#32 — Body Heat (Lawrence Kasdan, 1981)
No genre belongs so decisively and completely to the era of its greatest heyday like film noir. Even westerns, the exemplar of movie genres that evolved from ubiquitous to scarce, still work fine produced in more modern eras. If anything, the advances in the art of cinematography benefit the genre. Film noir, though, seems a little askew when it’s not in black-and-white and populated by fedora-topped men built like cinder blocks and smoky-eyed women with lithe curves like a shifting snake. Even if a film is set in the nineteen-forties or fifties, it’s woefully difficulty to capture the exact combination of style, cool, toughness, hard sensuality and bleak assessments about the rigged workings of the world.
Body Heat isn’t set in decades past, opting instead for a contemporary story set right in the heart of a sweltering Florida summer. It is unmistakably an echo of its shadowy ancestors, however. Lawrence Kasdan was George Lucas’s screenwriter of choice at the time, selected to hammer out the script for The Empire Strikes Back and to take the concept of an archeologist who has adventures just like the in old-time movie serials and transform it into a workable story. These were the sort of big-ticket, high-profile gigs that could help a relative newcomer to Hollywood get the chance to do whatever he wanted with his directing debut. Kasdan paid homage to the countless dark cinematic wonders of the past with an especially affection aping of Double Indemnity. In fact, Body Heat is so indebted to Billy WIlder’s 1944 masterwork that its like the older film has reached across the decades to light the newer one’s cigarette.
The twisty plot brims with lust, greed and murderous duplicity. But, as with an amorous endeavor, it’s not about the concept, it’s the execution. Kasdan’s screenplay is a roiling symphony of sharp, fiercely intelligent dialogue, all of it beautifully delivered by the actors. Easily the most famous line is the assessment delivered by Kathleen Turner’s Matty Walker to William Hurt’s Ned Racine: “You aren’t too smart, are you? I like that in a man.” The follow up lines are equally worth treasuring, especially as they demonstrate Kasdan’s gift for revealing interplay. Ned responds, “What else do you like? Lazy? Ugly? Horny? I got ’em all,” to which Matty casually notes, “You don’t look lazy.” The famous quote is a helluva one-liner, but the lines that follow are equally cutting while also providing efficient insight into both characters. Most importantly, the imbalance of their relationship is already established. Ned, you see, doesn’t have a chance.
Hurt was right at the beginning of an amazing run of performances through the eighties. He gives Ned a lunkheaded genuineness that helps paper over any doubts about the more impulsive choices he makes. Good as Hurt is, the film is absolutely owned by Kathleen Turner, remarkably making her big screen debut. Her voice alone, vibrating at the same timbre as Lauren Bacall’s did back when she was instructing Humphrey Bogart on the basics of whistling, is undeniable evidence that she belongs in this sort of film. Turner takes command of every moment onscreen, playing scenes with the confidence that comes from the certainty that even if she’s not the smartest person in the room, she’s damn well the shrewdest. Matty Walker gets whatever she wants, and sometimes all she wants is the momentary amusement of toying with someone, just to remind herself that she still can.
Part of what makes Body Heat work so well is the way it serves as the overlap between the ravishing grittiness of seventies cinema and the high-gloss, well-buffed visuals that took over in the eighties. The film has a hard punch, but its softened by the lushness of its visual construction. This shifting mix may help account for how Kasdan made a genre that arguably shouldn’t work, often didn’t and doesn’t work, in modern films into something darkly thrilling. In its way, Body Heat is perfect for its precise moment in cinematic time. And Kasdan, in love with words and infused with the cavalier fearlessness of a first-time director, was the exact right person to realize it.