BODY HEAT is a tight, atmospheric, sometimes literally steamy neo-noir from writer and first time director Lawrence Kasdan (THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, CONTINENTAL DIVIDE). It pulls off the feat of having the protagonist seem reasonably relatable and likable despite doing the wrong thing from beginning to end (including but not limited to aggressively courting a married woman and then plotting to kill her husband and get his money).
He is Ned Racine (William Hurt, who at that time had only starred in ALTERED STATES and EYEWITNESS), a sleazy Florida defense lawyer renowned by his friends like District Attorney Peter Lowenstein (Ted Danson, THE ONION FIELD) and police detective Oscar Grace (J.A. Preston from THE SPOOK WHO SAT BY THE DOOR and HIGH NOON II: THE RETURN OF WILL KANE) for his sexual conquests, though not his competence as a lawyer. One night Ned sees Matty Walker (Kathleen Turner, a stage actress with one TV episode to her name) standing looking at the ocean, and it’s all over for him. She’s just standing there like a real sexy piece of cheese in a mouse trap, and a mouse is gonna do what a mouse is gonna do.
BODY HEAT is a good title, but this is another one that could be called KEEP YOUR DICK IN YOUR PANTS. In the noir tradition they verbally spar; he hits on her, she rejects him, then makes one unmistakably suggestive comment before disappearing like Batman when Ned’s not looking. Might as well have thrown down a smoke pellet.
So he becomes obsessed. The first 15 minutes oughta have the DVD chapter title “Blue Balls.” He hangs out near where she said she lived until he finds her at a bar. They talk and suggest and he sleazes his way into seeing the mansion where she lives. She gives him a quick, hungry kiss and then locks him out. This scene is another angle on that uncomfortable territory we debated about in ROCKY. She’s telling him no, so he leaves, but then he decides she wants him to come back and break down the door. In the specific case of this character he is definitely correct (and she does tell him “Yes” and “Please, do it!” before he does) but it’s troubling to think of the men who see these types of movies and think this sort of thing happens all the time. It’s a bit of an ethics-in-video-game-journalism suspicion to have of women, that they would say no as a secret code word for yes. Fellas, learn from Ned Racine. Do not ever break the door down. Unless there’s a fire. Even if she does want you to do it, you should get the fuck out of there. No means no and if it ever means yes you’re in trouble so still take it as no.
You’ve seen a noir or two before so you start to get the feeling Matty is playing this chump like a recorder. She’s controlling his movements like an animal trainer holding up treats. Fucking him in the bath tub, then talking about how wrong it is that sometimes she wishes her husband was gone, throwing in some hints about their comparative penis size for good, uh, measure. So when he’s the one who suggests killing the husband he thinks it was his idea.
Even before it comes to that there’s lots of ‘are they gonna get caught?’ tension just surrounding the affair. They get reckless and make stupid mistakes that leave people out there – a niece, an old friend – who have seen Ned at the house. Unexploded bombs sitting out there, making them nervous. And there are times of extreme risk like when Ned runs into Matty with her husband Edmund (Richard Crenna the year before FIRST BLOOD) at a restaurant and ends up having dinner with them under the guise of a lawyer acquaintance who’d been trying to buy their property. It’s one of those uncomfortable situations where you don’t know for sure whether the husband really has no idea what’s going on here or whether he’s pretending to have no idea to put Ned through the wringer. Either way it’s pretty intense when Edmund (who is heavily implied to be involved in some sort of organized crime) gets Ned alone and (apropos of nothing?) starts talking about what he’d do to a guy he caught cheating with Matty.
The same thing happens with Ned’s own friends. After the murder, while Ned is off not talking to Matty for a while until things cool down, suddenly a shoe drops that puts Ned in an awkward place and having to be around acting casual while Oscar and Peter look into this suspicious death. They show up at his house and make him squirm long before it’s clear if they suspect him or not. I like to think Peter did not know when he said “Ned, some day your dick is gonna lead you into a very big hassle” that the hassle had already come.
