Welcome to San Francisco Crime Month, where I look at SF-based crime films, decade by decade. Today I will begin the 1990s, with the 1992 Paul Verhoeven film, Basic Instinct. This sleazy thriller really should have taken place in LA, especially since most of it was shot there.
Michael Douglas plays a detective on the edge, who is investigating the murder of a rock star. His prime suspect is the rock star’s seductive girlfriend, played by Sharon Stone. Stone’s character writes murder mysteries similar to killings from her past. Douglas grows obsessed with Stone, and digs deeper into her past, while she digs deeper into him.
The story is similar to many old 1960s smut novels written by classic crime writers. Authors like Lawrence Block, and Donald Westlake honed their skills as crime novelists, writing under pseudonyms for small, sleazy publishing companies. They created stories of mystery and intrigue, while fitting in a mandatory sex scene per chapter. Verhoeven must’ve been inspired to make a film that emulated the style of these novels.
The two main characters are the epitome of classic crime novel cliches. Douglas plays the gruff, unstable cop with an itchy trigger finger, and many regrets. He goes full force into his role, playing a charismatic bastard. We follow his character, and try to solve the murder with him. He’ll do morally questionable things, but he’s smooth enough to stay likeable. Douglas gets led astray and manipulated by Sharon Stone’s character, but so does the audience. At the beginning of the film, I completely believed she was the killer. As the story went on, and new information came to light, she got under my skin and made me doubt her guilt.
Sharon Stone is the ultimate femme fatale. She is marvellous in this film and frighteningly seductive. She is so magnetic, powerful and controlling. Even if someone hasn’t seen Basic Instinct, they’ve probably seen a clip of Sharon Stone from the movie (and you better believe that clip is the interrogation scene). Watch that scene and you will see why she is so seductive and manipulative, and entertaining (it’s not just because she flashes the camera).
The supporting cast is decent, but pale in comparison to the leads. Every character is a cliche, and that’s the point, but Douglas and Stone embody and empower their cliches, while the rest simply do their job. This is not going to win any feminist awards, but it somehow averts deep exploitive territory by referencing books from a previous era, which takes it into nostalgic territory. Every character’s sexual preference reveals an extreme lust towards Sharon Stone or Michael Douglas, or both. The sex scenes are well shot, and usually work as part of the story. Almost every sex scene is different; Verhoeven uses different locations, lighting, articles of clothing (or lack there of), and emotions in order to make each scene unique.
Basic Instinct has a sex scene that is both intense and erotic, unsettling, and exciting. It’s an amazing scene. It’s the first time Michael Douglas and Sharon Stone’s character sleep together, but what heightens the suspense is the distinct possibility that she might kill him. It is shot in soft gold light, and little is left to the imagination. Stone and Douglas bring so much passion to their movements, but there is always this feeling that they both don’t trust each other. I didn’t know how this scene was going to end, and was kept in suspense throughout. It’s not just a sex scene; it’s the most intense part of Basic Instinct, and a major moment for the protagonists. Verhoeven tries to repeat this scene at the end of the film in an attempt to get the same effect, but the second time around, it feels boring and unnecessary.
Basic Instinct has problems. I was completely engaged for the majority of the movie, but the final twenty minutes lost me entirely. The final section includes a showdown in a generic hotel or office building. The first half of the showdown is really predictable but the second half involves Douglas doing something really dark and unexpected. I would have been happy if the movie had ended right after this scene, but instead it rehashes the earlier sex scene, and then reveals the identity of the killer. The film would have been more effective if it ended in uncertainty. If Michael Douglas had just crawled into bed with Sharon Stone, without revealing if she really is the killer or not, this movie would have had the perfect conclusion.
Basic Instinct takes place in San Francisco, but you can barely tell. Most of the time it looks like the characters are in LA. The story is so glamorous, and dark that it would fit right in with other LA crime films. It never really justifies or utilizes San Francisco for its unique qualities. Most of the time we’re seeing elaborate sets, and fancy LA beach houses. The only time I see SF is when Michael Douglas is walking down a steep, recognizable road. The movie could have been a classic if Verhoeven had changed the location, and changed the ending. It’s still a fun ride with spectacular performances, but it could have been so much more.
Favorite Scene: The first sex scene between Douglas and Stone is an amazing piece of filmmaking. I already spent an entire paragraph praising it!
Written by Tyler Ducheneaux
Images from Basic Instinct