Why I love watching Catherine Tramell in Basic Instinct

Basic Instinct is often written off as a schlocky 90’s erotic thriller. And it is. When it first came out, it caused massive amounts of outrage for many reasons. Depictions of gay and bisexual people angered their communities. A blatant overuse of sex offended people, and of course, that infamous interrogation scene. At the time, most (even Sharon Stone herself) said that the famous scene was manipulated out of her, implying a loss of prowess, or power. But when I watch Catherine Tramell in Basic Instinct, (and I’ll admit I do sometimes), I’m struck by just how powerful and poignant she really is. Now more than ever.

Basic Instinct is a highly underrated film and I’m not afraid to say it. Most of what makes paul verhoeven’s ’92 thriller so good isn’t the plot, or god knows, the dialogue. It’s the female antagonist herself. Catherine Tramell in Basic Instinct is probably one of the best, if not the best “femme fatale” of all time. In some ways, you could even call her an anti-hero for all strong women up against a world of men. Played to perfection by Sharon Stone in the role that made her famous, there’s more to her than just a female film vixen. It’s not simply a ferocity for sex, or admitting she actually likes it, (not often common) that makes her powerful. It’s much more. She’s a nuanced person and one of the most interesting character studies you’ll find. Hard to read, and impossible to fully understand. All of which makes her still alluring and interesting, even all these years later.

When we first meet Catherine, she’s sitting quietly on the deck of her gorgeous beach house in a comfy, oversized sweater. Subdued, she’s waiting for the cops, Michael Douglas and George Dzunda, there to tell her that her sometimes lover is dead. After hearing the news she barely flashes a nonchalant smirk. That cunning nonchalance will carry her through the film, and serve as a mental weapon. Both against authority, and the man she may or may not actually fall for later. When she’s called in for questioning, the aforementioned scene commences. But although Basic Instinct is mostly remembered for that moment, it’s actually Catherine in her most obviously manipulative moment. She’s controlling the men with her sexuality. Cops who should be focused on their questions are more fixated on what she’s wearing, or not wearing in this case. She plays with the deflated Nick (Douglas), taunting him and drudging up his past at every turn. Most memorably, she asks if he wants a cigarette. “I quit”, he tells her. “It won’t last”, she responds. Nor will his position as a man who had any confidence in himself or his beliefs.

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IMDB

It’s in other, subtle ways that Tramell’s quiet brilliance shines through. It’s not simply her appearance, which is of course strikingly beautiful. A gorgeous face, iconic blonde hair, and a classic wardrobe almost Grace Kelly-esque. She wears a non revealing white dress, and monochromatic, classy, cream colored outfits to perfection. A hidden sensuality bubbling under the surface of every look. Perhaps the only person to ever make Eileen Fisher sexy. Maybe it’s her occupation as a murder mystery writer. As someone who yearns for that same goal, this aspect of her has always intrigued me. Sometimes I’ve wished her books, Love Hurts, The First Time, and Shooter, about as she describes it, ‘a cop who falls for the wrong woman’ were real novels I could actually devour. So what happens in your new book, Nick asks. “She kills him.”

A magna cum laude double major in literature and psychology proves that besides her wit and knack for getting into people’s heads, she’s also just plain intelligent. There are plenty of terrific thrillers where a woman uses her smarts and her sexuality simultaneously to assess control of a man, or situation. Most notably, Matty Walker in Body Heat, and more recently, Amy Dunne in Gone Girl. But few have ever done it as masterfully as Catherine Tramell in Basic Instinct. There is no one else like her. A bisexual, rich author who does coke, unapologetically takes men home, and writes books that predict real life events, more specifically, homicides. She plunges an ice pick into a block of ice, procuring cubes for a drink like she’s wrapping a present. Carefully, and with purpose.

In fact, everything Catherine does has purpose. Even when she tells Nick she “doesn’t give any rules. I go with the flow.” From the initial interrogation scene, to the way she uses her sexuality as a tool to manipulate and control a situation. Even her name is a tool itself. A tramell is defined as a restriction to someone’s freedom. She practices a form of self preservation that allows her to get away with anything, feel little, and ensure that she always ends up on top, literally.

In the final scene, (considered both twist, and alternate ending), and one of the best in film, we’re manipulated one more time. It’s impossible to ever know what Catherine is thinking and that’s not going to change when the story fades to black. This isn’t a tidy ending wrapped in a bow. As has always been the case with her, the pleasure is in the game. The unknowing, and the power to make people wonder. And now, she’s doing it to us, the viewer. Nick can’t say with certainty whether the person sleeping next to him is truly dangerous or not. And who hasn’t wondered about the real thoughts of their spouse, or lover. That doubt makes Catherine’s character indelible in our brain. In the end, there is no true resolve. There is only mystery.

