Remember the good ol’ days? No, I’m not a horrible, piece of shit racist longing for those so-called “good ol’ days.” I mean when Hollywood made a slew of films exclusively for adults. These naughty flicks were 99% R-rated and babysitters made bank while tired parents grabbed a bite at Bennigan’s before catching the latest dirty movie made by a major studio. You can buy your tickets right in front of everyone! There’s something sexy about danger and the erotic thriller became a mainstay in cinemas through the late 80’s and especially the early 90’s. Sex sells and it’s been a part of the movie business for over a hundred years. The 70’s didn’t specialize in eroticism and focused more on the gritty realism afforded by the collapse of the studio system and changing times. In the 80’s, it was practically a free-for-all.
Some of the best examples are Brian DePalma’s American giallo Dressed to Kill and Body Double, officially making him the heir apparent to Hitchcock as far as combining sex and suspense goes. One of the finest films of the early 80’s is Lawrence Kasdan’s directorial debut, Body Heat (1981), a modern-day Double Indemnity riff that proved noir could still be done. There would be some dry patches as the slasher genre gained major traction and action films still reigned supreme, although Jagged Edge still kept the flame burning, among others. The turning point is certainly 1987’s Fatal Attraction, a major box office juggernaut, a cultural event, and a film that Brian DePalma ironically passed on after disagreements regarding Michael Douglas’ casting. Douglas would become one of the kings of the erotic thriller genre. There’s always another, and it’s important to point out that Alan Parker’s Angel Heart (1987) featured a very explicit sex scene and was released six months prior to Fatal Attraction, although its controversy didn’t lead to major box office success. Without the success of Fatal Attraction, films like Masquerade and even the far classier Dangerous Liaisons (featuring Attraction’s own Glenn Close) may not have been nearly as amped up in terms of sexuality. The climax, if you’ll forgive the pun, is inarguably Paul Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct (1992). In Biblical terms, Basic Instinct begat Single White Female, Sliver, Malice, Jade, the absolutely ridiculous Color of Night, Body of Evidence, and even the brilliant neo-noir The Last Seduction. Once again, however, there was another precursor to Basic Instinct’s success. 1990 saw the release of Night Eyes (1990), a low budget erotic noir that made some serious cash. Right in the middle of the period between Fatal Attraction and Basic Instinct and released less than a year before Night Eyes (which was likely inspired by it's success),1989's Sea of Love was a surprise hit, grossing over 100 million dollars worldwide.
I thought I’d reached my own personal best when I recognized a scene in the classic Simpsons episode “Mr. Plow” as a direct homage to William Friedkin’s brilliant but overlooked masterpiece Sorcerer (1977). I was wrong. Although it’s not nearly as obvious, the opening to Harold Becker and Richard Price’s erotic neo-noir absolutely served as an inspiration for the Simpsons episode in which Chief Wiggum and his crew lure wanted criminals to the station with the promise of a free motor boat. In Sea of Love’s case, a multitude of various thieves and dope pushers believe they’ve been invited to a breakfast meet-and-greet with the New York Yankees. Undercover Detective Frank Keller (Al Pacino) pours juice for various unsuspecting perps, including Do The Right Thing’s Luis Ramos. Latecomer Samuel L. Jackson, billed here as ‘Black Guy,’ already acts like the star he’ll soon become by informing Keller, who announces that there’s good news and bad news, to “Fuck that. Give up the bad news, homeboy.” He’s so good here that even without the knowledge of Jackson’s mega stardom, you expect him to have a bigger part. What’s the good news? The NYPD makes their juices ‘fancy’ by pouring some vodka in their cups before booking them.
We discover that Keller doesn’t always go strictly by the book, as another latecomer, Ernest Lee (Damien Leake, whose credits include Serpico and Highlander) brings along his adorable son to meet the Yanks. Keller asks one of his fellow plain clothes detectives (played by the great Paul Calderon, of King of New York and Pulp Fiction fame) what Lee is wanted for, then lets him go, adding “I’ll catch you later.”
Now, technically this fantastic opening isn’t really the opening. Instead, we get our title card, which I want so badly to complain about since the words Sea of Love fade up on a river, but never mind. In a shadowy apartment, lit by Oscar-winning DP Ronnie Taylor, a naked man humps his bedsheets while Phil Phillips and the Twilights’ “Sea of Love” plays on a record player. He appears both aroused and terrified. The camera pans up, we see a revolver, and POW! Later, a neighbor hears the song playing on repeat and she bangs on the door, which creaks open. It’s a nice and creepy scene as she freezes, uncertain of what to do. Becker wisely allows this moment to play out, jacking up the suspense since we know what she’ll find.
