Of all the erotic thrillers released in the wake of Basic Instinct, Color of Night is perhaps the most preposterous – and the most visionary. By this stage, the erotic thriller was starting to converge with other genres – in this case, the slasher film – making for a heady maximalist brew in which Richard Rush threw everything at the wall, and nearly everything worked. In this late stage of the erotic thriller, directors started to focus on the ways that unleashed female sexuality threatened male perception, and by extension cinematic perception, signalling a new digital media regime somewhere beyond the male gazes of analog Hollywood. Accordingly, Color of Night starts with a major perception shift, experienced by therapist Bill Capa, played by Bruce Willis, who becomes red-green colour blind after witnessing blood pooling around a patient who jumps to her death from his office window.
This is a pretty high-concept premise, but Color of Night doesn’t focus on this color-blindness as much as you might expect. Instead, Rush, and screenwriters Billy Ray and Matthew Chapman, use Bill’s color-blindness to anchor a story that revolves around how female eroticism distorts and disfigures traditional cinematic space. From the very start of the film, it’s difficult to situate yourself in space, or figure out how other people are situated. The opening scene looks like a private residence, or an office, due to the close-ups, unusual compositions and extensive mirrors in the background. Similarly, the body language is hard to parse – at first Bill seems like a colleague to the woman in the frame, then an intimate. It only becomes clear this is a therapist office, that Bill is a therapist, and that the woman is his patient, when she leaps to her death, falling fifty storeys through space to the street below.
The second scene is equally difficult to parse. We shift to Los Angeles, where Bill appears in the midst of a group therapy scene. There are a series of 90s oddballs in this scene – Sondra, a nymophomaniac, Clark, an obsessive-compulsive, Buck, a depressive, Casey, a latent homosexual, and Richie, who is experiencing what the film describes as “gender confusion,” but who we would now understand as a trans man. Bill is also amidst this motley crew of mental health patients, as is his best friend, Bob Moore, played by Scott Bakula, who is leading the session. We only learn this gradually, however, as the scene is shot in quite a disorienting way, and goes on for a long time, accompanied by a jaunty organ track that seems totally out of place with the opening suicide scene. Finally, the pieces all fit into place, but no sooner than they do and we’re out in the LA cityscape, where the film becomes even more disarming.
During this abbreviated first act, Bill and Bob catch up and spend time together, spending time in and around Bob’s spectacular house in what appears to be Pacific Palisades. Rush evokes a massive swathe of space even as he hugs his characters in tight close-ups, laying out expansive trajectories, in which they drive and cycle through LA, while keeping his camera very close, so that we sense more than see these enormous spaces. He’ll often feature an elaborate establishing shot – crowds and spotlights outside a Spoon concert on Wilshire – but then cut rapidly, before we can take it in or properly orient ourselves. At times, his style recalls Brian De Palma’s combination of zany movements and cavernous spaces, but the alternation is more extreme here, making it hard to gauge the scale and significance of any one scene.
To deal with this slippage between tight shots and huge spaces, Rush focuses, time and again, on people propelling themselves forcefully into open air. This radically expands the scope of his shots, revealing that the spaces we’re seeing are much broader, and more porous, than initially appeared. We see it, of course, when Bill’s patient jumps out the window, and then when Richie, the trans patient, leaps across the room during the first therapy session to throttle Sondra. We see it even more dramatically in the plot point that ends this abbreviated first act – when Bob is killed by an unknown assailant in his office. After the lights suddenly go off, a masked killer leaps through the glass to seize Bob. Both parties twist and sway unnecessarily, and there’s lots of smashing through glass, as if they’re both struggling to push the camera back, and so provide us with a more omniscient viewpoint to take the scene in.
All of these leaping scenes are associated with female agency in some way – or with a perceived decline in masculine agency. Bob’s patient is a woman, the next leaper is a trans man, and Bob’s murderer seems somehow bound up with Rose, the woman he was seeing, played by Jane March, who turns her attentions to Bob once he decides to stay in Bill’s house for a few weeks. We first meet Rose as a disruption of the first really expansive vista in the film – an over-the-shoulder shot through Bill’s windscreen as he drives Bob’s car beside the ocean. Before we can fully immerse ourselves in this shot, however, Rose rams into the back of Bill’s car, with a fender-bender big enough to dislocate the widescreen perspective. Similarly, Rose’s first malicious gesture is turning on Bob’s hoses and letting the water trickle through the house, sending Bill careening into open space when he slips after arriving home.
This first meeting with Rose foregrounds the second act in two key ways. First, it prepares us for even more flamboyant forms of spatial dislocation. Rose and Bill spend their first date at a restaurant in a hotel, and are seated on a narrow area that forms a bridge over the main foyer, where the life of the hotel continues on unabated, right down to a pair of children riding a bellboy’s trolley beneath where Rose and Bill are eating. No sooner does Rush establish this zany sense of space than he shifts back to a vaselined close-up of Rose and Bill looking in each other’s eyes. This sudden foreclosure and distortion of space paves the way for Bill’s confession of his colour-blindness to Rose – and from hereon, colour-blindness is used to convey this female erotic distortion of space, and of the red-blooded American male.