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IMDB

 

Vertigo 60th Anniversary: Revisiting Hitchcock in the #metoo movement

This week marked the Vertigo 60th anniversary. The Hitchcock classic is widely considered not only his best, but one of the best movies period. And it just might be the ultimate sexy thriller. Its brilliance comes in many forms, but predominantly through the vivid imagery and symbolism used to convey themes and emotions. The fact that much of the plot is completely implausible would definitely be an issue with movie goers today. Ones concerned with making every little thing fit perfectly. But Hitchcock was never concerned with making sense to the viewer. During his famous conversation with director Francois Truffaut, (which would later be in the must watch documentary/must read book Hitchcock/Truffaut, Hitch spoke of his desire to tell masterful, suspenseful stories. Sometimes you have to forgo believability to get there. Plus, as he put it, “logic is dull.”

I revisited the film this week for the Vertigo 60th anniversary and though the improbability doesn’t bother me, something else did come to mind. The film hasn’t changed. It was always teetering on a fine line of romanticizing obsession and exploiting male dominance over women. Much like the director himself was notoriously known to do with his leading ladies. But the society in which we watch Vertigo certainly has, in numerous ways.

Most notably, the #metoo era we live in now. Something that started as an outcry towards hidden sexual harassment and worse in the workplace has morphed into a movement. One which has caused us to begin acknowledging female undercutting in many aspects of our culture. Even beyond sexual harassment topics. In light of this cultural shift, I can still enjoy one of my favorite films just as much as before. But it is possible to watch it without the glaring issues of today’s world staring us in the face? Yes and no.

Strong, unapologetic women in films are being exhibited more today. From an all female remake of Oceans Eleven to powerful, badass, characters in Atomic Blonde, Red Sparrow and Molly’s Game. In the upcoming, highly anticipated Halloween, the famed leading male role is reimagined as Jamie Lee Curtis. Many other films also highlight a strong or resilient woman. Whether it’s on the horror side, in Revenge, or the more human side, in Ladybird.

With all this change, though it’s thrilling, it can still be hard to watch Jimmy Stewart’s Scottie mentally overpower his love interest in Vertigo. Not only doesn’t she mind, she welcomes it. We watch as he transforms her, literally, into a symbol of (what he thinks) is a lost love. When the makeover’s complete, she’s not a person anymore. Just a canvas that he’s recreated in his own vision. So many times while watching, we want to yell at Kim Novak, ‘Stop letting him do that to you. Take control, girl!’. In fact Judy, as we know her, is manipulated by men through the entire film. First, by Gavin Elster, whose scheme to kill his wife uses Judy and Scottie as essential players. Then, by Scottie, a suffering detective and pawn in Elster’s game whose love for a woman who doesn’t really exist borders on psychotic.

Like many other films reminiscent of that era, we’re seeing women controlled by men. I can watch Rosemary’s Baby a million times, and I’ll still get upset watching her be led astray by the men in her life. When she finally does assert control, she’s incapable of regaining power. Later, the 70’s would bring the Stepford Wives, the cult classic where housewives are robotic creatures that live to serve and pleasure their men. A far cry from the strong, capable female protagonist of today’s films.

So, what’s to be learned from the Vertigo 60th anniversary. Times change and we must change with them. Or can we still appreciate art, even if it contradicts our societal beliefs. Can we live in a #metoo world and still watch women be powerless to men on screen? Of course. Because we’re still a society that adores beauty pageants, and Instagram personalities imitating the Kardashians. Many would say these it’s these women that are the powerful ones now, with their own control. While that may be true, its the return of the male gaze, the male’s perception, that keeps that power going in many cases. As long as that’s true, the strength a man has over a woman will always be illustrated in film. Whether it’s physical, in horror movies, or mentally, in the case of Vertigo.

Rent Vertigo at DVD Netflix 

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This post partners with DVD.Netflix.com where you can find thousands of movies. As a DVD Nation ambassador I share a love of movies and earn rewards. All writing and ideas expressed are my own. 

 

Film Flashback: Sea of Love

sea of love, ellen barkin, al pacino, sexy thrillers, movie reviews

If you’ve already found yourself on this site, then the likelihood you’re a lover of thrillers is high. Since you probably already enjoy being scared or seductively enticed by the screen, then you may also appreciate our loving look back at all the fabulous thrillers, (especially from the decade of the 90’s) that make the genre fun, even still.