The score by Trevor Jones, a journeyman composer who provided the music for films by such artists as Jim Henson, Alan Parker, John Boorman, The Hughes Brothers, Alex Proyas, Jim Sheridan, Tamra Davis, Andrey Konchalovskiy, and Michael Mann, prominently features a saxophone. The instrument provides the proper mood but it hasn’t aged particularly well since it’s practically become a parody of itself. Frank Keller is a lonely divorcee and an alcoholic with an impressive array of booze bottles. One of the film’s major draws was the return of Al Pacino to the silver screen after the disaster of Hugh Hudson’s Revolution (1985). I’ve seen Revolution exactly once and all I remember is Pacino constantly whispering on the soundtrack. He returned to his true love, theatre, but you’d never notice he’d been missing as he gives a superlative performance here. Particularly strong are his drunk scenes. He drunk-dials his ex-wife (Lorraine Bracco, cut from the final film) and I’ve been around enough inebriated people to say that his slurred speech is very convincing.
At the crime scene, the cops are acting unprofessional and we’re introduced to Frank’s partner, Gruber, played by future Oscar-nominee Richard Jenkins, with HAIR!!! It’s so weird! Richard Price’s original screenplay is certainly inventive, as their conversation, which reveals the little tidbit that Gruber is now married to Frank’s ex-wife, takes place over the naked, dead man’s corpse. They argue over whether the murder took place 36 or 48 hours ago, Frank complains about “feeling kinda mortal” since he’s been a cop for 20 years, and then he calls Gruber a “fuck face” after the convo becomes too personal. The Lieutenant (The West Wing’s John Spencer) finds Frank highly amusing as he hypothesizes on how the naked man met his maker. Frank figures it was due to “grabbin’ the strange trim he got hooked up with” and that he was a “swordsman extraordinaire.”
There’s an authenticity to the way these police officers conduct themselves. This should come as no surprise since Richard Price has proven himself to be equally adept at writing accurate portrayals of both criminals and the cops who hunt them in such work as Mad Dog and Glory, Clockers, and The Wire. While some officers receive awards at a ceremony, Frank and another man are drawing most of the attention by engaging in a mock kung fu battle in the corner. Detective Sherman (national treasure John Goodman) introduces himself and informs Keller that his precinct has a similar murder case. They drink and talk, with Pacino explaining his theory that the song ‘Sea of Love’ could be the key to cracking the case. Goodman proves what a star he is by launching into an impromptu rendition of the song that is absolutely joyous. Keller gets drunk and says very sexually inappropriate things about his ex-wife to Gruber, who gets super pissed. A well-observed bit later shows Frank apologizing to Gruber and it’s satisfying to watch since most movies would just skip this short but important character moment.
Frank wanders back to the scene of the crime just as a woman, who answered a singles ad the murdered man placed, shows up at the doorstep. Gina (Christine Estabrook, who was in a childhood favorite, Second Sight), is very upset despite never having met the man. She comes to the conclusion, “Fate sucks, I swear."
Frank and Sherman concoct a scheme of placing a phony singles ad to lure the killer, whom they presume to be a woman, out of hiding. This gets nixed by the lieutenant. They track down another potential victim, who turns out to be a philandering family man named Raymond, played by versatile character actor Michael O’Neill of Bates Motel as well as a great single episode of 11.22.63. Raymond insists that he loves his family, to which Sherman hilariously replies, “Hey, Raymond! No kidding, we don’t give a shit!” They estimate that he’s plunked down nearly 900 bucks on the magazine ad, the P.O. box, and his love nest in Manhattan. Raymond also is the next one who ends up dead in the exact same fashion. This time, the lieutenant agrees to the sting operation.
There’s a fun scene where a bunch of tough guy cops try to find their sensitive side by writing a poem to entice the killer. They’re laughing at how bad they are at it, but Frank’s elderly father, played by Oscar nominee William Hickey (Prizzi’s Honor) recites a poem Frank’s mother wrote years ago. They place the ad and get a few bites.
