Lawrence Kasdan’s lush neo noir, Body Heat, has aged well since its 1981 debut. Highly derivative of the best noir films of the 1940s and particularly of Double Indemnity, Body Heat is the story of a sleazy yet likeable small town lawyer, Ned Racine (William Hurt) and his affair with Matty Walker (Kathleen Turner) a mysterious looker who wants her rich husband dead. Recently released in Blu-Ray format, the film’s moody, languorous shots of an unbearably hot Florida summer are still sumptuous.
Ned and Matty’s affair begins as a sexually charged seemingly chance meeting at an out door concert, builds to an intense affair and eventually into a plot to kill Matty’s husband. Ed, Matty’s husband, has a large fortune and a will that conveniently includes Matty. Filled with the snappy, flirty dialogue and many charming side characters including a marvelous Ted Danson as Ned’s friend Peter Lowenstein, Body Heat turns into a genuinely suspenseful thriller and a stylish remake of the noir genre.
Hurt especially is good at revealing and making sense of Ned’s strange mixture of gullibility, charm and rakishness. Ned is a lousy, largely unsuccessful small-time lawyer who admits he barley makes a living representing the outcasts and life insurance claimants he defends with his slimy tactics. At the same time, Ned is insanely likeable. Hurt navigates these contradictions with ease and crucially makes us understand why this apparently regular (if a bit crude) man decides to kill Matty’s husband.
More than anything, sex is at the center of Body Heat. Ned is shown to be a womanizer from the very beginning—we watch as a series of ladies gets dressed in his apartment, never spending the night—but in his relationship with Matty it is Ned who is never in control. Even as Matty initially rebukes his come-ons there is no doubt as she slithers around the humid night air that she knows exactly how to get what she wants. Sex is the way Matty is able to manipulate Ned and the sexual energy between the two is explosive from the beginning.
At the time of its release, what set Body Heat apart from the noir films of old was its ability to show the sex that could only be suggested in those earlier films. When Ned and Matty first spend the night together they grab at each other with a kind of hedonism rarely shown in movies. In 2008 the movie seems far less provocative than it may have in 1981, but more to the point, the question remains: does seeing sex out in the open really make a film sexier?
Because of the Hayes Code Billy Wilder could only show us Fred McMurray’s lustful gaze as Barbara Stanwyck’s legs slowly descended a staircase in Double Indemnity but there was something almost more thrilling about that insinuation than the bluntness of the real thing. Nevertheless, there is a delicious energy to the sex scenes in Body Heat that seem appropriate to its time.
It is perhaps unfair to compare Kathleen Turner to Barbara Stanwyck (and I admit Stanwyck is a personal favorite) but Turner’s monotone come-hitherness is at times a bit syrupy. She delivers some of Kasdan’s more stagey lines: “You’re not that smart are you? I like that in a man” with perhaps a tad too much melodrama.
Turner surely oozes sex appeal, but while Ned is a fully developed character, Turner’s Matty is one-dimensional. This may have more to do with Kasdan’s script than Turner per se and certainly her mysteriousness is essential to certain plot twists but there is also something so vacant about Matty that it is hard to get any real sense of what’s underneath.
Body Heat manages to take ideas from the noir genre without turning it into a cliché. Recent noir remakes like The Black Dahlia have proven to be clunky and largely unsuccessful by focusing too much on period dialogue and dim lights rather than on the tension and suspense upon which the best noir films are based. Body Heat succeeds because it reexamined the noir for its own time and in turn reinvigorated it all at once.