Primal Fear

By Arnold, Gary | Insight on the News, May 6, 1996 | Go to article overview

Primal Fear


Arnold, Gary, Insight on the News


Recent thrillers are reviving classic narrative technique that accents wit and ambiquity.

Stealth and suspense are undeniable cinematic assets. We associate them more often than not with mystery and adventure thrillers such as Primal Fear and Executive Decision. But it can be just as enjoyable to watch cleverly contrived farce or romance unfold in a way that keeps us effectively in the dark. The comedy Flirting With Disaster, for example, prolongs suspense about the identity of the biological parents whom the film's protagonist is so keen on meeting to the bafflement of his wife and adoptive parents.

This trio of new films is a happy throwback. Few suspense situations improve on the one that sustained Jane Austen's Persuasion. Can a man and woman who still desire each other despite an estrangement years earlier succeed in reconciling? All kinds of social constraints and personal inhibitions argue against a happy resolution. Nevertheless, Austen, and her cinematic adaptors, pull it off. And the achievement is more relevant to ordinary human existence than that of many contrived thrillers.

Hitchcock called the key to it all the "MacGuffin"--the valued but elusive object of pursuit in any given chase plot. As a rule, the MacGuffin is a tangible treasure: The Maltese Falcon in John Huston's film is probably the best single example, in part because it remains mythically unattainable. Subtler forms of suspenseful stimulation are predicated on mysteries of personality and motive, reminding us of how vulnerable everyone is to misapprehension, to misreadings of character.

Ernest Lehman's screenplay for North by Northwest supplied Hitchcock with the wittiest example of the MacGuffin. There is no George Kaplan, the phantom spy who forces advertising executive Roger Thornill (Cary Grant) to sustain a reluctant heroic masquerade in the interest of self-preservation. Indeed, certain roles and performances prove uniquely intriguing because they embody stealth and misapprehension. The young actor Edward Norton, cast as the defendant in a brutal homicide, must remain an ambiguous figure to both the audience and the unscrupulous attorney played by Richard Gere in Primal Fear. Norton preserves this ambiguity so brilliantly that it seems only logical to pencil him in as the next Oscar winner for best supporting actor: He reinforces the system of illusion in Primal Fear as decisively as Kevin Spacey, this year's winner, did in The Usual Suspects.

Faulty character readings are a common source of unease and mortification. Primal Fear exaggerates this threat with exceptional skill, linking it to the increasingly defensive and desperate measures taken by Gere, who plays a criminal attorney whose vanity, celebrity and cynicism conspire to cloud his judgment. …

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