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Basic Instinct
Tonight's Feature Presentation

BASIC INSTINCT (1992)

Starring: Michael Douglas, Sharon Stone, George Dzundza, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Leilani Sarelle, Denis Arndt

Written By: Joe Eszterhas Directed By: Paul Verhoeven

The Short Version

Director Paul Verhoeven finds yet another way to shock a mainstream audience. 

Basic Instinct succeeds as an erotic thriller because it remembers to frame the sex and violence with great film noir.

This film is very, very savvily cast, for all sorts of reasons.

This is about as hot as the mainstream gets, folks, and it is extremely well made.

Barring your being some sort of Puritan, if you don’t own Basic Instinct already, why not?  Go get it!


The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

ARTISAN CHEDDAR.

Very well-crafted stuff that’s tastier than you ever thought it could be.


Pairs Well With...

DOUBLE BLACKJACK ON THE ROCKS.

“Jack Daniel’s all right?  It’s gonna have to be.”  The booze of choice for messed-up neo-noir cops… and perhaps the critics who write about them.  Those rocks are best chopped up with an ice pick, of course.

“Number one: I don't remember how often I used to jerk off, but it was a lot.  Number two: I wasn't pissed off at my dad, even when I was old enough to know what he and mom were doing in the bedroom.  Number three: I don't look in the toilet before I flush it.  Number four: I haven't wet my bed for a long time.  Number five: why don't the two of you go fuck yourselves?  I'm outta here.”


In 1987, Director Paul Verhoeven shocked mainstream audiences with the incredible violence of RoboCop.

In 1990, he shocked mainstream audiences with the incredible violence of Total Recall.

Not wanting to be seen as just another “been there, done that” guy, in 1992, Verhoeven went on to shock mainstream audiences with the incredible violence of Basic Instinct… and upped the ante by having the first instance of it occur while the people involved were completely naked and in the process of enjoying a screaming orgasm while engaged in an act of sexual bondage.

Realistically, this movie is way less violent than the other two, but you sure couldn’t have told that by asking the media or the protesters.  And, as with those first two films, focusing on the violence (or in this case, the violence and the sex) is to miss the forest for the trees.

Let’s not get ahead ourselves, though.  Story first.

Fade into a scene that back in 1992 might have made you wonder if you were in the right kind of theatre.  A couple is engaged in some pretty intense sex.  The woman is on top, and though she’s completely naked, her blonde hair is long enough to conceal her face, so you can’t tell who she is.  She reaches under a pillow and pulls out a scarf, using it to tie her partner’s hands to the bed frame, with no objection at all from him.  Indeed, if the sounds he’s making are any indication, he’s quite excited by this, but tonight’s orgasm will be his last: as it’s made clear that a climax has been reached, the woman produces an ice pick and uses it to stab the man to death, creating quite the bloody mess in the process.

Flash forward to the following morning.  San Francisco police detective Nick Curran (Michael Douglas, The China Syndrome) and his partner, Gus (George Dzundza, Species II), arrive at the crime scene, which is already crawling with investigators.  It turns out that the deceased is an ex-rock star named Johnny Boz (Bill Cable, Elvira: Mistress of the Dark), and that Mr. Boz was a major contributor to the Mayor’s campaign efforts, making this an especially high profile case.  Evidence at the scene is turning up nothing useful.  The only lead is that Boz was last seen the leaving at the nightclub he owned with his ladyfriend, a very well-to-do writer named Catherine Trammell (Sharon Stone, Sphere)…

Basic Instinct is one of those movies that is better appreciated several years on from the time that it was first released.  Back in 1992, all anyone could talk about was the violence, the sex, the “beaver shot,” and the fact that some people were upset that gay/bisexual characters were being portrayed as potentially homicidal.  Step forward a few years, and the last part was generally dropped, but it had been replaced by lamentations (or cheers) about all of the low budget erotic thrillers riding the wave of Basic Instinct to flood video outlets and late night cable lineups.  Step forward about twenty, and all of that’s still there, but much quieter (save perhaps the part about the beaver shot), and without all of the hype in the way, it’s much easier to appreciate Basic Instinct for what it truly is at its core: a superb example of modern film noir.

Don’t tell me that hadn’t crossed your le- er, mind before?

Underneath the hyped-up elements, Basic Instinct is a classic noir gumshoe story of the sort made famous by characters named Spade and Marlowe in the 1940s and refined for the color era by a man named Hitchcock.  (A gumshoe story doesn’t need the literal PI character; just someone behaving in a similar capacity.)  Our rough around the edges investigator is trying to get to the bottom of a mystery that others don’t want him to solve, and running interference against him is a femme fatale.  Forget this “forensic” stuff (indeed, Basic Instinct is one of the last police procedural type flicks you’ll ever see that completely ignores DNA, despite the fact that it come into regular use by the time it was made and would certainly have been used in a case like this, and probably closed it); our hero needs to solve the mystery with good old fashioned gut instincts and the burning of some shoe leather.  Surveillance isn’t a wiretap; it’s jumping in the car and following the suspect, and in true noir fashion, it’s getting too close to that suspect for safe comfort.  The dialogue?  Rapid fire and snappy as can be.  And it’s all set in one of the classic cities of noir: San Francisco.  (The Maltese Falcon, Vertigo, etc.)