Wearing a wire, Frank has a few dates while Sherman plays a waiter. The object is to get the potential killer to touch their wine glass so they can lift finger prints off it later. This film is suspenseful, but the most sphincter-clenchingly tense moment comes when Sherman almost drops the wine glass. Goodman’s physical work there is unbelievable. I’m surprised a restaurant let them do this, particularly on a clearly busy evening. Keller first encounters a much older woman, who seems nice but is crestfallen since she knows he won’t call her. A second woman sees right through Frank’s cover story as a printer, saying, “You’ve got cop eyes. You’re a printer, I’ve got a dick.” It’s pretty spectacular. Last is a blonde bombshell, Helen (Ellen Barkin, in a breakthrough role), who immediately rejects Keller based on her instinct for animal magnetism, which she claims he doesn’t have. She bolts without even touching her wine, and Frank sees the older woman watching him from the bar, which makes him feel pretty terrible.
There are a few red herrings thrown around, including a time waster about a black kid that Terry (Michael Rooker) saw leaving the scene of the crime. While they’re following a lead which goes nowhere, Frank is getting some groceries when Helen appears from out of nowhere, like an angel. Or the devil. Pacino and Barkin’s chemistry is spot-on as she sees right through his plagiarized poem. He confesses that his mother wrote it, which intrigues and endears him to Helen. They end up grabbing a drink and before they decide to head to Frank’s place, he says, “I have done some desperate things come 3 o’clock in the morning,” to which she replies, “You mean like being here with me?” Ellen Barkin is perfection in this film, brimming with confidence one minute, naked vulnerability the next.
Back at his place, it gets hot and heavy, and she excuses herself to get ready in the bathroom. Frank notices a revolver in her purse and he has an absolute freak out. “Holy fuck” and “what the fuck” are repeated frequently. It’s both intense and very funny since he has to process all of this so quickly. She comes out and he slams her against the wall, terrifying her. He shoves her into the closet and her reaction is so genuine, it’s devastating. This is the ultimate nightmare when it comes to one-night stands. The possibility that this stranger whom you’ve decided to trust may kill you. Frank sees that the “pistol” is only a starter pistol. She’s understandably furious, but he’s able to talk his way out of it by saying he got scared.
I’ve never thought of Pacino as being an actor with much sex appeal. He comes off more scrappy than smoldering. Barkin is definitely the one in charge here, whispering, “What do you want?” while feeling him up. It’s a very hot scene and when Helen wakes up much later, she climbs on top of him for another romp. “You’re killing me,” he says. In the morning, he claims he’ll “have to be airlifted to a standing position” since she absolutely wore him out. So...the date went well, I’d gather. Price’s dialogue is great as usual, “You smoke?” “I mooch.” I have a few issues with this post-coitus morning scene. She’s in his apartment and Frank had no idea he’d be bringing her home with him, so wouldn’t there be some cop stuff around? She makes coffee herself and the only thing Frank sees is a police trophy, which he promptly hides under the bed. Plus, he finds out she runs a boutique shoe store while he tells her he’s a printer. Wouldn’t she ask the name of the shop? Just to make a bit of conversation at least. Finally, she makes it clear she hates “liars and creeps.” For me, this should prompt him to come clean and tell her who he really is. Instead, he keeps mum. Yes, it could end in disaster, but why keep digging your own grave?
Sherman asks Keller if they need to “test his dick.” He does grab the coffee cup she used, but after thinking about it, he simply can’t believe that she’s the murderer, so he skips collecting it. When Sherman asks why she isn’t a suspect, Frank lies and says he asked her. Keller is head over heels and stops by her classy shoe store. While she gets ready to play a little footsie with him, two goons come in looking for some fancy boots. They recognize Pacino as a cop and there’s a tense moment as they come face to face. Helen tries to intervene but Keller literally shoves her back. Pacino is great in this scene because he literally says nothing. Just stares them down until they leave.
Although we got an inkling of it earlier, we learn here that Frank Keller is a master manipulator. Instead of leading with, “I’m sorry for not telling you I’m a cop,” he looks at Helen and says, “OK, what?” Helen gets angry all over again, which is understandable. To be clear, Helen gives Keller so many chances in this movie that it’s practically comedic. It doesn’t detract from the strength of the film, but the only reason she continues to see him is that Frank is super persuasive. He tells her about hitting the 20-year mark and that when he tells people he’s a cop, they see him as a “non-person.” She takes zero shits from anybody, but there’s something about Frank that draws her back.
