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SYFY WIRE 1990s

Basic Instinct: Paul Verhoeven’s Racy Noir Love Letter to Hitchcock-Style Thrillers

Vertigo had its red pendant necklace… but Sharon Stone goes straight for the stabby ice pick.

By Benjamin Bullard
Detective Nick Curran (Michael Douglas) smiles in the front seat of a car as Catherine Tramell (Sharon Stone) smiles in the back seat in Basic Instinct (1992).

Basic Instinct (streaming here on Peacock) made waves on its 1992 release thanks to a mere split second of Sharon Stone’s luridly-flashed bare skin, creating a one-note media buzz that all but overshadowed what the movie was all about… not to mention the incredible genre versatility that American audiences were coming to appreciate from Dutch-born director Paul Verhoeven.

RELATED: 45 thoughts we had while watching Basic Instinct

With three decades of perspective now passed between then and now, all the racy titillation has long since subsided, allowing Verhoeven’s psychological thriller the freedom to stand apart from the circumstances of its initial reception. Directed by Verhoeven from a story by reliable 1980s screen-scorcher scribe Joe Eszterhas (Flashdance, Jagged Edge), it’s a gripping neo-noir tale that audaciously stokes the same thematic flames that Alfred Hitchock ignited all the way back in the 1940s and 1950s with masterpiece shockers like Rope and Vertigo — only this time, with far fewer restraints.

How Paul Verhoeven does thrillers: Hitchcock suspense with an R-rated twist

Audacity, in fact, oozes across every frame of Basic Instinct, whether it’s Verhoeven’s numerous Hitchcock homages (of both the subtle and on-the-nose variety), the alpha-dog appetites of its two biggest stars (Stone as playgirl crime fiction author, Catherine Tramell, and Michael Douglas as tragedy-haunted homicide cop, Nick Curran), or the Hitchcock-like confidence to lead the audience along on a leash of suspense until the movie’s absolute final chain-yanking moments.

Following hot on the heels of a pair of back-to-back sci-fi triumphs (1987’s RoboCop and 1990’s Total Recall), Basic Instinct also marked a major swerve for Verhoeven away from future-tech dystopia and straight into slick and stylized thriller territory. Coming early in the amazing string of 1990s blockbusters (including Showgirls, Starship Troopers, and Hollow Man) that would eventually place Verhoeven alongside names like Stephen Spielberg and James Cameron as one of the decade’s cultural-touchstone creators, it’s easily one of his most elegantly-crafted movies — a product, perhaps, of its Hitchcock-inspired noir heritage.

We’re not kidding about the Hitchcock stuff; it’s everywhere you look in Basic Instinct. Riding along in the car with Stone and Douglas, as the camera pans past San Francisco landmarks or cuts across the California coastal ranges, gives Vertigo fans instant flashbacks of Kim Novak and Jimmy Stewart, while an especially voyeuristic peek past apartment panes across a high-rise alleyway aptly echoes the suspicions of Stewart’s amateur murder sleuth in Rear Window. And have we mentioned audacity already? It’s there in spades when it comes to Hitchcock’s Rope, with Catherine flatly flaunting to Nick that she could craft the perfect murder alibi if she really wanted to… even as she’s in the very act, perhaps, of making him part of the story.

RELATED: Hollow Man: Kevin Bacon, Paul Verhoeven Riff on Invisible Man is Still Goofy, Gory, and Gleefully Great

If Nick is being love-duped into falling for Stone’s ice-cold femme fatale, though, he’s definitely doing it with his eyes wide open in this movie. With an abandon that’s unique to Verhoeven’s adults-only films (and completely unlike its noir forebears from the 1950s), Basic Instinct fully commits to its capital-R rating in every possible way. There’s sex, gore, and potty language galore as Nick — played by Douglas as a Miami Vice-meets-Wall Street mix of Sonny Crockett and Gordon Gekko — admits with brutal self-honesty (and admirable swagger) that he’s willingly walking straight into Catherine’s well-laid murder trap… maybe. Probably.

Catherine Tramell (Sharon Stone) smokes a cigarette in a car's rearview mirror in Basic Instinct (1992).

What is Basic Instinct About?

Plot-wise, Basic Instinct is a labyrinth of effect-and-cause story breadcrumbs that all lead to murder: murder in the past, murder in the present, and — if Nick isn’t careful — murder in the not-too-near future. While the movie waits ’til the very last minute to point a finger at the true suspect, all the killings are connected, and making sense of those connections is (surprisingly) pretty easy. Aided by some secret shared-history revelations about bygone crimes that force him to confront key characters he’s known (and maybe even slept with) for years, it all takes on a sort of vertigo of its own for Nick, who eventually comes to realize that he’s been caught up in an enormously well-baited plot that took someone almost half a lifetime to concoct.

There’s a straightforward candor to the way Stone and Douglas play their characters against one another in Basic Instinct, buoyed by a set of hardened personal boundaries that each, for their own reasons, has thrown up to cope with past tragedy. Their noir-ish lovers’ dialogue definitely isn’t Bogart-and-Bacall delicate; these are two tough and worldly-wise characters who more or less agree that they deserve the worst of whatever the other can inflict.

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Sure, in another movie, that might make for a less-than-compelling game of murderous cat and mouse. But in Verhoeven’s hands, it effectively escalates the mounting suspense. Both of these people know they’re tapping into the most dangerous parts of their natures and barreling toward some kind of spectacular crash… but neither is in any particular hurry to tap the brakes.

Basic Instinct is definitely Stone and Douglas’ movie, but as with most Verhoeven projects, the stakes really percolate on the strength of a killer supporting cast. Jeanne Tripplehorn takes on plot-quaking significance as an SFPD psychologist with ties to both Nick and Catherine, while character actor George Dzundza emerges as the movie’s unsung hero as Gus — Nick’s police partner, buddy, and ample provider of tension-slicing comic relief.

Fun fact: Two more supporting stars in Basic Instinct should look familiar to 1990s fans. Jurassic Park and Seinfeld standout Wayne Knight plays a far less slapstick role here as a nebbish district attorney’s assistant, while the late Daniel von Bargen (who played George’s mentally absent boss Mr. Kruger on Seinfeld) comes on tough as an irascible (and ultimately shady) police lieutenant.

Catch Basic Instinct streaming on Peacock here.