[Film Review] Body Heat (1981)

Body Heat poster

Title: Body Heat
Year: 1981
Country: USA
Language: English
Genre: Crime, Drama, Thriller
Director/Writer: Lawrence Kasdan
Music: John Barry
Cinematography: Richard H. Kline
William Hurt
Kathleen Turner
Richard Crenna
Ted Danson
J.A. Preston
Mickey Rourke
Kim Zimmer
Michael Ryan
Wanna Saunders
Rating: 7.9/10

In the sultry Florida, an unusual heatwave parches its residents, Ned Racine (Hurt), a small-town lawyer, hooks up with a married woman, the drop-dead gorgeous Matty Walker (Turner, in her star-making silver screen debut), he irresistibly falls for her because it is the best sex he has ever had (extolled as one of the hottest moment ever on the celluloid), but is it vice versa? it will be open to debate to the chagrin of Ned in the end. Naturally, Matty is trapped in a dead-end marriage, she is the trophy wife of a filthy rich but sleazy businessman Edmund (Crenna), a murder plan is hatching up after Ned meets Edmund in person which cements his resolution to get rid of the scumbag once and for all (there is no sympathy to the rich hubby, the film firmly sticks to that route, even tactfully suggested by secondary characters, so as to intrigue audience to unconsciously side with Ned and Matty, notwithstanding the atrocious nature of their act), for the sake that he and Matty will be a happy ending, oh, he wishes!

BODY HEAT is Lawrence Kasdan’s director debut, who was the young and upcoming screenwriter behind two blockbusters STAR WARS EPISODE V: THE EMPIRE STRIKES (1980) and RIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981) at that time, the film transposes a femme fatale story, more specifically, akin to Billy Wilder’s film-noir apotheosis DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944), to a sexually simulating template of a modern world, which would be unthinkable during the Production Code era, and unerringly keeps the twist up its sleeve until the very end, while leaving little hints every so often after the ill-fated husband has been successfully dispatched.

The story is exclusively told from Ned’s angle, so Matty is portrayed in the most gratifying way, being objectified as a damsel-in-distress with a provocative sex appeal (“do you want to lick it?”), and not just Ned, viewers as well, wants to believe he is her white knight thanks to the deceptive conviction of her perfection, from Ned’s viewpoint, everything he has done so far is on a voluntary basis up until the forgery scheme pops out, Matty’s perfect image is tainted with her greediness, but that is not the most alerting signal, a waking-up call is that she actually pulls the scheme off, as much as it looks like a windfall, what if it is not? It is just unthinkable that he is outsmarted and manipulated by a bimbo, not in this patriarchal society.

It certainly gives Ned a nasty feeling to realise that he has been an unwitting pawn from day one, he is neither a natural force of masculine seduction, nor a well-endowed lover who can both mentally and sexually conquer the object of his desire, he is chosen simply on account of his job, which in fact, he is not very good at; more horrifyingly, he is expendable, that’s where lies the cleverness of this otherwise well-anticipated script, Matty’s last word to Ned is that she loves him in spite of everything, and as artificial as it sounds initially, if we look back afterwards, we tend to believe she actually means it, that’s the exact reason why she doesn’t kill him, the only thing she didn’t plan beforehand is that she loves him, maybe not to a great extent that she is willing to divulge all her secrets, but she has a soft spot for him, which justifies the tip-off from the arsonist (Rourke, in his very early role, seen in merely two scenes), she does it intentionally, so that Ned can be forestalled, so it would only leave her to detonate the explosion (with an accentuated cue of being delayed for a few seconds), that’s why the second murder plan, which looks like a lazy writing job at first, is actually a meticulously schemed escape plan by Matty, to frame Ned as the scapegoat and get rid of the only one who knows her real identity.

The plan is so audacious and prone to high risk, it could’ve been much easier if she were cruel enough to leave Ned as a “dead” scapegoat, two bodies, two suspects would be gone in flames, it could be plan A to earn a clean slate. Matty is the ultimate femme fatale, unlike Barbara Stanwyck’s Phyllis Dietrichson in DOUBLE INDEMNITY, she will not let herself fall prey of sentimentality, which doesn’t imply that she is a callous monster, on the contrary, Ned’s fate effectively if implicitly corroborates otherwise, she can relent as long as it doesn’t hinder the eventual outcome, it is up to Kasdan’s sharply ambivalent characterisation makes Matty so vividly entrancing, embodies mystery, danger and empowerment.

Also widely praised for creating a sweaty, sizzling and misty environment in the winter time, for Hurt and Turner’s utterly professional commitments, (however Ted Danson is unheralded as Ned’s lawyer friend Peter, who exudes a tangible bromance, which unassumingly contrasts the mercurial game Ned is involved, and who says there are no true friends among members of the bar? Not to mention his improvised dance moves, one time, he is reduced into the upper-left corner of the frame, but still he rocks!) BODY HEAT confidently lives up to its reputation in a genre notorious for its gratuitous nudity exploitation and shoddy story development, a rare breed which does’t leave a sense of guilty pleasure for being so diverting and erotic.

Body Heat 1981

5 thoughts on “[Film Review] Body Heat (1981)

    • Sadly new audiences are reluctant to visit classic oldies like these, and waste way too much time on the new ones.

      • You’re so right. I hold this up as one of my favourite neo-noir thrillers. Turner must have got the Jessica Rabbit gig purely on this performance.

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