Sunday, 19 August 2018

Basic Instinct by Joe Eszterhas

I recently got hold of a deluxe reissue of Jerry Goldsmith's wonderful music for Basic Instinct. And in the course of listening to the CDs and reading the liner notes I got the urge to watch the film again...

Which was very appropriate. Basic Instinct is all about urges — primal, perverse or deadly. Notably homicidal impulse.

Anyway, I dug out my old DVD, complete with its kitsch ice-block menu design (the murder weapon in the movie is an ice pick) and took a trip back to San Francisco in the early 1990s...

In case you've led a commendably sheltered life and have never heard of Basic Instinct, it's a state of the art, latter-day film noir in gorgeous colour. 

It also pays homage to the movies of Hitchcock, notably Vertigo, although it's much more explicit, daring and technically polished (despite Hitchcock's reputation for cinematic expertise I find his films often crude, and I completely agree with Stanley Kubrick's disparaging remarks about Hitchcock's use of crappy back-projection).

In many ways Basic Instinct stands up well. Joe Eszterhas's script is an absolute model of flawless craftsmanship, flowing smoothly and unstoppably from one gripping story point to another. (He was paid $3 million for the script, a record at the time.)

And in Paul Verhoeven, Eszterhas found the perfect director for the film. Verhoeven's kinkiness, intensity of vision, twisted humour and sheer prowess all made him ideal.

However, Verhoeven does have a tendency to go over the top — to say the least. And that, combined with a rather unsubtle performance by Michael Douglas as Homicide Detective Nick Curran, somewhat diminishes the impact of the movie. For example, there's way too much shouting and crashing around, whereas understatement might have been more powerful.

Sharon Stone, on the other hand, is just perfection in her part as the ultimate femme fatale Catherine Trammell — mocking, radiant and diabolical.

In his engrossing autobiography Joe Eszterhas does some diabolical mocking of his own. He recalls how delighted Stone was when she declared that she'd found out the source of her character's name. She was convinced that it derived from an archaic Scottish word for a funeral shroud.

When Joe explained it was actually taken from Alan Trammell, a baseball player, Sharon grew rather irate...

Besides being too shouty, the other flaw in Basic Instinct is — perhaps surprisingly — the sex scenes. At the time they were considered scorching, and somewhat shocking and genuinely pushed the envelope. (The movie had to be trimmed for the US release, with Goldsmith shortening his music cues in consequence.)

But now — and even at the time — they tend to come across as laughably bombastic. To be fair, though, sex scenes are proverbially difficult to do well. Probably still the only film to (excuse the expression) pull it off is Nic Roeg's Don't Look Now from 1973.

In any case, Basic Instinct remains a classic. George Dzundza is excellent as Curran's likable, good hearted partner Gus. (And, as is usual with good hearted, likable characters in a Joe Eszterhas script, he's doomed to a nasty fate.)

The photography by Jan De Bont (who went on to become a director in his own right) is beautiful, and of course Jerry Goldsmith's music is ravishing.

All in all, shouting and sex scenes aside, Basic Instinct has weathered the years well and remains a classic.

(Image credits: The standard vintage vertical poster is from Imp Awards. The stylish ice pick is by Anton Petrov on Pinterest. The nicely designed op art white dress and folded legs is by Chung Kong. The striking horizontal poster of Sharon Stone in the chair — actually a statue, apparently — is by Blitzway on Pinterest. The poster with the photo of Stone in the chair, the black-background 'Flesh seduces, passion kills', the black and white one and 'ultimate edition' are all from the excellent Movie DB.)

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