Body Heat opens on the scene of a distant burning restaurant as a witness, Ned Racine (William Hurt), watches from a bedroom window. As a kid, his family were regular diners there. Now, he sardonically speculates that the arsonist is one of his corrupt clients. Behind him, a lover berates him before seducing him a second time. Thus, the film is summarised: Ned will look on as his life goes up in smoke, not caring that any shreds of a righteous life are being obliterated, as he is powerless to resist temptation. Before long, his association with Matty Walker (Kathleen Turner) will see to this in a seduction anyone would gleefully immolate themselves for, as the plot slides, relentlessly as lava, slowly burning obstacles in the lady’s path. Let the shrinking violets covertly administer their poisons, the deadly heat coming off this femme fatale could literally blow up in your face.
Turner and Hurt were relative unknowns. Turner had done some TV soaps and Hurt had made two lacklustre films, meaning we take the characters at face value: femme fatale and patsy. Turner personifies the body heat of the title as her body temperature runs a couple of degrees higher than normal. Despite this, our first sight of her, (Ned too), is in a crisp, white dress, untainted by sweat. This is the first of Turner’s powerful and sexual roles that seem to have set the template for much of her future career. (This provokes some debate of male-authored female roles that I don’t have time to go into here). Hurt gets top billing, but Turner steals the show. She eats up every scene she’s in.
As for Hurt’s shyster lawyer, his weasely moustache does a lot of the work for him, but, had the film been made later in his varied career, I’m not convinced he would have been as effective as a none-too-intelligent sleaze. According to his friend, the Assistant DA, (Ted Danson), Ned’s lazy character thinks with his d*ck, (Racine is French for root) and is in search of “that one big score”. Ned’s ripe for plucking and Matty sees her opportunity to harvest low-hanging fruit.
This is only Danson’s second movie, in a smooth transition from guest spots on tv. For this role, he has made the acting choice that his clean-cut character will be a dancer. This is dancin’ Danson all over: smoothly stepping the light into his role. Within months he would be cast as everyone’s buddy, Sam, the bartender in Cheers. JA Preston plays Danson’s partner, Oscar Grace, an odd, anachronistic, jive-talking, hard-boiled style detective who sits uneasily in a film made in the 80s.
Writer and director Lawrence Kasdan seems to have been a writing phenomenon from the get-go. His only previous credits are The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark, both box office and critical successes. For Body Heat, he has reined in his epic writing to become intimate. His prior skills, though, as a writer of stories about larger than life heroes fighting powerful foes are transferrable to Body Heat. There is a feeling in noir of large themes, extremes of human lives, forcibly crammed into ill-fitting work and domestic settings. The foes are no longer the Dark Side or the Nazis, but instead the kinds of overpowering demons humans struggle with every day: sloth, greed, gluttony and especially, lust. When you are obsessed with a new lover, what else matters?
His subsequent films would replicate this pattern: epics like Return of the Jedi would enable him to make more personal projects like The Big Chill (1983). This earned him Oscar nominations for Best Original Screenplay and Best Picture. It is crammed full of so many great lines. (My favourite is probably “I think the guy in the hat did something terrible.” which I still trot out today when the occasion warrants it). Kasdan’s sparky to and fro dialogue keeps the viewer entranced in Body Heat. Here the noir script only occasionally permits a darker humour with lines like Matty’s: “You’re not too smart, are you? I like that in a man.”
Kasdan introduces us to Ned’s brand of litigation when he represents a conman who is accused of underhand dealings during a deal to supply toilets to the district. From the start, Kasdan places Ned in the arena of dirt. This isn’t the first time Ned has secured the release of a corrupt client and it attracts Matty’s attention. Ned thinks he is the active party in their relationship, yet Kasdan draws out Matty as the real power, whose manipulative skills in securing a fall guy ensure the plot plays out to her specifications, meaning that she too will live up to her surname.
The cloying heat of the title is like a character in itself, and fills every crevice of this film: the two leads are the principal fuel of the film, Ned gravitating to Walker like tinder to flame. With sweltering temperatures, it follows there will be humans having the sex. In several sex scenes, the leads cement their relationship and Matty’s influential position is secured. Characters move around in a slick of sweat and the air-con doesn’t work. The palette splashes flaming scarlets, ochres and umbers; the steamy weather creates a febrile, dream-like feel; people are visibly exhausted. Heat smoulders throughout the sensual soundtrack. Fire-based methods of destruction pepper the plot: smoke, arson, gunfire, incendiary devices. The heat wave will also incinerate already tenuous moral standards: criminals backslide further into corruption, lax police slacken the leash too far before they take action, the heat produces moments of madness. The lasting impression of the film is that of a jungle at night, seething with secret emissions when dark quickenings are ignited.
Kasdan was very fortunate to attract John Barry to this project. He follows the continuum of noir music of the past. His compositions previously explore (and subsequently continued to stride out into) exciting, international landscapes, most famously the world of James Bond. On this project though, he manages to draw in the listener to a more intimate canvas, a sultry, even jaded corner of the planet, slowly revealed through late night jazz and a selfish alto sax, curling seductively about the ear like smoke. Jazz reveals buckled, jagged characters pretending to be “normal”, that feeling of a larger life harming itself by living in restrictive shapes and spaces it wasn’t destined for.
If there’s a familiar feel about this film, then perhaps you’re thinking of Double Indemnity, a noir from 1944. A femme fatale seduces a corruptible, professional guy to commit murder for her in order that they will gain a large payout. The man believes it is his own idea, the poor schmuck too late realising his prison name will be ‘patsy’. The daughter of the deceased assists the defence. The man’s work colleague shares his suspicions and reluctantly concludes that his he is in league with a criminal. The claustrophobia, the pulp soundtrack and the electromagnetism between the two leads are well-trodden, twisted noir paths. Kasdan is clearly inspired by Double Indemnity but reworks the plot extensively, heightens the action and pushes the boundaries.
At the time, the amount of pelvis bumping in Body Heat drew criticism and seemed to highjack the film somewhat. Over subsequent decades though, the movie’s many qualities mean it sits righteously in the section labelled ‘classic’. It was an updated version of an important film genre. Classic film genres are like classic songs: a cover version, though reinterpreted, will maintain the superior features of the original and thus still be pleasing. It retains that when viewed today, and places noir as very much the vibrant genre it still is after 75 years. Despite being made a few decades after the genre’s peak, 1981’s Body Heat was a welcome and accomplished return to the form.