Movie Review – Body Heat (1981)
by NIR SHALEV
Writer-director Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat unfolds during a Florida heat wave. Ned Racine (William Hurt) stands in front of his apartment window almost buck naked in the intro to the film. A woman dressing behind him asks about the building that is burning just down the street, and he tells her that it’s still on fire and that the owners themselves are probably the arsonists. Ned is a defense attorney who has seen all kinds of trash from his clients. He wears a sleazy moustache, he’s over 6 feet tall and skinny, and is covered with sweat stains throughout the film.
One evening, while lounging on a boardwalk Ned meets Matty Walker, played as a sex-bomb femme fatale by Kathleen Turner. Ned approaches Matty and asks her to not talk about the heat. They strike up a conversation that heads toward a dead end for Ned, but eventually end up having an intimate encounter in Matty’s gigantic home. They fall flat for one another in a very lustful way; the viewer simply cannot turn away from the passionate performances they produce every day and night, some involving ice cubes and some involving, well, the floor.
This film is very sexually charged and it pushes the “R” rating to its limit, but the director chose to film the sex scenes in a suggestive manner, rather than head-on as to not appear filthy. It manages to deliver the proper feelings of ecstasy to the audience. This is not pornography; it is lust in its most primordial form that focuses entirely on hands placing themselves on shoulders and backs, and the actors in profile groaning in ecstasy.
Body Heat is a cautionary tale of obsession: Matty’s obsession to find a man that will kill her husband for her and Ned’s obsession over Matty. To him, Matty is so perfect that just looking at her is a great tease. They devise the perfect plan and from there on out we are reminded of The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946). Much like Lana Turner’s entrance in Postman, Kathleen Turner enters the film wearing a hip-hugging white dress. The perfect color for symbolizing purity, her being an angelic figure (at first) and Ned being the sleazy attorney in a red Corvette who hopes to win her heart.
Matty confides in Ned that she hates her husband, who returns home only on weekends due to his shady business, and eventually Ned falls for Matty so hard that he confronts her and tells her that her husband must die. Ned: “That man is going to die for no reason but we want him dead. He doesn’t deserve it, let’s not ever say that. We’ll do it for us.”
The film is shot like in the days of black-and-white filmmaking. Intimate conversations are shot in close-ups and are intercut appropriately, the camera is always on dolly tracks and almost always is moving, and there are a lot of low angles signifying domination; whether it’s Ned who’s in charge of the scene or Matty, or when someone walks down the stairs of Matty’s gigantic home. All throughout the film, the camera is as much a character as the cast. Then again so is the heat, creating an infernal atmosphere, and the sweating. There is a ton of sweating going on.
Many scenes in the film are lit in red, mostly in the beginning signifying lust and sin, and towards the end where the puzzle unravels. Sometimes scene are lit in green signifying greed or its opposite, a positive happening. Every shot in the film is strategically calculated: within each frame Kasdan takes into account the direction of the camera’s movement, the height, the angle, the color in the shot, the amount of shadows (can’t have a film noir without shadows), and what the tones of the actors are. The shadows here work in two ways, one for the noir effect of a brooding conspiracy and the other for superimposing the heat.A strong sun casts strong shadows.
The dialogue in this film can only exist in noir pictures, a film style popularized in the 1940s and 1950s. Innuendo could be used instead of straight-forward frankness, but it wouldn’t create the same feeling.
Strangely, the 1970s and 1980s proved ideal times for screenwriters to make their comebacks with the film noir genre. Pictures like Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973) and Arthur Penn’s Night Moves (1975) feature either hardboiled detectives, the generic innocent man who is wrongfully accused of a crime or the quintessential “the woman made me do it but I was too far-gone in love.” In these contemporary noir films the protagonists perform their duties while bleeding, cursing, sweating, and sending and receiving visible bullet holes.
Body Heat is Kathleen Turner’s film debut and one of William Hurt’s earliest film roles. Both play their characters to the tee. Hurt is tall and he plays Ned as sleazy and sneaky, even almost a nerd. He lets his libido be his game face when he confronts women. Turner plays Matty just like we remember Lana Turner, Gene Tierney, Barbara Stanwyck, and Rita Hayworth. And a nice supporting cast includes Mickey Rourke as an arsonist that Ned had helped in the past, Richard Crenna as Matty’s husband Edmund, Ted Danson as Ned’s attorney friend Peter Lowenstein, and J.A. Preston as Ned and Peter’s cop friend Oscar Grace.
Body Heat is also Kasdan’s directorial debut and many regard it as one of the cinema’s greatest “first films.” Be it not on par with the similarly famous debuts of Orson Welles (Citizen Kane) or Peter Bogdanovich (The Last Picture Show), Body Heat is nonetheless a brilliant entry into the list of films by first-time directors. Kasdan’s ony film work prior to this was as screenwriter of George Lucas’s The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).
What this film ultimately shows is that no plan can be perfect and therefore, calculations must also allow for the possibility of negative outcomes. Like a game of Chess or Go, one must mentally know what the outcome will be; then one must strive to get the same result by jumping a few steps ahead of the opposition and predicting what the opposition will do. However, characters in films never think that much ahead of the curve because then the audience would lose patience and believe the filmmakers to be jumping to conclusions. That never happens here.