Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Body Heat

I have been putting off watching Body Heat for some time now; all I really knew about it was that it was supposed to be extra-steamy and sexy, with William Hurt and Kathleen "Man Voice" Turner as the lovers.  That idea never stimulated me enough to watch this acclaimed movie.  I finally buckled down and sat down for a viewing and was immediately and pleasantly surprised --- this thing is a neo-noir!  Awesome!  Some of my favorite films are classic noirs from the 1940s and 50s, and I have been appreciating the more modern homages to the style lately, too.  So, right off the bat, there is more to enjoy here than Man Voice and Mr. Male Pattern Baldness having another stab at the themes from Last Tango in Paris.  I cannot express just how happy that realization made me.

Ned Racine (William Hurt) is a low-rent Florida lawyer for sleazebags and people who want to frivolously sue.  He's a funny guy, aware of his lot in life, and he is infamous for sleeping with anything with a heartbeat.  Florida is in the midst of an oppressive heat wave, causing people to only talk about the weather; Ned's cop buddy also argues that the heat causes more crime because people start to believe that the rules of civilized life have stopped applying.  Well, one night, Ned happens to spot the striking Matty Walker (Kathleen Turner) walking unescorted through town.  Ned takes this as his cue to mercilessly hit on her, even after she tells him that she's married (but out of town.  "My favorite kind," he replied). 
Ned, quoting the market price for mustache rides.
Despite herself, Matty takes a shine to Ned and the two eventually retreat to her palatial home for some sweaty naked time.  Matty's husband, Edmund (Richard Crenna), is only home on the weekends, so the two are free to flaunt their post-coital bodies all around the house, without a care.  But things start to get serious.  Ned can't stop thinking about Matty and risks seeing her, even when he knows Edmund's around.  It's just as bad for Matty --- she has talked about leaving Edmund, but he had her sign a prenuptial agreement, so she would leave the marriage with a pittance.  But if Edmund were to die, Matty would get at least half of his estate...hmm...
Great.  It's hot, she's using him as a pillow, and she's a mouth-breather.

I tend to enjoy William Hurt's acting, and Body Heat is certainly no exception.  He does a remarkable job of being very likable and seemingly bright, but simultaneously sleazy and dumb.  This is important, because we watch the movie through his perspective.  Kathleen Turner, in her film debut, was an excellent femme fatale.  I'm not usually a fan of Turner's (to be fair, I have pretty much missed her in her heyday), but she was obviously dangerous and sensual, which made her irresistible pull on Ned Racine plausible.  Richard Crenna (Col. Trautman from the Rambo series) was unsympathetic in his small part, which was exactly what he needed to be.  Ted Danson, in a rare pre-Cheers role, was very likable as Ned's competent lawyer friend, and the guy who flat-out tells him that Matty is bad news.  Mickey Rourke also makes an early-career appearance as an accused (but not convicted) arsonist; he has the film's best line:
Anytime you try a decent crime, you got fifty ways you can fuck up. If you think of twenty-five of them, you're a genius. And you ain't no genius.
Mickey speaks the truth.  For his friends.

This was Lawrence Kasdan's first directorial effort, after co-writing the last two of the original Star Wars trilogy and Raiders of the Lost Ark.  After Body Heat (which he also wrote), he would be almost exclusively a writer-director, usually of Kevin Kline vehicles.  I loved his style in this movie.  It is clearly evoking and referencing noirs of the past, most notably Double Indemnity, but the writing feels fresh.  The acting was very good, too, but Kasdan had the most important task in the film.  He had to convince the audience that Ned's decision to do something stupid, dangerous, and illegal in exchange for the promise of money and sex made sense.  If someone, let's be gender-biased and say it's a lady, walked into this movie halfway through, she might scoff at this notion; after all, who is stupid enough to risk life and limb for sex?  Men, that's who.  Kasdan made the sex scenes earlier in the film so sweaty and lusty that having Ned's little head doing the thinking for him seemed natural and even inevitable.  That's some good filmmaking.
Matty, indicating the general area Ned wants to occupy.

Despite owing quite a bit to other noirs that I have seen, Body Heat is the first movie (that I can think of) that made the dangerous sexuality of the femme fatale character explicit.  That's kind of a big deal, even if it paved the way for Basic Instinct.  More importantly, Lawrence Kasdan was able to leave his own mark on a genre that resists change, and he did so with good actors and writing.

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