Color of Night

(Richard Rush, USA, 1994)


Color of Night is a principal overlooked-and-underrated movie of the mid ’90s. It is hard to imagine that many other mainstream American movies are even half as odd as this one. It is an excessive film on every level of content and style, wildly overstated, overlong, straining at the leash – and yet absolutely compelling and memorable.

The plot does not sound promising. A psychoanalyst (Bruce Willis) is traumatised by the sight of one of his patients hurling herself out of his window, and instantly goes colour blind. He visits a colleague (Scott Bakula) whose group therapy practice gathers the ripest bunch of crazies ever seen in cinema history. Nymphomania, anal-compulsive disorder, denial, alienation, gender confusion … this group has the lot.

Murder, deceit and a femme fatale (Jane March) figure prominently in the film’s unfolding. So it is easy to peg Color of Night as an erotic whodunit in the shallow tradition of Joe Eszterhas’ scripts for Basic Instinct (1992) and Sliver (1993). Its references, however, go deeper: Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), Brian De Palma‘s Body Double (1984), Samuel Fuller’s Shock Corridor (1963).

More importantly, where Eszterhas gleefully sacrifices coherence and theme for any old cheap thrill, this is a film that actually makes sense. However melodramatically, it follows a central idea all the way to its conclusion, and does not cheat the viewer.

Who is the auteur lurking behind all this? Those who have followed the filmmaking career of Matthew Chapman – whose lurid and intriguing Heart of Midnight (1988) prefigures much of the material here – will recognise his distinctive psycho-sexual contribution to the script. But Color of Night truly belongs to director Richard Rush, who has not been behind a camera since his acclaimed ‘action art film’ The Stunt Man (1980), starring Peter O’Toole.

Rush gives this film everything he’s got. It is a hyper-stylised, self-consciously postmodern thriller. Virtually every frame is filled with baroque ornamentation – eye-popping architecture, designer erotica, mirrors, screens, giant keyholes. The sexy-saxophone score drearily prevalent in films of this genre is exaggerated by composer Dominic Frontiere (who has scored films since the early ’60s) until it becomes manic and intense.

Rush does wonderful work with his cast. Although there is an element of camp self-parody in the film, no one is allowed to perform in an overtly nudge-wink manner. Willis has never been as strong or appealing. Histrionic actors who rarely sit well within the confines of normal drama, such as Lesley Ann Warren or Brad Dourif, here find their perfect vehicle. And Ruben Blades, as the cynical, aggro detective tailing Willis, is simply marvellous – a whole movie unto himself.

It is not a perfect work. At two and a half hours, it rather outstays its welcome. And the much-hyped sex scenes are a little ridiculous. (It shares with Sex and Zen [1991] a particular thing for underwater lovemaking.) But Color of Night deserves to be rescued from the sorry basket of guilty pleasure to which it has been consigned. It is a vigorous, inventive, often mind-boggling movie which revitalises the stale genre of the erotic thriller.

© Adrian Martin March 1995

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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