Paul Verhoeven takes his lead for the noir screenplay of Joe Eszterhas (Sliver) and directs Basic Instinct with style, using the camera as a punctuation mark.  The influence of Hitchcock and others is obvious, but it never feels cheap or lifted, but rather, always on the mark for any given scene.  Particularly effective is the now-infamous interrogation scene (and its later twin), not only for Verhoeven’s (unscripted) decision to film the most often paused frames of any film from the 1990s (the “beaver shot” up Sharon Stone’s dress that provides an oh-so-quick view of her vagina), but for how he uses the camera to heighten the intensity of the rapid fire exchanges of dialogue, cutting and zooming and returning to wide shots to fabulous effect.  And while this may indeed be the best scene in the movie overall, Verhoeven’s hand is even more deft during the sex sequences, during which he finds a way to make things as hot as possible and pushing more envelopes than had been generally dared before in the mainstream while still making something that would pass the censors.  (Modern audiences have the luxury of the unrated cut, but the original rated cut was still close.)

Another thing that certainly helped him get away a lot of it was the casting of Michael Douglas as Nick Curran.  Whether or not he was the first choice for the role (depends on whom you ask, though none of the presented suspects match the story’s original call for Nick to be about fifteen years younger), and whether or not he was truly the best fit for the role (debate as you like), at the end of the day, he was the best choice for the role.  Why?  It’s kind of like the “only Nixon could go to China” thing.  Michael Douglas was the one Hollywood A-List actor whom the mainstream film community and mainstream audiences could accept playing a role like this.  Give it to someone else, and it doesn’t fly, either because the actor’s too goody-goody, too visibly old, or some other image just doesn’t click.  Give it to the guy who did Fatal Attraction, though?  Second generation of respectable Hollywood with a little bit of an edge but nothing too overboard?  Yeah; the mainstream world could accept that.  He also happens to play the part very well; no complaints.  [I can’t remember who the interview was with, but I recall Douglas giving a fabulous answer when asked about the movie’s sex scenes.  He said they were the most difficult to film, but the reason for that was the fact that he assumed the majority of the audience has had sex, and was therefore capable of judging his performance more harshly, whereas when he’s just playing a cop, most of the audience isn’t made up of cops.  Interetsing.]

Outshining him, of course, is our femme fatale, Sharon Stone.  This is a role that would absolutely not have been accepted if played by someone from the established A-List of the time (this is the movie that put Stone on it), but it had to be played by someone with A-List talent.  When I look at some of the names rumored to have been put before hers, I cringe.  Fortunately, it came down to Stone, whom Verhoeven enjoyed working with on Total Recall and in whom he saw a spark of something more, and that something more was not just what she has up her dress.  This role calls for an actress, not just a nude model, and Sharon Stone delivers in spades.  Along with being sexy over the sheets (forget covers), Stone melts the stage with sizzling heat wherever she goes.  When the audience first formally meets her sitting on a deck looking out at the ocean (beautiful uses of Bay Area locales in this movie) and she turns her head, it’s not hard to suddenly imagine the screen turning to black and white and Lauren Bacall staring back.  The comparison becomes even more striking whenever she starts up with the verbal fencing, but this is no copycat role, either.  Sharon Stone truly makes this part her own, and though it would propel her to major stardom, she also made it the sort of perfectly played role of a lifetime that is nearly impossible to eclipse.

Also playing a role that’s hard to eclipse (and she never did) is fresh-from-the-gate Jeanne Tripplehorn (The Firm), who does an outstanding job as Beth, the police psychologist and Curran’s on-again-off-again lover.  Her character is anything but formula (let’s face it, her character would be skirting problems with her license to practice in the real world), and Tripplehorn nails the part, bringing forth all of the little subtleties of a psychologist who seems to have entered the field to try and solve her own problems, and whose current situation, despite projecting outward success, shows that she’s failing at it.  This is a woman with issues, and you don’t really appreciate how well the part is played until you watch the slight shifts in facial expression.  There’s something deeper there, and Jeanne Tripplehorn tells you even without saying a word.

As for the rest of the cast, great marks across the board, especially for George Dzundza as the best friend cop who tries to talk sense into his partner, and for Wayne Knight simply for providing the most memorable performance of sweating one’s ass off in an air conditioned room ever to hit the screen.

And when it’s all said and done, they all contribute to one of the best noir films of the modern era, and the hottest piece of film that is ever likely to hit a mainstream Cineplex.  And as for whodunit… of course I won’t tell you, though it’s been announced often enough (including by the director, loudly), but I will say that I actually like the fact that the story as presented and unspoiled isn’t cut and dried, and even with the reveal that is supposed to remove all doubt, it still allows the possibility of different answers.  Real mysteries often aren’t neatly wrapped up, either, and evidence supports multiple conclusions more often than anyone cares to admit.  That, too, solidifies this film’s place as modern noir: a world where it’s all grey, and you don’t get all the answers.

Bottom line, Basic Instinct truly set the gold standard for the modern erotic thriller, and though often imitated, it hasn’t been matched.  Beyond the sex and beyond the violence, it’s an excellently crafted story, well acted, beautifully scored, and superbly filmed.  Basic Instinct truly is a modern classic.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, November, 2011


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