Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Vertigo vs. Basic Instinct


Before anybody starts thinking that I'm going to compare Basic Instinct (1992) to Alfred Hitchcock's masterpiece Vertigo (1958) - don't panic. I found Basic Instinct a very average film that started well but unfortunately dragged out 45minutes too long, for which the plot and characters became boring, unrealistic - and the ending I no longer cared for. This was a shame, as I found Stone's character really cool and interesting at the beginning, and the pace of the film was fast in the first hour.

However, I was struck by how similar Sharon Stone's character, Catherine Tramell, was similar in appearance to Kim Novak's character in Vertigo, Madeleine. It turns out that I wasn't alone in this, and when I looked it up on Google, many others had noticed this similarity too. I don't know if the intention of the make-up artist or costume designer was to base Stone's appearance on Novak's, but it sure is similar, and one cannot deny that Novak's look in Vertigo is striking and unforgettable.

Here are just a few images to show the comparison. I'm sorry that this isn't a very long or interesting article, but I am always fascinated when films take inspiration from the classics - especially when it comes to characters and appearance.

The scene I will be referring to where Stone is most like Novak is in the infamous interrogation scene from Basic Instinct.

Firstly, the costume. Although the colours of the dresses are different, both are turtle neck, and are worn with a stylish, white coat. Stone wears a white dress - I'm supposing this is to symbolise that she is "innocent" of the crime that she is being investigated over - whilst Novak's was black - possibly to contrast her coat and show that there are two sides to her character. The outfit is striking, glamorous, yet very simple, and makes our leading ladies look memorable.

Secondly, is the hairstyle. In Vertigo, Novak's hairstyle is of particular importance, and although Stone's differs ever so slightly, it is still in the same French-style bun - tightly pulled back, revealing her fantastic face. I am not talking about the 'Carlotta' hairstyle that Novak sports in some scenes, rather the style she wears it in when she's not "in a trance."Another point - they both have very light blonde hair.

Finally, the make-up. Novak's eyebrows in Vertigo differ greatly from how she normally wore them. For this role, her eyebrows are much darker than her hair colour, thicker, and denser. Stone's are the same, but instead of being heavily drawn on, hers have not been plucked. The make-up is considerably light. Their eyes are framed and their flawless skin enhanced, but no heavy make-up is used - it appears that both make-up artists wanted to show their naturally beautiful features. Another similarity is they both wear a very pale lip - almost as pale as their skin. Their make-up is simple, low-key, but striking too, in that it shows off their incredible bone structure, mesmerising eyes, and natural attributes.

Anyone who has seen Vertigo will have noticed this when watching Basic Instinct. I tried to think of other similarities between the films but there were few notable ones. Both are set in San Francisco, and both feature a detective who follows and then becomes obsessed with a woman. But both women are very different - Novak is innocent and unaware of how Stewart will become attracted to her (although she is aware that she is being used in a murder plot), whilst Stone starts reeling Douglas in from the moment she meets him, and she is a murderer. Basically, there are connections but none can really be elaborated on. However, it is interesting that Novak's character be the basis for the look of Stone's in her most famous scene, especially when they are so different and the film involves a detective following and becoming obsessed with a woman in San Francisco. If anyone has any thoughts on this, please share in the comment section.


  1. I loved this post firstly as I'm a huge Vertigo fan, secondly I've been reading books by Joe Eszterhas the screenwriter of Basic and (they're great btw, esp the one about Hollywood)thirdly I like your writing! Eszterhas was very film influenced by classic cinemas' sexy ladies, particularly those that smoked. I totally see the styling & clothing reference - well done - the white coat and hairdo my gosh! But I don't see their personalities as being that similar, some common traits but I think it's more that they wanted to allude to our memories of femme fatales in knife-edge thrillers. Great work! xxxx

    1. Hi Daisy! Yes absolutely, their personalities are very different. Catherine is very strong and sexually aware, whilst Madeleine comes across as quite weak (still love her though). What is interesting is how similar they look but how different they are, and yet they both have a detective obsessed with them. But that's very interesting that you read Eszterhas's books - the physical similarities make more sense now. I will have to check out that Hollywood book of his. I love it when films allude to the classics, and it would seem that many like to allude to the femme fatale and screen goddesses of that time. So glad you enjoyed this post! Thanks! xxx