With Quad Cinema in New York City’s West Village hosting it’s first Al Pacino retrospective, it seemed a fitting time to start the site by looking back at one of Pacino’s most provocative performances, also included in the two week screening with an appearance by the actor himself. Tickets to that are unfortunately already sold out, but not to other screenings. This means you can settle in for a bag of popcorn, play hooky from whatever responsibility you may have, and settle in for a showing of the campy thriller that is Sea of Love.

The movie stars Al Pacino as Frank Keller, a washed up cop, deep in the drink, and still reeling from a split with his wife, who just happened to leave him for a fellow cop. When a string of homicides leads him to the sexy, mysterious Ellen Barkin, his mundane life becomes filled with mystery, passion, singles ads (the mo of the killer) and sex. Lots of sex. Keller can’t help but be intrigued by his suspect, and with each clue, and murder plummeting him further towards the killer, he gets more deeply involved with both her and the case. Obviously he’s mixing business with pleasure, but it’s unclear whether he’s truly mixing danger with desire. On the other hand, in Sea of Love there is a very fine line between both those subjects.

Behind it all is a string of murders rooted in a record playing of the The Honeydrippers ballad Sea of Love, which plays in the background. Though we don’t know much about Barkin’s Helen Cruger, she certainly leaves a lot to the imagination. In a time when Sharon Stone’s sort of  unclear homicidal tendencies made a thrilling impact on film, Sea of Love also plays off the idea of ambiguity. As the audience, we too, aren’t sure if we’re laying in bed with a killer, or someone deeply seeded in her own mysterious makings. Either way, it makes for a fun ride.

Similar to other films of the same time, like Michael Douglas’s Nick Curran in Basic Instinct, the male protagonist isn’t particularly likable or heroic. Ellen Barkin, while beautiful, and with a dangerous subtlety also doesn’t do much to convince us of innocence, or wickedness either way. And yet, the chemistry of these two souls brought together by circumstance is both thrilling and charismatic. Even if it does involve a cheesy courtship, supermarket scene. What winds up standing out is a story about two people. Underneath the gritty unknown of New York City, buried under death, loneliness, and lust, you can find love.

If this sounds like something to sink your teeth into (or revisit), head over to DVD Netflix to rent this 90’s thriller now. As both a lover of ACTUAL dvd’s, (and a DVD Nation ambassador) its my absolute favorite way to revisit old films, especially vintage thrillers like this one.

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The Allure of the Sexy Thriller

As a child in Manhattan, my mom would take me to the movies constantly. From Christmas Eve traditions, to double features in the summer before we had air conditioning. I’ve always expressed my love of movies, not like it’s something you can really hide or store away. Somehow this is one passion that always shows itself, be it with movie quotes, or attention to film detail. But films seem to have always played a role, in one way or another. From memories with mom, to being one of the bonding factors between me and the dude I dated who became my husband. Though I’m not quite sure how the fascination with this particular genre came about, I’ve always seemed to have an affinity towards it. Though, as I’ve mentioned previously, it can partly be traced back to a late night discovery one weekend at the grandparents, as a young girl.

Ever since then, I seem to be drawn to some allure of the sexy thriller. Growing up in the 90’s, I would watch these grown up films which I didn’t completely understand, and now as a 37 year old woman, I still have a fondness for them, especially those aforementioned 90’s flicks. Because let’s face it, they just don’t make them like they used to. As one of my favorite authorities on erotic thrillers put it not too long ago, ” A big-time moneymaker in the ‘80s and ‘90s that largely faded out by the new millennium, the erotic thriller combined elements of film noir and soft-core to sometimes cheesy, sometimes brilliant effect.”

Being someone who shares a love of the same oft forgotten genre, I love to see someone else explain so articulately how it affects them. Though my fondness for entertainment is still a resource, it’s become more and more important to shine a light on that theme which I love so much. One that frankly, deserves a little more respect and attention from society. If I’ve learned one thing from starting to immerse myself in the film writing world, it’s that there is in fact an audience for every unique niche.

In that vein, Sexy Thriller makes its debut. A place to celebrate all things sexy, and thrilling. Not just soft core style cheese from the 90’s, but those films that are also evocative, exciting, and have something to say. In this world, sexy thrillers aren’t simply about sex, or murder. From Vertigo, to Black Swan, to Tom Ford’s more recent Nocturnal Animals, we’re proving that there is in fact a place for the modernized sexy thriller in our society. And that definition can in fact take on different meanings, some subtle, others more blunt.

In a world filled with turbulent times, there’s hope that we can still find solace in the deeply escapist fun that is mysteries, and sexy thrillers, in all their forms.

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