After one of the earliest examples of film noir, the next entry in Roger Ebert’s The Great Movies – Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat – is a great instance of neo-noir, the pseudo-genre that has grown out of those movies like The Big Sleep from the 40s and 50s.
Neo-noir utilizes familiar noir characteristics such as the anti-hero in a tough moral spot, and reliance on shadow and low lighting, but in pursuit of subject matter and themes that were not necessarily popular or worth examining in the earlier days of the art form. Neo-noir also tends to be where stereotypes of the genre are seen most explicitly, such as extreme heat and a jazz score.
Body Heat features all of these things, wrapped up in a neat, little package. The film stars a young William Hurt (in his third feature film role) as Ned Racine, a bit of a sleazy lawyer in a small Florida town, who gets wrapped up with Matty Tyler Walker (Kathleen Turner), the wife of a very wealthy man (Richard Crenna) involved in some sleazy dealings of his own. Ned and Matty concoct a plan that will presumably leave them with a lot of her husband’s money, but – as in any good noir – things don’t go exactly as Ned expects them to.
The film is not subtle in its warnings for Ned. At one point Matty’s husband, Edmund, tells Ned a story that does not shake out too differently from the one Ned has gotten involved in. None of this foreshadowing affects Ned though; his motivation is not in his control. He is a slave to the heat.
The state is in the middle of an intense heat wave. Everyone is talking about it. The waitress at the local diner is quick to throw out “It’s the heat!” as an excuse, and indeed, Ned’s detective friend Oscar Grace (J.A. Preston) predicts that someone somewhere will soon be driven to breaking the law, in reaction to the weather. But the temperature isn’t necessarily the kind of heat that is driving Ned. That would be the heat between him and Matty. Matty uses her sensuality as a weapon, and no one around her (including Ned) possesses the defense necessary to combat it.
There are several interesting performances in the film, including the earliest appearance by Mickey Rourke that I have ever seen (oh how he has changed – I’m looking at you, Iron Man 2) and a Ted Danson supporting turn that doesn’t quite fit the tone of the rest of the film, but the biggest surprise is Hurt. I’m not an expert when it comes to the man’s career, but I’m very used to seeing him portray upstanding men of strong ethical stature. Ned Racine is very much not that, and at times Kasdan seems to wondering if Ned has any redeeming value at all. Due to this character clash, I did have a tough time getting behind Hurt’s performance in the early goings, but by the second act things were moving quickly, and I no longer had time to question this idiosyncrasy.
Body Heat probably won’t go down as one of my favorite installments in The Great Movies, but it is an exciting feature. Kasdan uses sexuality the same way Matty does; if he captures you, you may get burned. And you may like it.