Screenplay : Lawrence Kasdan
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1981
Stars : William Hurt (Ned Racine), Kathleen Turner (Matty Walker), Richard Crenna (Edmund Walker), Ted Danson (Peter Lowenstein), J.A. Preston (Oscar Grace), Mickey Rourke (Teddy Lewis), Kim Zimmer (Mary Ann)
Lawrence Kasdan's "Body Heat" takes all the conventions of film noir and literally turns them inside out. It is at once a parody and also a loving homage to those dark, sinister tales of adultery, deceit, murder, and betrayal that sprung up on American movie screens following World War II. Of course, the directors of those films thought they were just making B-pictures. It took the French to recognize their worth and give them that catchy cinematic name.
In essence, "Body Heat" is a B-picture with A-picture quality, which is probably exactly how Kasdan wanted it. The film it most closely resembles is Billy Wilder's classic "Double Indemnity" (1944), in which the blonde femme fatale played by Barbara Stanwyck lures a gullible insurance salesman played by Fred MacMurray into murdering her husband for insurance money. Kasdan takes the bare bones of that plot, and inserts William Hurt as a likable but lazy lawyer who becomes ensnared in the sticky, sexual web spun by Kathleen Turner, in her sultry screen debut.
Hurt's character, Ned Racine, is a regular Everyman. Early scenes depict him as somewhat hedonistic, but he's essentially an average Joe. He makes his living as a lawyer, but his clientele is fairly low-brow which reflects poorly on him. He has numerous affairs with many women, and he likes kicking back in the local diner with his buddies, a local state prosecutor named Peter Lowenstein (Ted Danson) and a police detective, Oscar Grace (J.A. Preston). Ned seems low-key on the outside, but you get the feeling that inside he is the kind of man who is capable of just about anything. All he needs is that little incentive to push him over.
That incentive arrives one steamy night in the form of Turner's character, Matty Walker. First seen in a luscious white dress (as most femme fatales are), Matty is the epitome of the black widow. Cold, calculating, cruel, and utterly remorseless to the very end, she spins Ned around her finger with sinister ease. Sexually, she's insatiable; intellectually, she's superior; and morally, she's as depraved as they come. Everything about her literally screams bad news, but Ned can't help himself. It's fate.
Which is why he slips so easily into Matty's plan to kill her crooked businessman husband, Edmund (Richard Crenna). Of course, Ned is the one who first brings up the idea of murder, but we all know that Matty was thinking of it long before he was. Her power comes from her ability to remain innocent in Ned's eyes while endlessly manipulating him to her own devices. He has to feel he is in the power position, when in fact, she's controlling everything.
A great deal of "Body Heat" is standard film noir, but many aspects of it are radically different. The most glaring alteration is the lack of traditional noir's Production Code-inspired moralistic ending that punishes those who have done wrong. The characters in those early films were depraved, but they were always penalized for their sins, especially the sexually threatening female. In "Body Heat," Kasdan subverts all that and posits the notion that, every once in a while, crime does pay ... at least for some people.
Another thing Kasdan alters from traditional noir is the setting: instead of placing the action in the dark alleys and neon streetlights of a major city, he lets the malfeasance unspool in a tiny South Florida town. There are several scenes that take place at night, but a great deal of it occurs during the daytime, in the bright, hot afternoon sun.
Kasdan makes the most of the weather by creating a palpable sense of heat everywhere. The heat is made to be all-encompassing, reminding us of just how dirty and sordid the story is. There's a hot, sticky feeling to everything, and the heat comes in various kinds. There's the sexual body heat evoked in the title; the literal heat in the air that everybody in the movie talks about; and then there's the heat as in pressure, pressure that exerts itself on Hurt but not on Turner. It gives her status as an "icy blonde" a whole new meaning.
Every aspect of "Body Heat" is dead-on, including the two central performances by Hurt and Turner. Hurt had starred in a handful of films prior to "Body Heat," but he was by no means a bankable star. With his slick mustache, floppy hair, and cheesy polyester shirts and ties, he perfectly conveys an unwitting victim who mistakenly thinks he knows what he's getting into. Turner burns up the screen in her first role, which is basically a mixture of every femme fatale to come before her, squared. With her deep, throaty purr of a voice, she's more than enticing enough to convince us that she could drive a man to murder.
"Body Heat" also marked the directorial debut of Lawrence Kasdan, who was known primarily as a screenwriter for blockbusters such as "The Empire Strikes Back" (1980) and "Raiders of the Lost Ark" (1981). His script for "Body Heat" is a finely-tuned piece of work, with multiple plot twists, unexpected developments, and memorable characterization. His dialogue is the stuff of the great film noirs, with lines that no one would never hear in real life, but work nonetheless within the confines of the film.
©1998 James Kendrick