

What Verhoeven also gives us on top of the soft porn is neo-noir, with a lot of overt references to Alfred Hitchcock. The way the camera movies, the notion of doubling, the drives along windy coastal roads. The blonde. Numerous glimpses out of rear windows. The slinky Bernard Herrmann-style soaring strings of Jerry Goldsmith’s tense Hitchcockian soundtrack.

Douglas and Stone play off and against each other, cat-and-mousing in acting terms the same way their increasingly co-dependent characters are behaving on screen. The acting is fabulous throughout – George Dzundza as Nick’s meat-and-potatoes sidekick and useful explicatory foil, Jeanne Tripplehorn as a police shrink who’s also an ex of Nick’s. There’s even a homage to noir of yore with an appearance by Dorothy Malone, still twinkling away sexily at nearly 70, as a dangerous murderer (retired). Who can forget her in The Big Sleep, as “Acme Book Shop Proprietess”? If she’d done nothing else that would have been enough.

So, this is a beautifully made film with lots of Hitchcock plus firecracker performances. What could possibly go wrong? An entirely muttonheaded close-up on someone early on, the visual equivalent of a massive arrow with “watch this person” pulsing away, which gives the game away and drains all the drama from the police procedural aspect of the film.

Does it matter? Isn’t this really a story of a man adrift on a sea of his own desires? Yes, but why set all this side of the film up only to drop it early on? Wouldn’t Basic Instinct be better if it was all about Nick’s struggles with his conscience and libido and Verhoeven hadn’t let us see all the way up the plot’s dress?

Basic Instinct – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2024

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