We get some kinky role playing when she meets him at a grocery store wearing nothing but a trench coat. They end up at her place, where he finds her record collection. It includes a 45 of “Sea of Love.” Red flags once again. He’s mildly freaked out and when she shows him her sleeping daughter, he’s very evasive and desperate to leave. It’s frustrating in the right sense because they’re falling for each other but he can’t open himself up to her. Arriving back at his own apartment, his hallway is pitch black and he suspects someone is watching him.
“I feel like a fuckin’ teenager.” He wants to ask Helen to move in with him, so he takes her to a fancy dinner, but he’s a ball of nerves and ends up making them leave. As they walk, he points out where murders have taken place and indicates that living with him would have to include the possibility that he may not come home. He won’t come right out and ask her to move in with him, proving that he’s still on the fence about her innocence and his own insecurities. He lets it slip that he wore a wire the first time they met and she responds correctly: “Fuck you.” She storms off.
He shows up at her apartment around 1am and even though he’s completely at fault, he switches on that manipulating charm and turns the tables on Helen, making her think she’s been keeping things from him since she hasn’t told him her daughter’s name. Pacino is so likable as an actor that he’s one of those rare examples of a lying scumbag who doesn’t come off as a lying scumbag. He’s definitely in love with her, but he keeps digging himself deeper in the hole by not telling her the truth. Unfortunately, he notices the singles ad that he placed on the fridge, under which are the other ads...that happen to be the ones placed by all of the murder victims. This movie gives you whiplash with all of its twists and turns. All of this must be so hard on Helen because he once again freaks and leaves, coming off like a whacko.
He heads back to his apartment and she follows. She busts out “Sea of Love,” and the film has brilliantly built to this moment because what’s the answer? Is she the murderer because she’s playing the song? Or is she just playing it because he pointed out that she had it in her collection? It’s deliciously ambiguous. In a blisteringly intense scene, they first slow dance but he tries to take the opportunity to frisk her. Finally losing it, he won’t state specifically that he believes she’s a murderer, but he terrifies her and even offers her his gun to shoot him with since she still has the starter pistol only. It’s so complicated and nail-biting because what is she going to say? Barkin is amazing in this scene because she never makes it clear that she’s the murderer or just horrified. She leaves.
We get to the final twist as Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer himself Michael Rooker shows up out of nowhere and we finally figure out what the hell is going on. Harold Becker’s follow-up, Malice (1993), had very talented writers involved (Aaron Sorkin/Scott Frank), but had possibly the most random serial killer subplot I’ve ever seen in a film. I mean, literally, a serial killer turns up in the film and has zero consequence to the overall plot of Malice. At least in Sea of Love, it’s all connected. Terry is Helen’s ex-husband, whom she’s refused to talk about. He’s been tailing her and murdering all of the men she’s slept with from the personal ads. He makes Frank dry hump the bed while pointing a gun at him. “Show me what you did,” he commands. The trophy Frank hid is still under the bed, so he snatches it up and beans Terry with it. There’s a pretty rough fight that includes hitting each other with dumbbells. Keller gets the drop on him, but even though Terry gets shot in the shoulder, he keeps coming until finally getting thrown out a window and falling to his death.
Although there’s no title card, we find out later that 7 weeks have passed and Helen refuses to see Frank. He’s quit drinking and has transferred to a new precinct, presumably to get away from Helen. Sherman shows up and teases Keller mercilessly by making yummy sounds while drinking his beer. Frank has finally come to accept that it’s over between him and Helen. As he puts it, “People are work. A lot of work. It’s over. I put her through the ringer.” That he did. I appreciate that the movie acknowledges what he did to her, which could have been avoided if he’d been honest. Not trying to get on a high horse, but this isn’t an ‘idiot plot,’ just a situation that could’ve been simplified had Frank grown a pair and told her the truth. He’s convinced by Sherman to take one last shot.
He catches her at the shoe store, which she’ll soon be leaving since she wants out of the city. He wants to “re-introduce” himself to her and although she’s resistant, he turns on that Pacino charm. He really is adorable when he wants to be. As Tom Waits’ gravelly voice plays over the soundtrack, it seems like the two of them are going to be all right. Until Frank lies or starts drinking again, I guess.
In the early 90’s, Richard Price ran into one James Dearden, also known as the writer of Fatal Attraction. Price sarcastically said Dearden made his life a living hell because his original script was more of a character study that had been floating around for years but the studio had forced him to move it into Fatal Attraction-like territory. Dearden laughed and said he was getting ready to direct a movie and the producers were insisting he make it more like Sea of Love. How the tables turn and then turn again.
