30 January 2009

Movielog, Body Heat

Body Heat, 1981
Written and Directed by Lawrence Kasdan
113 minutes

In 1981, Lawrence Kasdan was the screenwriter of two of the highest-grossing films in cinema history, Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Empire Strikes Back. It is telling that aside from their commerical value, those two films would be the only ones in their respective series written by Kasdan and they are widely considered to be the greatest films in those series. In each case, Kasdan showed a knack for recycling old genres from the past (I hesitate to say "his youth" as Kasdan was born in 1949, long after the days of the movie serials the Indiana Jones and Star Wars series were based upon) and updating them with characters that felt real, that seemed as if they could step off the screen and into our world. The greatness of Raiders of the Lost Ark is that the film takes what could be a hoary old pulp story and injects its characters and situations with life and verve.

So for his directorial debut, Kasdan decided to do much the same thing for the noir films of the forties. Using Wilder's Double Indemnity as a template, Kasdan wrote a tight screenplay in which an everyman who thinks he's smarter than he is becomes infatuated with a femme fatale to disastrous results. And into this template Kasdan was able to use the more relaxed standards of the 1980s to make explicit in Body Heat what was buried beneath the surface in Double Indemnity. This is usually a path to failure for a film, as it ruins all the subtext in the original, but the film gods smiled on Kasdan and his cast and crew, and Body Heat became one of the great neo-noirs.

So successful is this film that a decade later Joe Eszterhas would use the same basic "neo-noir mixed with steamy sex" template to make Basic Instinct, which would then inspire a whole slew of even-worse imitators including basically every late-night Cinemax movie made between 1992 and 2000. And yet despite the slew of imitators and outright parodies, Body Heat retains its power to entertain, to shock, and yes, to arouse.

William Hurt is the everyman, a seedy and none-too-bright lawyer named Ned Racine. Ned eyes the beautiful and alluring Matty Walker (Kathleen Turner) and immediately has to have her. The two spend the first twenty minutes or so of the movie in an elaborate dance of seduction, and when they finally are able to break through each other's shells, the fucking is amazing. And yeah, that's pretty much what they do -- rarely even today do we see films, especially mainstream box office hits bankrolled by major studios, that have this kind of frankness about sex and sexual desire. Turner was making her film debut here, and Hurt had appeared in only one other picture, but the chemistry between them is smoldering, and it is because of that easy sexual tension that you believe where the story goes from there.

Matty is married, you see, and after a time these two characters have gone from having a torrid affair to planning a murder. Unlike other films that try to justify this kind of action, Matty and Ned know how what they're doing is wrong. "We're going to kill him for no other reason than because we want him dead," Ned tells Matty as they begin to plan the murder, and that's exactly what they do. Matty's husband (Richard Crenna) is involved in some ill-defined criminal activity that involves him with some shady characters, and Racine gets one of his clients (a young Mickey Rourke in his breakout role) to make him a bomb -- he's going to burn the body and make it look like one of Mr. Walker's business associates did him in.

And so he does, but it wouldn't be noir if things went exactly as planned. Most of those reading this are probably already aware of some of the third-act twists of Body Heat even if they haven't already seen the film, but suffice to say that even with the knowledge of what awaits Racine at the end of the film, Kasdan's amazing script and assured direction maintain the audience's interest nonetheless. Ned is buddies with a county prosecutor played by Ted Danson, who has to resign himself to the fact that his friend is probably going down for murder. Racine tries to think his way around his problems, uses every tool at his disposal to avoid being caught, but there is a brief and nearly wordless scene towards the very end of the picture that shows us exactly how useless all those machinations really were.

The final shots leave the audience reeling, wondering how much of what was said was real and what it all meant. How much of what happened was planned? To what degree was Racine just a patsy? Did Matty really love Ned? It's interesting that throughout the film Matty tells Ned she loves him at least three times, but I don't recall an instance of him reciprocating to her. Matty's behavior is ambiguous even to those who know the end of Body Heat, and it is that element that makes her so real. Kasdan's script gives us just enough information to make guesses as to what she's actually done and how she did it without allowing us to come to any real conclusions. After the credits roll and as we consider the movie later, it's her character that keeps us interested, just as Barbara Stanwyck's character did in Double Indemnity. Body Heat isn't quite as accomplished as Wilder's 1944 classic, but to even think it deserves to be mentioned in the same breath is to give it enormous praise. One of the best of the modern noir pictures.

Rating: B+

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