Body Heat (1981)
The femme fatale is a well-known archetype of literature and art that exists in the folklore and myth of many ancient cultures. Mysterious and seductive, the femme fatale ensnares her lovers in irresistible bonds of desire which, more often than not, lead to compromising and deadly situations. Most of the time, these men have no idea what hit them until it’s too late.
While the femme fatale has been with us since the earliest days of the written word, she has enjoyed enormous success in film; most notably Brigid O'Shaughnessy (Mary Astor) in The Maltese Falcon (1941), Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) in Double Indemnity (1944), and Cora (Lana Turner) in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946). Modern films also include the femme fatale as a key character, and she is ever so important in writer/director Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat (1981).
Ned Racine (William Hurt) is a sleazy small town Florida lawyer who, during an intense heatwave, meets married Matty Walker (Kathleen Turner). The two quickly engage in a passionate affair and almost as quickly, Matty reveals she gets nothing if she divorces her rich husband, Edmund (Richard Crenna). But if he dies, she gains from the inheritance and the two plot to kill him.
Body Heat is the neo-noir offspring of Double Indemnity, but I wouldn’t go as far as to say it was a remake or rip-off; instead, Double Indemnity serves as inspiration for this film where sex and crime are as hot a pair as Ned and Matty. Indeed the motif that runs throughout the film is the heat; air conditioning in Florida is certainly well-known yet all the characters are enveloped in the heat, which is almost a character itself. In one scene Ned stands in front of his open refrigerator shirtless, soaking up relief from the unrelenting humidity. Everyone and everything is hot; heat flames the seeds of passion and encourages madness, it seems. The colour red also is a prevailing motif; the film opens with a fire, there are other fires throughout, both literal and figurative. Crazy from the heat some people are, though Matty remains cool throughout as she lures Ned deeper into seduction and murder.
Kasdan did a great job in creating a pre-Miami Vice world devoid of the glamour, style, and bright colours we have come to know in South Florida. This is one of diners, bars, police stations and restaurants; everything still clings to 70s fashion and style, from clothes to cars and everything in between. A solid supporting cast includes a pre-Cheers Ted Danson as Peter Lowenstein as a tap-dancing prosecutor and Ned’s friend, J.A. Preston as police Detective Oscar Grace (another friend of Ned’s), and an early role for Mickey Rourke as Teddy, an ex-con and Ned’s former client.
There is substantially more nudity and suggestiveness in Body Heat than any of its noir predecessors, though might seem tame by today’s standards; either that or today there are no standards. It is interesting to watch Body Heat twice, first from Ned’s point of view and then from Matty’s and ask oneself if they really love each other or are caught up in lust, the body heat of the moment. This is neo-noir, after all, and ambiguity is expected from all the players involved, except for Preston’s police detective whose clarity of right and wrong makes him suspect all is not on the straight and narrow. And noir wouldn’t be complete without characters speaking in a certain heightened sense of style. Kasdan was criticized for having modern characters speak as if they are in a Raymond Chandler novel, but in this movie it works. When they first meet, Ned tells Matty, “Maybe you shouldn't dress like that.” Matty: “This is a blouse and skirt. I don't know what you're talking about.” Ned: “You shouldn't wear that body.” Perhaps a modern audience might snicker at the “corny” dialogue, but those who admire the noir films of the 1940s will nod and smile in admiration.