Body Heat (United States, 1981)

February 28, 2009
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Body Heat Poster

Body Heat is Lawrence Kasdan's directorial debut. His role behind the camera was earned in large part because of his writing contributions to The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark, two of the biggest movies of the early '80s. And, if both of those films were throwbacks in their own ways (Empire to serialized space operas and Raiders to serialized action/adventures), so was Body Heat, albeit in a different genre. This is Kasdan's homage to film noir (and belongs in a category often dubbed as "neo noir"). All the elements are present, woven together by a filmmaker who, despite being new to the business, was clearly a quick study. What's most impressive about Kasdan's achievement here is that he takes the plot-heavy mystery-thrillers of the '40s and '50s and gives them a distinctively modern spin without losing the elements that made them compulsively watchable. The subtle eroticism has been taken out of the shadows and placed squarely in the spotlight. This is a sexy film - not pornographic or hard-core, but the kind of movie where there's far more than a "glimpse of stocking."

Ned Racine (William Hurt) isn't a very good lawyer, but he's good enough to make ends meet. When he encounters Matty Walker (Kathleen Turner) at a bar on a hot Florida night, it's lust at first sight. Matty is married, but that doesn't stop them from beginning a torrid affair, then thinking about what might come next. Matty's husband, Edmund (Richard Crenna), is infamous, rich, and jealous. A prenuptial agreement guarantees that the only way Matty will get Edmund's money is if he predeceases her. So, with that consideration planted in his fertile mind, Ned begins to plot the best way to accomplish this. It never occurs to him that, in her traditional role of the femme fatale, Matty may not be what she appears to be. Perhaps the sex and the heat have warped his powers of deduction - until, that is, the noose is tightening around his neck.

One thing to remember about film noir and its modern-day neo noir offspring is that, while the plots are often twisty, they wind in ways that have a comforting sense of familiarity. So, while we're never exactly sure what Matty's game is, we know that she has an ulterior motive. And, while we're not positive what impossible situation Ned is going to find himself in, we know it's coming. The question is: Once trapped, will he be able to escape? Films of this genre are dark enough and the characters shrouded in enough immorality that anything is possible. The ending of Body Heat might not have been possible under the Hays Code (when villainy had to be punished), but it's perfect for this production.

Apparently, Body Heat was written and planned for filming in New Jersey, but labor issues forced Kasdan to re-locate the production to Florida. Watching the final project, it's hard to imagine how Hoboken could have been a better setting. While the Garden State can experience stifling heat, Body Heat radiates it in a way that only a movie shot in the South can accomplish. The sultry, sweaty atmosphere is part of the film's DNA. John Barry's lush score is equally critical. The bluesy music is so evocative of the films of the '40s and '50s that there are times when Body Heat begins to feel like a period piece, even though it is never intended to be. Barry's long-time association with the James Bond movies will represent his legacy as a composer, but his fine work outside of the 007 umbrella should not be forgotten. Body Heat would not be the film it is without Barry's contribution.

For the leads, Kasdan pairs the laconic William Hurt and the smoldering Kathleen Turner. The coupling, while perhaps unlikely on paper, works on the screen in part due to the heat generated by the sex scenes. This was only Hurt's second major role (after Altered States), and represented the beginning of fruitful span of collaboration with Kasdan. Between 1981 and 1990, Hurt appeared in four Kasdan-directed movies, including 1988's The Accidental Tourist, in which he was again opposite Turner. At the time she was cast in Body Heat, Turner was no better known than Hurt, having only the soap opera The Doctors on her resume. Body Heat opened doors for Hurt and Turner. She became one of the most recognizable actresses of the '80s, but never again was she as dangerous and as desirable as she was in Body Heat. Richard Crenna, soon to become known as Rambo's boss, had a small but important role as Matty's wealthy husband. A pre-Cheers Ted Danson and early-career Mickey Rourke had supporting parts. At the time of its release, Body Heat possessed minimal star power. Looking back from a decade after its release, it was loaded.

Few would argue that many of the best crime movies were made during the black-and-white era but, contrary to the opinion of some, the popularity of color did not altogether eliminate film noir. The conventions, if not the exact style, remained popular. Directors like Kasdan, who brought a black-and-white sensibility to color filmmaking, breathed new life into an old genre. Body Heat was one of the best of these part-retro/part-modern thrillers, a throwback that brought an '80s edge to a delicious, proven formula. Steeped in atmosphere, ripe with tantalizing dialogue, and featuring a director and actors on the cusp of respected careers, Body Heat deserved to remembered as one of 1981's lasting contributions to cinema.

Body Heat (United States, 1981)

Director: Lawrence Kasdan
Cast: William Hurt, Kathleen Turner, Richard Crenna, Ted Danson, J.A. Preston, Mickey Rourke, Kim Zimmer
Screenplay: Lawrence Kasdan
Cinematography: Richard H. Kline
Music: John Barry
U.S. Distributor: Warner Brothers
Run Time: 1:53
U.S. Release Date: 1981-08-28
MPAA Rating: "R" (Sexual Situations, Nudity, Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1