Body Heat (1981)
Written & Directed by Lawrence Kasdan
I don’t think I’ll ever consider Lawrence Kasdan as one of my favorite writers or directors. However, I do believe he has made some excellent movies. He wrote The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark, which makes him miles above much of his competition. I am not a fan of Return of the Jedi, which I see as one of the worst Star Wars films, but I don’t necessarily blame Kasdan for that. I have been able to tell that he has a deep love of film, including all genres. I’ve found it interesting that he didn’t achieve the level of public acclaim as George Lucas and Steven Spielberg when Kasdan is arguably as responsible for their successes in the 1980s as they are. Having penned such iconic films makes him deserving of a much closer look and appreciation of his work.
Body Heat was Kasdan’s directorial debut and his tribute to the film noir classics of the past. Body Heat takes place in central Florida, where lawyer Ned Racine (William Hurt) lives through an intense summer heatwave. He meets wealthy Matty Walker (Kathleen Turner), whose husband spends the week out on business and is only around on weekends. They begin having an affair and become more entangled with each other emotionally. Matty eventually expresses her desire to leave her husband Edmund (Richard Crenna), but she would be left penniless because of their prenuptial agreement. Ned has kept this relationship secret from his friends Peter (Ted Danson), prosecutor, and Oscar (J.A. Preston), a police detective, which complicates things later. Ned, so enraptured by Matty he helps her plan and carries out the murder of Edmund. But this is a film noir, so things will not end up going well for our protagonist.
Kasdan has expressed he wanted the film to have a dreamlike movie which I can sort of see. It especially hits that tone when the story is happening at Matty’s home, a large mansion in the woods, on the banks of a lake. I think the movie feels like a classic noir right out of the gate. It is set contemporaneously but still evokes the atmosphere of films like Double Indemnity. The music and plot both aid in bringing the audience into the steamy, tawdry tale of murder meant to recall older pictures.
There’s a lot of personality overflowing from the picture, particularly from side characters that appear throughout the film. Ted Danson is the chief standout as a prosecutor who has a penchant for practicing his dance steps and seems ahead of the curve when it comes to Ned’s plan. Richard Crenna is very intimidating as Edmund, who definitely knows what’s going on between Ned and Matty. Additionally, Mickey Rourke plays a small role as an accused arsonist Ned helped get off, and he plays that part perfectly well.
I think the sticking point for me is Kathleen Turner. I don’t find her charismatic or alluring at all beyond the most basic physical appeal. I just didn’t find her coercive enough to believe she could get Ned to commit murder. I can’t say for sure if this the performance or the writing & direction, but Turner just never sells it as a true seductive femme fatale. I can’t say I’ve ever felt Turner was an exceptionally fantastic actress, but she has been enjoyable in films like Romancing the Stone and even delivered some compelling dramatic roles in pictures like The Virgin Suicides. Body Heat was Turner’s film debut, and she may have just not had the gravitas to pull it off. I think a good femme fatale is best played by an actress with a sense of history behind them, and Turner doesn’t sell that.
As a noir film, it does sell the genre elements, aside from the femme fatale, very well. Ned’s ultimate downfall by the third act feels pretty satisfying. Matty’s betrayal has plenty of twists and surprises but follows a path of logic, so they never feel ludicrous. The film concludes with Ned becoming aware of the truth behind Matty but being in a position where he can do very little about it. That’s pretty much how you expect a noir to conclude, the protagonist at his lowest as a result of his actions & poor choices. Some critics have labeled this the first “conscious Neo-Noir,” a film being very aware of the tropes it was using. I don’t know if I agree with that, as I would argue that something like Chinatown is very cognizant of its tropes and is deconstructing the genre. Overall, Body Heat is a very satisfying noir film that seems to have been forgotten by many contemporary audiences. It’s a very entertaining watch that delivers that satisfying noir conclusion.