Armed with this bit of information, it’s unsurprising that Price’s script had been manipulated ruthlessly, but in one of those rare instances, it does work. Gregory Hoblit, one of the architects of Steven Bochco’s groundbreaking Hill Street Blues, was set to make his feature film debut with Sea of Love. However, after arguing with producer Martin Bregman (who produced many Pacino films, including Scarface) about the crew he wanted and his issues with the script, he was fired with only 10 days to go before principal photography commenced. This was a devastating setback for Hoblit, but he’d bounce back in 1996 with the very good thriller Primal Fear.
Harold Becker had been making films since the 60’s but his career didn’t really take off until the tail end of the 70’s, where he found his niche directing brainy thrillers. What’s rather fascinating about the IMDB rating (which I realize doesn’t mean very much) on nearly all of his feature films is that they rarely go below 6 but neither does the rating go above 7. He comes off as a competent and even talented filmmaker who just never made a masterpiece. The film that really got his career off the ground was The Onion Field (1979), which he followed up quickly with The Black Marble, Taps (a decent military school film), and Vision Quest, a bizarre mix of wrestling and romance that ultimately works. Sea of Love gave him A-list director status but his career seemed to peter off by simply not making profitable films. Most of the films weren’t terrible, they just underperformed. Malice, City Hall, Mercury Rising, and lastly Domestic Disturbance in 2001 were all disappointments. As of this writing, he hasn’t directed a feature film since.
There were two breakthroughs in Sea of Love. One for director Becker and the other for Ellen Barkin. Up until this point, she’d never had a role like this that she could sink her teeth into with such vigor. She was great as Daniel Stern’s infinitely patient and very smart fiancée in Diner (1982) and she’d appear in big supporting roles for films like Tender Mercies, Desert Bloom, and Jim Jarmusch’s Down by Law. I’d hazard the failure of Buckaroo Banzai stalled her career. She needed a hit to step up to the next level and she got it with Sea of Love. It was a difficult shoot for her, with a director she didn’t feel cared much for her, but Pacino was a dream to work with, supporting her all the way. It was probably helpful that they were both method actors; thus able to understand each other’s process. Her attitude and vivacious screen presence absolutely elevate the film and although Pacino is great here, she steals the show easily. It’s also great to see her back on screen after her marriage to Ronald Perelman ended. Her work on Animal Kingdom is outstanding.
As a so-called pioneer of the erotic thriller, Joe Eszterhas, for better or worse (probably worse), popularized sleaze and made it palatable for mainstream audiences. The results of his and other filmmaker’s vision for erotic thrillers are a mixed bag of good, bad, and outrageous, but Sea of Love may be the best of them. Is it as iconic as Fatal Attraction? No. Is it as sexually explicit as Basic Instinct? Again, no. Sea of Love works as a mature piece that features adults mostly acting like adults and just enough sex to be titillating but not gratuitous. To dip into the ratings on IMDB, which do fluctuate a bit, the film stands at a 6.8. I’ve always found this and the 6.9 rating very interesting. Another example is James Mangold’s Cop Land (1997) which has held at 6.9 for years. When I look at a film’s rating on IMDB, I go off of more than the rating. If there’s a director, writer, or star whose work I enjoy or would like to look into, I’m in. I have found, however, that these particular ratings that are just a hair under the 7 out of 10 score are telling. Steve De Jarnatt’s apocalyptic Miracle Mile sits at a 7.0. Why? It’s a very different film than the other two examples above, but it holds together all the way through to its harrowing conclusion. For Cop Land and Sea of Love, they’re almost there, both literally and metaphorically. Those scores tell me that some people were won over and gave both films a 7 or maybe even an 8. I can also see that others probably found the first half to be fine but as the third act rolled around the films lost some momentum and traction, so maybe not a 7, but at least a 6. There’s a very fine line there, but usually I’m not wrong about my assumptions when watching a film above or below an IMDB 7. I understand why Miracle Mile is 7.0. I can see why Sea of Love and Cop Land hover very close to that.
For now, Sea of Love is the classiest of the neo-noir erotic thrillers of the late 80’s and early 90’s boom. It’s a dark and complicated look at a relationship built on a lie that somehow survives despite enormous obstacles. Without its success, who knows when we would’ve seen Al Pacino again?