This whole thing has inevitable doom standing above it casting a menacing shadow, but it’s not without a sense of humor. Ned has a bit of a Han Solo wiseass-pretending-not-to-care vibe going, and he can be funny. When he sees that Matty lives in an enormous mansion he says, “Heh. Just like my place.” And there are occasional random bits of strangeness. Peter likes to do Fred Astaire dances every once in a while. And there’s a scene where Ned goes into a public restroom and there’s a young guy just standing in there smoking a cigarette, watching him walk in. And the kid nods at him. I mean, what do you do? You just nod back I guess.
One of the great minor characters is Mickey Rourke (1941, FADE TO BLACK, HEAVEN’S GATE) as Teddy, a guy who makes a firebomb for Ned. He’s only in two scenes, one where he gives Ned the bomb after making a great speech about why he shouldn’t do whatever he’s planning to do with it. He even offers to do it for him, to repay him for keeping him out of prison. For an arsonist Teddy seems like a stand up guy.
As much as this is a movie about a twisty thriller plot and sharp dialogue it’s also about a sense of place. It happens during a heat wave, which we hear from Oscar makes people start to feel like the rules don’t apply. They start to do bad and stupid things, the meteorological equivalent of going blood simple. The high temperature is sold heavily with the constant sweaty foreheads, soaked shirts, talk of not-good-enough air conditioning. Close to the beginning there’s a shot with a fan visible and also the shadow of a ceiling fan spinning over the sweaty people in the scene.
(I was surprised to learn that this was filmed during an unusually cold winter in Florida, so they’re actually all cold pretending to be hot and sweaty.)
Then, when the murder happens, the city is buried in fog. Ned is driving with the body in the trunk and can’t see where he’s going. It’s both suspenseful (is he going to crash? Is someone right behind him?) and poetic (the world is confusing, the future is uncertain).
Although there is a bit of a twist, it’s not like the more ’90s type of thriller where it’s all built around a big shock. It doesn’t really matter. It’s kind of a grim joke, actually. We don’t really need a better understanding of what happened, and Ned only figures it out after it’s too late to help him. It’s only gonna torture him. So it’s not about trying to guess the reveal. It’s more about dreading what’s gonna happen to these dumb heat simple chumps. What kind of hole are you digging yourself into, counselor?
This is clearly an homage to film noir, most openly signified by Matty giving Ned a fedora as a gift. But it’s not a total throwback, it’s very contemporary too. It has two scenes where Ned stops for a cigarette during a jog. A pretty good sign of the seventies turning into the eighties.
If I had to pick one I like BLOOD SIMPLE better, but this is definitely up there with the most effective neo-noirs, and a very impressive directorial debut, not to mention great performances by these actors early in their careers. Turner especially must’ve been a revelation. Her at that age, with that husky voice, playing that seductive character. There’s a shot of her getting out of a car and the camera pans down her long, exposed legs to watch her stomp out her cigarette. On the extras they talk alot about her legs, and it made me think wow, does anybody objectify women’s legs anymore? There used to be alot of talk about legs. ZZ Top had a whole song about it. But now everybody just talks about butts. In this movie when she wears ridiculously short shorts its not to show off her butt, it’s to show off her legs. That’s just how we did it back then.
But Matty has more levels to her than just being hot. Even in the end, when he figures her out, and she tries to say that yeah, she misled him, but then she fell in love with him like some romantic comedy… I believe her. Is she sincere, or is she just good at making men believe her? I prefer the former, because it makes the ending a little tragic for her.
Let me tell you why this is in the Lucas Minus Star Wars series. It’s not released by Lucasfilm, Lucas is not credited on it, and he did not have any creative role in it. It also doesn’t have much in common with Lucas’s other movies, unless you want to compare Ned having a secret affair and resorting to murder for Matty to Anakin Skywalker having a secret marriage and chopping up a bunch of kids for Padme. But IMDb lists Lucas as an “uncredited executive producer” on BODY HEAT, and I wondered what the hell that was. It turns out when Kasdan wanted to direct his own script the studio required him to have an experienced director be his sponsor and sort of vouch for him, and that was his buddy Lucas for whom he had written THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK and THE ARK GETS RAIDED. But also, unbeknownst to Kasdan at the time, Lucas went to the studio and offered to personally cover it if Kasdan went over budget. That convinced them to greenlight the movie, so this is another example of Lucas using his clout to help others who he believes in get their movies made.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.