(warning: contains spoilers)
Continuing on my intermittent look at Hollywood 1990s films, the 1990 thriller ‘Pacific Heights’ made only a modest impact when released in its day. It got OK reviews, decent box-office and is largely ignored today. But because of the storyline and the actors/director involved, I’d always been curious to see it and finally got around to seeing it. How does it hold up today?
‘Pacific Heights’ concerns a young couple Drake & Patty (Matthew Modine & Melanie Griffith) who buy a fancy property in San Francisco to not only live in, but rent out parts of it to multiple tenants. Their plans turn nightmarishly awry when tenant Carter Hayes (Michael Keaton) manages to not only lock himself in his apartment without payment, but every attempt Drake & Patty make to get rid of him blows up in their face. And Carter has bigger plans than just being a squatter.
The prime strength of this film is how well-detailed the characterisations of Drake & Patty are. From the opening scenes we get the sense that this rather ambitious couple are a bit out of their depth and overambitious, and a perfect target for someone like Carter Hayes.
This is especially true of Drake (Modine was born to play weak characters like this) who helps sink them into a legal and financial nightmare by reacting with emotion and anger as Carter plays him like a piano. Inevitably, Drake’s inability to handle the situation puts a strain on his relationship with Patty as she becomes increasingly disenchanted with him.
In contrast, Patty is clearly the more intelligent and observant of the two. Suspicious of Carter from the start, she is determined not to let Carter get away with his devious plans and in contrast to Drake, uses thoughtfulness and cunning to defeat Carter.
Regrettably, the film undoes this interesting contrast with a silly, violent finale where Carter returns to confront the couple. It’s a finale that almost feels like it resulted from studio pressure to create a more conventional ‘audience-pleasing’ ending.
One of the weaknesses of the film is that Carter (despite Keaton’s best efforts) doesn’t leave much of an impression as a villainous character. He is too vaguely drawn, with no scenes establishing what drives him as a character and why he does what he does.
Of particular interest in this film is the fact that it’s directed by British John Schlesinger. One of several notable directors who broke through in the British ‘kitchen sink’ film era of the early 1960s, he was as successful as any of them and with his sensational Hollywood debut with ‘Midnight Cowboy’ in 1969, it seemed as of a long and prosperous career was ahead of him. But while he made some interesting and noteworthy films in the 1970s, his post-Midnight Cowboy career never really took off into greatness like one would’ve expected.
By the time that ‘Pacific Heights’ was made, Schlesinger’s career had stagnated into relatively undistinguished thrillers like this. To be sure his skill and adeptness as a director is on display throughout and he gives it a sheen of class and interest that many other directors wouldn’t have. But overall, it seems a waste of his talents and is symbolic of the decline his career fell into, especially post-1980.
Overall, ‘Pacific Heights’ probably got the response it deserved at the time. It’s well-crafted and interesting, but due to a bit of complacency, a bit of slackness and perhaps not quite enough inspiration, it only is a passable, forgettable film instead of the top-notch thriller it could’ve been.
A final observation: watching this film the other day the first thing that struck me was how dated the film looked and felt. It was the first time watching a 1990s film I’d had that reaction and it was rather disconcerting as I’d always associated in my mind with the 1990s being relatively recent (especially for a film I can recall when it was released in cinemas).