The Friday Noir column has written a great deal about the seedy side of characters, plot, settings and themes that make up the genre. The one aspect that, up until now, has maybe not been overlooked but certainly not observed with thorough depth is its sex appeal. Many noirs are, at times, tremendously sexy, either because of the unspoken sexual tension, not so subtle double entendres, or the very alluring presentation of certain characters. However bold some noirs were, there remained, in the 1940s and 1950s, some sexually charged material that nevertheless could not make into the final cut. In 1981, in his directorial debut Body Heat, Lawrence Kasdan liberated the historically shackled, undeniable sexual explicitness that pounded so hard just beneath the smoky surface.
Ned Racine (William Hurt), unmarried, is a lawyer and real estate agent operating in Florida. A whole plethora of things are heating up in his life. His reputation may be on the line to an extent after a poor recent performance in front of a judge who is tiring of his sloppiness. There is a smoldering heat wave hammering down on the area which has just about everyone seen in the picture either lightly dressed or sweating like pigs. Finally, there is the happenstance appearance of Matty Walker (Kathleen Turner), married, but very much dissatisfied with her husband (Richard Crenna), also a real estate agent…of sorts. Suffice to say that his business connections are deliberately mysterious for reasons that would greatly interest the law. The attraction between Ned and Matty is immediate, intense, unmistakable. Whilst her husband is gone mostly during the week, Ned and Matty consume their infatuation driven, obsessive relationship. Upon learning that Matty has no desire to remain with her hubby, Ned begins to plot the latter’s murder. Now, the heat is really turned up, and not just in the weather.
Watching Body Heat, it is nearly a crying shame that director Lawrence Kasdan was not around to make films back in the 40s and 50s, when noir was at the apex of its popularity. True enough, such a statement is little off the mark given that because this picture was produced in the 80s, a whole lot more sex could be put on screen, and said titillating scenes are part of what make Body Heat so memorable. Clearly, a few of the tricks pulled off by Kasdan would not have gotten play back in the day, yet he proves sublimely adept at giving his film the precise tone and overall sensuality that so many of his predecessors were capable of in their prime. The litmus test for a movie to be accepted as a neo-noir is for it to feel, in some critical areas although not necessarily all of them, that it could fit right in with the noirs of the traditionally recognized era. So far as this noir fan is concerned, Body Heat fits the bill like aces, right down to the familiar plot that any seasoned veteran will recognize. The smoke in some of the scenes is absolutely brilliant, as is John Barry’s sexy jazzy score which smoothly accompanies the on screen action, and the pacing is right on: never too fast but just fast enough to keep the ball rolling and the viewer interested. The film is unabashed in how it makes out the two leads to be less than exemplary individuals. Model citizens Ned and Matty clearly are not. That being said, when the sparks fly, they really go at it, night after night…
Any film going for a raunchy, sexed up attitude to the umpteenth degree, than music and direction can only accomplish so much if it is to succeed. Needless to say, the actors at the center of attention are required to bring a special kind of ‘a game’ to the proceedings. Body Heat features two excellent leads in William Hurt and Kathleen Turner. The surprise here is Hurt, who by and large is not traditionally considered a very ‘sexy’ actor. It has nothing to do with his natural looks (although looks can play a part in heightening the sexual mood), just his overall demeanor, a demeanor that does not lead one to think he would be suitable as a convincing sex appeal machine. This movie teaches us to never remain too closed minded, for Hurt gives a fantastically tuned performance. He is smart enough to go toe to toe with a woman is dangerous as Matty, able to understand when not to get too greedy for money and love, yet of course cannot fully resist her tempting arms. The part is quite nuanced in fact, even the scenes when he plans and executed the murder. There is no joy, no significant signs of relief to be found on his sweaty face. He understands the danger in going through with the plot. Turner, in turn, is as good a femme fatale as any of the classics leading ladies. More than a pretty face, she can convince just about anybody to satisfy her needs. The character of Matty is, unsurprisingly, withholding much more information from Ned than she would ever care to tell, which makes Turner’s performance in the first half all the more impressive. Even though experienced viewers can clue in on the fact that something is assuredly amiss, the actress is so darn good at playing her little game that some viewers may be forgiven for truly believing her plight. There is some fun supporting roles as well, including Ted Danson as one of Ned’s fellow lawyer colleagues with whom he has formed a solid bond over the years. Danson’s character is ever so slightly on the eccentric side, leaving scenes while executing odd little dance moves, as if imitating Fred Astaire. He is also provided some of the wittier lines in the film, a personal favourite being when every soul in a room has taken out cigarettes. When offered one, Danson’s lawyer simply replies: ‘No thanks. I’ll just breath the air.’ The excitement level grew once Mickey Rourke showed up as an ex-criminal, but he is relegated to a tiny role and nothing more.
Speaking of dialogue (no pun intended), the foreplay banter between Ned and Matty is incredibly sharp, just like the noir dialogue of old. Kasdan, who wrote the script in addition to directing the picture, clearly has a knack for working with this sort of speech patter. The rhythm of the dialogue in noir is supremely important. If the words do not flow effortlessly (which requires good actors too, lest one forget), then it really does not flow at all. In noir it is all or nothing for the most part. Kasdan undoubtedly knows how to deal with dialogue, having by that time already written a handful of scripts, including playing a part in the redaction of that for The Empire Strikes Back, which, as fans of that film know, features plenty of great lines.
Perhaps the only thing holding the picture back is the familiarity which sinks in during the second half. Kasdan probably felt it best that his story remain as true as possible to the ebb and flow of traditional noir, yet anyone who has already seen some of the classics knows exactly what is going to happen once Ned begins to understand what sort of trap Matty may have set up for him. Not a great fault of the picture, just a little bump in the road given how it packs no surprises at all down the home stretch.
Body Heat is a very solid neo-noir picture. Much of the praise or blame is aimed squarely at Lawrence Kasdan, who both wrote and directed the picture. He definitely knew what sort of movie he wanted. It wants to be sexy and absolutely feels sexy. And so very, very hot.