Body Heat (1981)

Lawrence Kasdan | 1hr 53min

It is even before Body Heat reaches the pivotal murder upon which its entire narrative revolves that the Double Indemnity influence emerges in the sensual rhythms of its dialogue, with every line seeming to be either an innuendo or a coy setup for one. All of it seeps with sexual desire, the heavy flirting underscored by sleazy saxophone riffs which might seem heavy-handed if it didn’t so perfectly match the embellished eroticism of the performances and screenplay. Where Billy Wilder had to work within the strict Production Code of the 1940s to create Double Indemnity, Lawrence Kasdan abides by no such restrictions here, playing into both the literal and suggestive readings of his film’s title to draw us into its irresistible allure.

A pervasive red colouring through the lighting – heat and passion rendered cinematically.

The perspiration that coats the faces of every single character in Body Heat can be put down to the particularly intense heatwave rolling through South Florida, but when smooth-talking lawyer Ned begins a secretive affair with Matty, the wealthy wife of a successful businessman, the beads of sweat that roll down his naked body might as well be from the sexual workout and thick humidity of their steamy encounters. It is just as well he has two solid reasons to be so clammy all the time, because when his private entanglement takes a plunge into murder and betrayal, the sweat from his guilty conscience is well-disguised. It is with our own understanding of Ned’s tainted conscience that we can see the fear in his eyes, and William Hurt expertly balances this highly-strung apprehension with the cool charm of his vain, lustful lawyer.
 
But it is Kathleen Turner who truly runs away with this film, playing the Barbara Stanwyck to Hurt’s Fred MacMurray. Somehow though, this femme fatale is even more cunning and careful in her plotting than Double Indemnity’s Phyllis Dietrichson. Like a true student of film noir, Kasdan illustrates character detail in his work with shadows and blocking, especially as he gradually reveals Matty to be the sort of untouchable figure twenty steps ahead of everyone else. As she walks away from Ned into the boathouse she has rigged to explode, she is consumed by the darkness, and yet within this void she glows brightly like an angelic icon, finally freed from the constraints of a life she has been trying to escape for years.

An angelic white figure disappearing into the darkness.

Perhaps the shocking ending which sees her emerge on top is Kasdan’s apologetic rewriting of historical genre conventions, which typically saw these intelligent women punished for their underhanded manipulations. Matty may not be a morally pure character, but who is in this world? If anyone is going to get their happy ending, why shouldn’t it be the one with the wits, charm, and patience to get it? Body Heat surely isn’t the first film to push the boundaries of the neo-noir, but it may one of the most overwhelmingly passionate, filling its air with a thick, humid wantonness that only one of its many characters truly knows how to navigate.

Superb blocking through Venetian blinds and mirrors.

Body Heat is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, Google Play, and Amazon Prime Video.

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