“You’re not too smart, are you? I like that in a man.”
Matty Walker (Kathleen Turner), the femme fatale of "Body Heat," sums up the history of film noir in that statement to Florida lawyer Ned Racine (William Hurt), her future lover and co-conspirator. In classic noir tradition, Ned is smug enough to think she’s just bantering rather than rendering a value judgment. Matty wants to murder her rich husband (Richard Crenna) in what looks like an accident, then live off his wealth. Ned seems to realize Matty is bad news, maybe because he's bad news, too—just not as brazen. He thinks they're equals and that he can handle her. The sex is so good, it turned his brain to mush. The mark in a film like "Body Heat" always thinks he’s too smart to get rooked by a dame, then finds out otherwise, often while lying in a pool of his own blood or waiting for the electric chair.
Written and directed by Lawrence Kasdan, a wunderkind fresh off co-writing "The Empire Strikes Back" for George Lucas, and shot and cut by the husband-wife team of cinematographer John Bailey and editor Carol Littleton, "Body Heat" is a self-aware continuation of a grand tradition that brings 1940s tropes into the ’80s, pushing hard-boiled attitude to the brink of parody. Hurt’s nascent stardom (which kicked off the preceding summer with "Altered States") was cemented by this movie, which also elevated Turner (in her first leading role), Ted Danson (as Ned’s nerdy, chatterbox best friend, just a year away from starring in TV's "Cheers"), and a smoldering young whisperer named Mickey Rourke, who has just two scenes as an arsonist but tucks the film into his back pocket like a stolen pack of cigarettes.
Turner is the perfect actress for Matty—so perfect that she'd essentially reprise the character's voice seven years later for Robert Zemeckis' half-animated noir spoof "Who Framed Roger Rabbit"—and everyone else is spot-on as well, so much so that you could almost imagine them rising fully-formed from the imagination of a pulp writer old enough to have been Kasdan's grandfather. The only casting link to the then-present moment is Hurt, and its Hurt who holds the film together and makes Kasdan's old-but-new gambit work. His slowed-down eloquence and self-satisfied vibe are more color than black-and-white.
Ned could have been a contemporary screenwriter who resettled in Florida after a failed attempt at a Hollywood career, wandered into Matty's orbit, and thought, "I've seen this movie before." It's Hurt's peculiar energy, smug yet aware of its smugness, that gives "Body Heat" its unique tension. He's the first noir patsy who might've been to therapy. He's smart in the way that many audience members are smart (or think that they're smart). You get the sense that he's already imagined all the ways he could be tripped up and decided to forge ahead anyhow. If you think Ned accurately estimates his abilities, well, you've never seen "Double Indemnity," or either version of "The Postman Always Rings Twice," the closest analogues for "Body Heat." Like the heroes of those stories, Ned believes in love even though he acts like he doesn't. A marriage of true heels.
By coincidence, writer-director Bob Rafelson developed his version of "Postman," starring Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange, around the same time, but it was released five months after "Body Heat" and had no impact. Maybe the problem was that by setting it in-period, yet filling it with blunt sex and '70s-style sleazoid characters, Rafelson created another kind of cognitive dissonance, one that (unlike "Body Heat") read as art-house pretension and self-seriousness. It's no fun, and the absence of fun is fatal to noir. Take away fun, and it's not film noir anymore, it's just a dour drama about losers betting everything on one final roll of the dice.
When "Body Heat" was released, in the same summer as "Raiders of the Lost Ark," "Superman II," and other big-budget films with a retro feeling, more than one critic noted that it didn’t make a lot of sense for the film’s lead characters to speak in the kind of erotically charged innuendo that was once written to get around studio censorship, then show them taking their clothes off and having sweaty, lurid sex. But that particular brand of overkill/redundancy is a big part of what makes the film feel simultaneously knowing and naive, classic and modern. It's what makes it funny and self-deprecating as well as self-infatuated and overripe.
And, to invoke what has become a cliche (because it's true!), it's what stamps "Body Heat" the sort of film that would never get made today—at least not in the United States, where (as of this writing) there's not much call for anything but so-called "four quadrant blockbusters" that are safe to take the kids to. "Safe," in the United States, means PG-13 rated or below, no sex, no drugs or excessive drinking, no morally questionable behavior that isn't immediately identified as such and loudly condemned, no graphic violence; and yet (strangely; predictably) a high body count, committed mainly against anonymous henchpersons, dispatched quickly and without agony or bloodshed.
"Body Heat," in comparison, is—for all its slinky, cinephile-footnoted knowingness—a disturbing experience. It presents a world that is thoroughly corrupted from the start—granted, a warped, fictional world, shaped by the perceptions of its characters; a world that essentially tells them whatever they wish to hear in order to feel validated, excused, encouraged. Then it lets us roam around in that world, alongside (and in a delirious shot during their first tryst, above) Matty and Ned, getting off on the sight of them breaking most of the Ten Commandments, the entire time expecting a punishment at the end that will absolve us of our complicity in their lust and greed and nihilistic electricity. It is, in more than one way, a movie out of its time. In the manner of the classic film noirs it channels, "Body Heat" invites viewers into the mind-spaces of an entirely amoral person (Matty) and a mark (Ned) who can only be considered better than Matty because he joins an evil plan already in progress rather than personally initiate it.
Remember, 1981 is so close to the 1970s that this one might as well be considered a '70s movie after-the-fact. In '70s movies, evil is not always punished, and you don't always get the answers you were promised. That's the black-light-in-a-motel-room lifeforce of the '70s movies that people remember most fondly. It's that wobbly moral anchor that made '70s-vintage so-called "neo-noirs" like "Chinatown" and "Night Moves"—and the adjacent genre of the paranoid thriller, represented by movies like "The Conversation" and "The Parallax View"—so unsettling.
"Body Heat" could not get funded at at a comparably sumptuous level and released to theaters now, pandemic or no pandemic. Movie studios have moved away from R-rated projects generally. They have little interest in making films about about bad, horny people, even though some of the best movies in the history of cinema or about people like that. This is the stuff, right here: two hours of scuzzball intoxicant, injected into the forebrain.
Matt Zoller Seitz will introduce "Body Heat" August 17 at IFC Center in New York City.