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Our Correspondents

Violence and gentrification in John Schlesinger’s Pacific Heights.

PACIFIC HEIGHTS, Matthew Modine, Melanie Griffith, 1990. TM and Copyright © 20th Century Fox Film Corp. All rights reserved..

Still from Pacific Heights.

“This is our home. This is all happening to us in our home.”

That is the sound of a white woman’s despair. It’s the second act break of the domestic thriller Pacific Heights, and Patty (Melanie Griffith) has just realized that her stupid, pseudo-liberal boyfriend and her smart, pseudo-liberal self are no match for their leering, destructive tenant (Michael Keaton), a failed trust-fund sociopath with a who-me? grin and a twofold goal: first destroy her home from the inside out, and then grab it for himself. Not to live in it, but to profit from its collapse.

When Pacific Heights was released in 1990, critics were puzzled and more than a little contemptuous of the workaday “real-estate thriller” directed by John Schlesinger in his post–Marathon Man slump. Patty and her boyfriend, Drake (Matthew Modine), are unmarried yuppies who’ve pooled their resources to buy an albatross of a Victorian fixer-upper in San Francisco’s rapidly gentrifying Pacific Heights neighborhood. They fudge the numbers on their mortgage application—“Everybody does it,” bleats Drake—and stay afloat by renting out two units to tenants. 

Enter Keaton’s Carter Hayes, gentrification’s leering id, a serial destroyer of property and lives who sweet talks his way into the apartment without a credit check, based solely on the color of his suit, skin, and rented Porsche (these being the traits that put him ahead of the black applicant who was first in line). Most valuable of all, though, is Hayes’s ability to lie without a trace of shame, waggling his eyebrows to let you know that he knows that you know he’s lying, but come on, what are you going to do about it? Hayes shoulders his way in and immediately begins dismantling the apartment from the inside, breeding cockroaches to scare off the other tenants, and, for good measure, changing the locks.

Michael Keaton in Pacific Heights.

Locks are very much at issue here. After all, domestic thrillers are always about who gets to participate in the American dream, the so-called good life; as such, they take place right on the border between public and private life, where one threatens to bleed into and corrupt the other. As resourceful Patty single-handedly fixes up the Victorian (Drake can’t even manage to get paint on the walls), the two argue about what the property means to them. “We have to remember, this is an investment, Patty,” says Drake. “It’s not just an investment, it’s our home,” she replies. As if to underscore this line, she soon discovers she’s pregnant—all this nesting has kicked her eggs into overdrive, apparently.

It’s a sign of the times, critics wrote of Daniel Pyne’s script, when the landlords are the ones we’re meant to feel sorry for. But—are we? Watch Pacific Heights with careful attention and what you see is a satirical fable: the making of a pair of villains under the careful tutelage of a psychopath. Because Schlesinger plays its satiric edge much more broadly than Curtis Hanson would with The Hand That Rocks the Cradle three years later, the clues are all there. Drake underwrites his real-estate discrimination with blatant racism, dismissing the black applicant who got there first as a “minority scam artist” and vocally hoping the quiet Japanese couple in the other unit aren’t bringing “all these people” (their Asian movers) with them. His job? Overseer at a designer kite factory. (Yes, really.) Meanwhile, Patty is a “former equestrienne” (yes, really!) with a hard head for numbers and a soft spot for her boyfriend’s tantrums. We see plenty of these, as, with Bugs Bunny–like calm, Hayes antagonizes Daffy Drake, saving his insinuating leers for Patty, a worthy opponent—or perhaps potential partner. (“Under different circumstances, you and I could have gotten to be good friends,” he tells her.)

If Hayes’s weapon is his brazen, hateful smirk, his calling card is the Victorian dollhouse that he leaves mockingly on Patty and Drake’s doorstep—not a trivialization of their domestic fantasy, but rather a deep understanding of its foundations in white nostalgia for a perfect, never-existent past. It’s not the only miniature associated with Hayes in the film: the other is an architect’s model of a sprawling condo development in the LA suburbs, which sits in glass at the posh lobby of Hayes’s last residence, promising endless green lawns despite the bleak desert landscape. It opens the entire film, as a trompe-l’oeil shot pans over its flat turquoise swimming pools.

