At the point I wrote this, I was fairly certain Michael Keaton was going to transition into an important actor, collecting an Oscar nomination or two as he did strong, compelling work. I was only off by two-and-a-half decades or so. Similarly, I suspected Laurie Metcalf was poised to be a big-screen character actor of some significance. I don’t remember much (or, honestly, anything) of the performance I describe as “marvelous.” I think I may have been rounding up on my assessment due to enduring appreciation for her supporting work in the thriller Internal Affairs, released earlier the same year. Note that I didn’t say much about the acting of either Matthew Modine or Melanie Griffith. I was evidently adopting an if-you-can’t-say-anything-nice policy which seems somewhat at odds with writing film criticism. On the script, the last typed sentence is crossed out, and a new final assessment is scrawled in blue ink. The original ending of the review was even more trite that what is reproduced here. This was also clearly before I was given an appropriate focus to the directors in my reviews. John Schlesinger’s name is a pretty big one to omit entirely.

PACIFIC HEIGHTS is essentially a landlord’s nightmare brought to the big screen. The landlords come in the form of a nice young couple played by Matthew Modine and Melanie Griffith. They’re moving into their first home together and try to help pay for it by renting out a pair of apartments on the first floor. One of those apartments is taken by a man who introduces himself as Carter Hayes. Hayes seems like a safe bet. He’s smooth, intelligent, and seems to have a very stable income. But then first impressions are sometimes wrong. Before they know it, Hayes has changed the locks, does strange, noisy work into all hours of the night, and hasn’t paid the rent. He’s trying to push the couple over the edge, “playing them like a piano” as one character puts it.

Through much of the film, its tight, suspenseful style is quite effective, though it has to struggle through several plot holes. Why didn’t Modine and Griffith call the police on Keaton a lot earlier? Why don’t they have a locksmith come in and replace the lock as soon as they discover that Keaton has changed it? And then there’s the questionable legalities that the picture requires to keep it going. The real attraction here comes from Keaton. When he’s onscreen the film comes alive. Over the course of the past couple of years, Keaton has developed into one of the most solid, self-assured and dependable actors working today. He masterfully injects Hayes with all the necessary menace and creepiness the character requires to make him frightening. Another bit of praise must go to Laurie Metcalf, best known for her role as Roseanne’s sister on the TV sitcom “Roseanne.” She plays a lawyer Modine and Griffith enlist to help them and she is marvelous. These performances lend the film a spark that saves it from itself.

(3 stars, out of 4)

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