The golden standard of beach love scenes in popular culture is probably still Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr's famous makeout on the sand amidst the crashing waves in 1953 Best Picture winner From Here to Eternity. But that scene, while certainly still sweeping and sexually charged, has dated some in terms of visceral eroticism—it doesn't last all that long, and is fairly chaste by modern-day standards. It certainly has nothing on Chris Isaak and Helena Christensen's four-minute, marginally clothed, non-makeout on the beach in "Wicked Game."
The "Wicked Game" video, directed by Herb Ritts in 1991, set a new benchmark for music-video sexiness. It helped, of course, that Isaak and Christensen were both incredibly attractive people, Isaak the tall, scruffy and handsome troubadour and Christensen the steely-eyed, perfectly shaped supermodel, and that both (especially Christensen) spend the video in various stages of undress, with some scenes almost verging on the softcore. But the video was also shot perfectly, and carries a real emotional undercurrent that enriches the video's incredible sensuality.
Unsurprisingly, director Ritts was a commercial photographer by trade, famous for snapping just about every notable celebrity of the 1980s, especially supermodels such as Christensen. His first foray into the music video trade came with Madonna's "Cherish" in 1989—also one of the most famous beach-set video clips in MTV history, and also shot in gorgeous black and white. Both videos play like a collection of immaculately composed still photographs, with certain images—Isaak clutching Christensen close to him, Chirstensen clutching her own covered breasts, even the flecks of sand and dirt in the two stars' faces and hair as they nearly embrace—permanently burned into the heads of any '90s video junkie.
If it sounds like a pretty simple video, it is. Ritts doesn't over-think things with his two gorgeous leads—he doesn't waste time trying to establish any kind of setup as to the backstory of the two characters, or what they're doing on the beach together, and there's no real attempt to develop any kind of plot between them over the course of the video. There's no real pretense to it, it's just two really good-looking, visually expressive people being passionate on the beach for four minutes—you can provide your own context for the who, what, where, when and why.
That said, there is a strong mood to the video, and despite the surface intimacy on display, it's one of distance and loneliness. Isaak has addressed this himself, saying in the MTV oral history I Want My MTV, "I like the fact the fact that I don't get the girl. She's not kissing me, she's kind of ignoring me through the whole video...." Indeed, unlike Kerr and Lancaster, Isaak and Christensen never really embrace in the video—she's always kind of pulling away from him, seemingly distracted and somewhat unmoved. Even with Isaak clutching her so tight (which the singer explains as being out of necessity, "because she was freezing...They kept trying to make us look wet, and they were trying buckets of cold ocean water on us, so we'd glisten"), it seems like he's holding her because he's afraid of her slipping away from her.
The tension of intimacy there gives the video that extra dimension, that emotional pull that makes the video so moving, and heightens the charge of its eroticism. And then, of course, there's the song itself—as pretty as anyone or anything in the video, and the perfect soundtrack of sensual heartache to the topless tango that takes place between Isaak and Christensen. "That matches the song," Isaak said (in the same interview) of the video's sense of distance and rejection. "Which is, you know, 'I'm in love with you, but you're playing with me.'"
There have been countless of beach-set music videos since Herb Ritts' two sand-set masterpieces—including smash hits from One Direction, Nicki Minaj, Ke$ha and dozens of others—but none of them have matched the aesthetic brilliance, the vivid emotion or the palpable sensuality of "Wicked Game." (FUSE acknowledged as much in 2010, naming "Wicked Game" the sexiest music video of all-time. Was there any question?)