  2. Great to see you back Claudia and interesting pick too! I finally saw Basic Instinct in September and despite how heavy-handed the film was, I found it ridiculously excellent. It's a very ironic film that self-consciously plays with your expectations and with the erotic thriller clich├ęs with great style, an achievement that hasn't been matched by subsequent or previous erotic thrillers. I would like to point out another reference to Vertigo that was striking too : the hero torn between two women, a blond and a brunette. The brunette represents stability, a more realistic and accessible and self-sacrificing side of love that both men torture and manipulate (the strange raw sex scene with Jeanne Tripplehorn and Kim Novak as a brunette with a cheaper look) and the mysterious blond, whose strong sexuality or life or her own fascinates the male protagonists. Both men also share a traumatic event : Stewart with his fear of heights and the accidental death of his colleague and Michael Douglas' own issues in a previous case.
    When watching the film, I was struck by how much the film borrowed a lot to film noir in terms of the messages conveyed in the film. With AIDS emerging in the 80s and the extreme popularity of the erotic thriler genre, sexuality depicted in these movies was portrayed as a cause to violent death, so these women appeared as deathly and these films contituted some sort of puritanical warning, despite graphic sexual content. That film is also amazing to see for whole other reasons : the way the motif of cigarettes were used to create an iconic character whose headstrong, rebellious and defiant (Stone's interrogation scene where she challenges interrogators to stop her from lighting the cigarette and Douglas reproducing that scene later on). Eszterhas later said that cigarette sales exploded thanks to the film's gigantic success and a special line was directly created based upon Catherine Tramell. However, he only confessed he had made a huge mistake promoting cigarettes after having cancer himself and realising the huge impact cigarettes could have back then on viewers.
    Love your article Claudia and can't wait to read them! I'll get the book Daisy recommended! Tons of love! xoxo

  3. I think it started brilliantly, the first hour was fast-paced, you couldn't really tell who the killer was, and Sharon Stone was really cool. But after that there were way too many scenes - most of which were short and meaningless. I honestly think a good 45minutes could have been cut from it. Shame really. Starts well, but runs out of steam halfway through. Yes the blonde motif is strong, as is the detectives both having a weakness of a past event that the woman can manipulate (even if Novak wasn't intentionally). Stone sure makes the cigarette look glamorous, but then so do most actors - something about cigarettes in film that is timeless - perhaps it's because it's so related to film and movie stars, particularly of the classic era. Really happy you enjoyed my post Steph, thanks for commenting and sharing your views! xxx

  4. Well spotted, Claud! It is indeed fascinating to find this type of similarities between characters and appearances in different eras.

    One personal note: I understand that you felt the second half of Basic instinct turned out to be unrealistic and even boring, but I think it looks that way when you analize it just as a film noir movie. When the fact is I don't really think this is a film noir product: the point of the film is not finding out who the killers is following the police investigation, that's just the excuse. This is Paul Verhoeven movie, I don't know if you're familiarized with his work. He's touched so many genres during his career (sci-fi, thriller, action, epic, war, fantasy, erotic) yet he always does it without really bending to the conventions of each genre, cause what he really wants is talking about his own themes: the obsessions of the human flesh, especially sex and violence. That's what drives "Basic instinct", not the mystery of the murders or the manipulation of the characters. That's why I think the ending is what gives the film its meaning. If Catherine Trammel died at the end, like so many classic femmes fatales, or if she run away with a lot of money to live free of male influence, like modern femmes fatales, the movie would not offer anything new apart from a very neat approach to the sexual part. It's the fact that both the murderous femme fatale and the manipulated detective decide they rather stay together than follow their "career opportunities", that gives the film a whole new perspective.

    PS: Have you seen "The vierde man" (The fourth man)? It's from Paul Verhoeven too, 1983, psycho thriller, and I think it has more similarities with "Vertigo" than "Basic instinct" does.

    1. Hi Clara! No I'm afraid Im not familiar with Verhoeven's other work. To be fair the fact that they both end up together in the end and we see a shot of the ice pick under the bed is very clever. But I did feel that the film would have been better with a few scenes cut - they just slowed the second half down to the point where I, personally, lost interest in it. Maybe on a second watch I would enjoy it more. Thank you for commenting though! Glad I'm not the only one who likes noticing a hommage to a past actress/character in film :)

  5. Faye Dunaway and Grace Kelly also had this classic blonde look

  6. wihh nice info
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    Obat tradisional Vertigo