Miniatures make cameras of us all, giving us a kind of fantasy access to vast tracts of compressed space in which the nostalgic past and utopian future can be held together in one moment, the everlastingness of pure desire. This is why they’re often associated with children, the elderly, and those, like Hayes, in a state of permanent stunted adolescence. Hayes, you see, is a kind of antimogul, an undeveloper. He knows there’s more money in failure than success if you don’t give a damn about the mess you leave behind.

Mature couples like Patty and Drake should theoretically be busy living and expanding the American dream for their hypothetical children. Instead, Patty eventually loses her baby in anguish over Drake’s increasingly violent outbursts toward Hayes and illegal attempts to eject their tenant, which expose them to the kind of lawsuits they should probably have faced earlier for real-estate discrimination. When, after the miscarriage, Drake asks Patty how she is, her first words are: “I feel like Lady Macbeth.”

She means because of the blood, of course—of course! And yet soon enough Patty’s on the warpath, wearing a blazer-and-blouse combination that evokes Hayes’s own suit, tracking the bastard down to enact her (incredibly satisfying) revenge. “You got into my area,” Hayes snarls during their final confrontation. “You crossed the line, and it felt good.” What genius there is in the movie lies in the fact that it really does feel good to see Patty morph into her nemesis. When the dollhouse reappears, like the horse head in The Godfather, in Patty’s bed, she hurls her fantasies of domesticity right out the window with it.

Plenty of other winks in the script suggest satire. There’s the surreal dream sequence in which Drake’s fears are mocked—he sees his girlfriend sleeping with Hayes, of course, but also shudders at the vaguely homosexual threat of Hayes’s male partner-in-crime, who cuddles a fluffy white cat. There are the frog-on-the-toilet tchotchkes cluttering the desk of Patty and Drake’s affordable real-estate lawyer. There’s the inexplicable chimp in Carter Hayes’s old family photos. There’s the fact that the spurned black martyr never returns to save the day, as in other domestic thrillers—he only shows up with a sour grin to say, “I guess you’re wishing now you’d rented to the black man.” And finally, there’s the call-and-response instructional method of equestrienne Patty, who yells at her students, all white women circling mindlessly on horseback, “What’s the most important thing I told you?” “We’re the boss!” “And why are we the boss?” “Because we’re smarter!”—as malignant self-deception as I’ve ever heard.


Later, this horse-circling moment comes back to haunt Patty, the camera whirling around her as her lawyer explains just what a gull she’s been. “This guy has been playing you like a piano concerto.” “Why?” Patty asks. “I don’t know, because it’s possible, because he’s evil. What difference does it make?” Is this Schlesinger breaking the fourth wall to shrug off Hayes’s increasingly incoherent motivations as we move into the third act? Or is the most important part of evil never, in fact, why it exists but the fact that it consists, fundamentally, of the power to turn us all evil in its presence?

Of course, Patty herself has nothing to fear. The requisite domestic-thriller impalement sequence eventually clears her cockroach problem right up—Hayes even wiggles his legs spastically, his back pinned to the floor by rebar—and Patty is free to DIY the place up again, good as new. The curtain falls on Patty and Drake, now full-fledged real-estate flippers unloading onto the next young, dumb, white couple in line, hoping to clear a $150,000 profit on their willingness to suspend their disbelief about the realities of their role in the continuing cycle of destruction. When the next victim/villain naively comments on how much “heart” they put into fixing up the house, Patty insists, “It was just an investment.”

Goodbye, house. Goodbye, home. There goes the neighborhood.

This is the second in Amy Gentry’s series about domestic thrillers. She the author of the debut thriller Good as Gone, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in July 2016. Her writing on books and culture has appeared in Electric LiteratureLos Angeles Review of Books, The Rumpus, Salon, Fusion, and the Chicago Tribune, among others. Amy holds a doctorate in English and lives in Austin, Texas.