Criminal Passion (1994)

Directed by Donna Deitch; Written by Max Strom and John Allen Nelson

Featuring unorthodox detective work, smoldering looks, and woman-centered eroticism, Criminal Passion is fun for late nights where indulgence trumps intellect, and hedonism in style and subject scratches that itch. It’s just not the same come daytime. 

Joan Severance stars as Melanie Hudson, a murder detective in L.A. In genre throwback style, director Deitch lets Hudson introduce herself in voiceover as she drives through the night. With only her eyes visible to us in the rearview mirror and the city out of focus, she tells us she doesn’t know what she’s looking for on these drives, but it boils down to a curiosity about what happens out here in the dark where women are vulnerable and hunted. It’s a space she feels compelled to seek out and confront ever since she was victimized by someone she trusted. 

The compulsion feeds right into the case she’s working: several women murdered, slashed to ribbons, in the bed where they’ve just finished having sex with their killer. The clues point to Connor Aschroft (John Allen Nelson), star architect and playboy, and son of a U.S. Senator. A handsome, white and wealthy man with an almost public sex life, bedding models and artists with ravenous abandon, seemingly sure of the impunity his background affords him.

In her work, Hudson moves in a man’s world and has the aggression to match. Wearing a double-breasted power suit she keeps open to reveal the tight-fitting tank top underneath, it’s the definition of big breasts energy, and she dismisses her frat boy colleagues with prejudice. In pursuing Ashcroft, her method is less of an investigation and more of an confrontation, a cat-and-mouse game that’s really just two lions in heat. Game recognize game, you know the drill. 

No one’s pretending the depiction of police work in Criminal Passion is authentic, nor does it offer a notion of due-process justice. In fact, the parts of Deitch’s film concerned with the investigation is fairly rote stuff, consisting of meat head colleagues, interdepartmental politics and meddling bosses. Angry overworked cops with tired misogynistic attitudes reporting to gormless superiors. Forgettable stuff. 

What Criminal Passion does have, is some sizzling smut, and a novel perspective. Hudson is unapologetic about herself and her sexuality, and that sort of attitude goes hard in a culture where a responding officer to a murder scene feels able to lament a woman’s grizzly death as “waste of perfectly good snatch.” Hudson has rogue cop tendencies historically reserved for male protagonists, but she’s also aggressive about being a woman in this space and how it’s not a weakness. 

Deitch is similarly unapologetic in her treatment of Hudson’s sexuality and voyeurism defines many of the film’s steamy scenes, making public what’s considered private. It gives Criminal Passion edge and some third-wave feminist energy to ride on.

It’s backed up by Kristin M. Burke’s costume design, which has Hudson in large powersuits by day, and tight-fitting, reveleaing dresses by night, emphasizing how Hudson is someone who does equally well in both. Finally, it’s all carried along by Wendy Blackstone’s score, which would be amiss to gloss over. Chilly synths and piano cues work like an ice cube gliding down your body and the effect emphasizes the lack of romance here. It’s strictly for pleasure. 

On paper, Criminal Passion is a erotic thriller, which should get your blood pumping one way or the other. Its murder mystery does not, it’s simply too unsophisticated and uninspired with the tropes too overbearing, but if actually sexy erotica with subversive and voyeuristic edge is your kick, slap eyes on this. 

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