by Norm Nielsen
Early in Lawrence Kasdan’s 1981 Body Heat, Matty Walker (played by Kathleen Turner) fires off two lines at Ned Racine (William Hurt) that neatly preview the plot and set the tone of the film: “Some men, once they get a whiff of it, they trail you like a hound.” And, “You’re not too smart are you? I like that in a man.” In the film’s nearly two hours running time, Matty, in the film noir tradition, expertly shows how a beautiful, sexy woman can easily manipulate a man when lust transports his brain to his crotch.
Ned Racine is a cocky, bottom-dwelling attorney in fictional Miranda Beach, Florida. Ned meets Matty at a nighttime outdoor concert during an oppressive heat wave. Like the quote above, he gets a whiff and pursues her incessantly. Matty is smart, beautiful, and sexy; however, she is married to wealthy, but shady, real estate developer Edmund Walker (Richard Crenna). Ned and Matty start a torrid affair, their lust enflamed by the heat wave. Their bodies, both clothed and unclothed, sweat profusely as the passion heats up. It is soon apparent that Matty’s being married is an inconvenience, but because of a pre-nuptial agreement her divorce would be financially ruinous. Thus; a well-planned murder is carried out. Following the murder, Ned slowly realizes that Matty had an alternative plan all along, initiated before they met, and not to Ned’s benefit. Way too late, Ned discovers that Matty is a femme fatale.
Body Heat is great neo-noir on par with The Last Seduction, Chinatown, and L.A. Confidential. Like most film noir, it is about what drives people to crime. It takes almost all the classic film noir elements (a femme fatale, numerous night scenes, car headlights in the fog, high contrast lighting, shadows on the wall, moral ambiguity, pervasive cigarette smoking, etc.), and puts them in a modern world without making the film feel contrived, staged or unnatural. The film uses extreme heat to create a noir atmosphere, a device commonly used in hard-boiled crime fiction as in Raymond Chandler’s novels. The hot, humid air in Body Heat breathes sex, deadly sex.
Body Heat showcases exemplary screenwriting and directing. It was Lawrence Kasdan’s directorial debut; he had previously written the scripts for the smash hits The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Kasdan, who wrote the Body Heat script in addition to directing the film, did such a brilliant job at both tasks that the film almost demands two viewings. The first viewing will likely focus on the Ned Racine character. But the second viewing will undoubtedly focus on the Matty Walker character. Nearly every scene in the film plays two ways.
Body Heat is also notable for its breakout performances. It was Kathleen Turner’s first film; she had previously done television soap operas. Almost channeling Barbara Stanwyck and Lauren Bacall, Ms. Turner plays a woman so sexually confident that we can believe her lover could be dazed into doing almost anything for her. William Hurt had only two previous film credits but here effects a lazy arrogance to his speech, as if amused by his own intelligence but dumbed down by his lust. Ted Danson, who previously had only done television, has a meaty role as an attorney friend of Ned Racine and even does a nifty dance step. Mickey Rourke plays a professional arsonist who is one of Ned Racine’s seedy clients.
Were it not for the Motion Pictures Production Code, classic films noir like Double Indemnity (1944) and The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) could have played like Body Heat by featuring sweaty naked bodies, simulated sex, profanity, and an unabashedly amoral plot. The Motion Picture Production Code (also known as the Hays Code) was the set of industry moral guidelines in effect from 1930 to 1968 that specified what was acceptable and what was unacceptable content for motion pictures produced for a public audience in the United States. The Production Code called for depictions of the “correct standards of life,” and forbade a picture from showing any sort of ridicule towards a law or “creating sympathy for its violation.” Nudity, sex scenes, and profanity were definitely not permissible. Body Heat exemplifies how far major American films have evolved from the Production Code almost to the point of gleefully celebrating the code’s demise. Thank goodness for that.
Norm Nielsen is a Scarecrow Video volunteer and Scarecrow Project Member.