BODY HEAT (1981) – They’re hot-blooded, check them and see

The following is my entry in The Hotter’nell Blogathon, being hosted at this blog from June 21-23, 2019. Click on the above banner, and read bloggers’ takes on a wide range of summer- and heat-wave-related movies!

Having seen a lot of movies and having read a bit of Raymond Chandler, I found Body Heat downright laughable when it was first released. Seeing it again after nearly 40 years, I liked it a little better. There’s nothing wrong with the movie that a lesser case of pretension wouldn’t cure.

The movie takes place in the heat of Florida where one night, Ned Racine (William Hurt), a well-meaning but careless lawyer, happens upon luscious Matty Walker (Kathleen Turner) after the two exit from a sweltering outdoor concert. Ned tries to flirt and make snappy patter with Matty, who twice warns Ned that she’s married. Frankly, Ned is so horny, he doesn’t care — which tips us off that he’s as sloppy at love as he is at legal counsel.

Eventually, Matty allows Ned to visit her home (her husband is currently out of town), but to Ned’s chagrin, she gives him only a chaste kiss before locking him out of the house. Now, here comes the scene that provides the movie’s acid test as to whether or not you’ll buy into its noirish stylization. (Spoiler paragraph alert follows.)

Ned is about to drive away from the house, but curiosity gets the better of him. He returns to Matty’s front door, looks through its window, and see Maddie standing frozen, staring back at Ned. Ned tries to find another entranceway but cannot, always seeing Matty teasingly staring at him. Finally at his boiling point, Ned picks up a nearby chair, smashes in the front door, and rushes into Matty’s waiting arms.

This is meant to be a noir-like point, showing us that Ned is so overcome with lust that he’ll do anything to get what he wants. All I could think while watching this was, either somebody would want me or she wouldn’t — I sure wouldn’t waste a good front door to find out the answer.

Anyway, we are meant to see that Ned and Matty have sex in every possible position before we get to the main plot point. Matty tells Ned how unhappy she is with her husband Edmund (Richard Crenna), and how she cannot divorce him because everything is tipped in her husband’s favor (he made Matty sign a prenuptial agreement). After a few minutes of this brazen exposition, Ned nonchalantly informs Matty that they’re going to have to kill Edmund. Again, this is film noir, where we’re supposed to believe that Ned is so frenzied with lust that he’ll do things a rational man would not do. I wasn’t convinced that Ned’s outrageous idea was anything but a machination of the screenwriter (Lawrence Kasdan, whose directorial debut this was after co-writing The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark).

Upon its first release, film critic Pauline Kael wrote a scathing review of the movie, stating, “Kasdan has modern characters talking jive talk as if they’d been boning up on Chandler novels, and he doesn’t seem to know if he wants laughs or not.” A more generous reading of the movie is that it’s okay as an average murder mystery, but its attempts at stylized noir stick out like sore thumbs. As Kael pointed out, film noir was partially a reaction to Hollywood’s strict censorship code of the 1940’s and ’50s, meaning that filmmakers had to find unique ways of depicting sex and murder. Smashing doors in and talking jive doesn’t make much sense in a movie where four-letter words are uttered regularly and nearly all of Kathleen Turner’s physique can be put upon display.

Hurt and Turner do well enough under the circumstances, but it’s really the supporting players that stand out. Matty’s husband Edmund is supposed to come off as a self-absorbed fatcat, but Richard Crenna makes him fairly likable, probably more so than Kasdan intended. (Having appeared in an awful TV remake of Double Indemnity in 1973, Crenna should have known to steer clear of ersatz noir to start with.) As, respectively, a fellow lawyer and a local investigator, Ted Danson (in a pre-“Cheers” role) and J.A. Preston are as smooth as silk; the movie might have been more fun if the story had been told strictly from their points of view. And last but hardly least, Mickey Rourke steals the movie as an arsonist who reluctantly helps Ned with his murder plan.

The movie is watchable but hardly in the league with the film noir classics that it’s trying to emulate. By the time the movie is about halfway done, you wish someone would take Ned aside and give him back-to-back screenings of Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice in order to show Ned how poorly this kind of scheme could work out for him.