These spatial distortions continue as Bill starts to investigate Bob’s practice. He learns that Richie, the trans patient, was previously treated by a Dr. Niedelmeyer, who lives in the LA suburbs. When he arrives at the huge Niedelmeyer house, the camera moves quickly through the enormous vista to linger on a single cornerstone, before reducing its scope even further to hone in on Mrs. Niedelmeyer as she peers out through a single slot in the door. We learn, before Bob, that Rose is involved with each of the different group therapy patients, which in turn leads to more disorienting configurations of space. The first time she appears in character, as Sondra’s girlfriend, it’s almost impossible to tell what’s going on, although we at least know more than Bill, who enters the scene from a great distance, as the two women look out the window to see his car cruising down the street, and Rose makes a hurried exit.
This brings us to the second main way in which Rose’s first meeting with Bill foreshadows the rest of the film. In films about masculine crisis in LA, driving has typically been used to orient or reset masculine perception. That’s the underlying dynamic of film noir, which the suggestively titled Color of Night often seems to be interrogating in the wake of the erotic thriller. During the early parts of the second act, Bill takes on the peripatetic persona of the noir detective, move from one patient’s house to the next as he builds connections, uncovers clues, and tries to deduce which one killed his friend. These scenes often feel a bit like Clue, or even an Agatha Christie mystery, especially when the jaunty organ theme emerges again.
Yet this restored sense of space only lasts so long, since Rush quickly draws on the hyperbolised car chases of Basic Instinct and applies them to LA. The peak of Bill’s investigation comes with the most expansive shot so far – him in his car, on the freeway, shot from a helicopter, evoking total control of physical space. At this very moment, however, he receives a phone call from a threatening, genderless voice, before a vivid red car bangs into him from behind, echoing Rose’s opening fender bender. The following chase accelerates so rapidly that it totally undercuts the serene vantage point of the windscreen, forcing Bill off the highway onto surface streets, and then into the back of a towtruck, as cars tumble on the road around him, destroying even the most residual momentum of driving. Even then, the chase intensifies, until all trace of wide vistas is gone, and we’re locked in close-ups, as the two cars couple together, and then uncouple at the very moment that they’re hit by a train.
This chase scene parodies the panoptic perception usually attributed to the LA investigator, as does the sole police officer in the film – Detective Martinez, played by Ruben Blades. As a Hispanic singer, Blades feels comically incongruous in a film so fixated on white angst, and sure enough he exists mainly to mock Bill’s quest for objectivity, forcing Bill to retaliate by making innuendos about his sexuality. This parodic panopticism peaks with a LAPD helicopter that hovers, precariously, clad with strippers, over one of Martinez’s parties, and then with an even more extreme and compressed car chase. This time, the red car follows Bill to a carpark, waits for him to park, on the fifth storey, and then waits for him to return to the ground, before ramming his car over the edge of the building. Combining the driving and leaping motifs of the film, Bill now has to leap through the air as his own careens through the air above. There’s no more emasculating spectacle for a certain kind of noirish masculinity.
That’s not to say that Bill is totally emasculated here, since the film is renowned for its explicit sex scenes, most of which have been tempered for streaming services, despite turning it into something of a video nasty during the VHS era. Most erotic thrillers were driven by oral fixations, featuring sex scenes that started with the two leads gnawing at each other’s bodies like they hadn’t eaten for years. Rush takes that fixation to a new level here, starting the main sex scene with Bill and Rose caressing each underwater, then shifting to a fountain, and finally to a shower, in what seems like a classic softcore trajectory. Even so, Bill is never in control of this relationship – he never knows when Rose is coming by, and doesn’t have her number, so he just waits for her, playing the passive role in the relationship. Worse, he discovers, in the third act, that all his patients had been seeing Rose, and discussing her in therapy, without knowing it, meaning he can’t extricate his own perception from their supposed pathologies.
The final twist is even more dramatic, however, since it turns out that Rose is also Richie, the trans man. Due to a complex back story revolving around Dr. Niedelmeyer, Rose’s brother forced her to live partly as a man, turning her trans against herself. When Bill discovers this, Rose has been nailed by her brother Dale, played by Andrew Lowery, to a piece of iron. Bill has to exorcise the trans man from Rose, pulling out the nails in a kind of reverse crucifixion, before Dale turns up, and starts shooting at them both with the nail gun. For a moment, Bill starts to win, especially once Martinez shows up in support, and the spatial scheme of the film very nearly reaches equilibrium with a dramatic triple deep focus shot that shows every party in this final standoff. Yet Bill can’t quite escape the trauma of having dated a trans man, or his more distant homoerotic rapport with Bob, which returns to the surface now that Dale ties him up in a cage, puts a strap on his neck, and prepares him to greet a fetishistic death.
As a result, when Bill escapes from the cage, with Rose’s help, a regular restoration of space will no longer do. Instead, Bill and Rose escape Dale by ascending the spire of this building, appropriately titled Paradox Iron, until they reach the very top of the radio tower. The film now leaves realism behind, and symbolically returns to New York, the site of Bill’s trauma, but a stylised New York that looks more like the pinnacles of Gotham City. Clad in dark blue hues, with the city twinkling far beneath, the verticality of this structure is impossibly heightened way beyond any edifice in Los Angeles. The vertical space segues into a synecdoche for verticality itself, as the film seeps into a proto-superhero register to restore its own fantasy of masculine omniscience. In the last beat, Rose falls into space, Bill catches her with one hand, and we glimpse the superhero revolution a decade away, as Bill finally sees red again, and his perception is restored – but as a rupturing of reality, as the most lurid fantasy possible.