Friday, May 11, 2007

The "Noir-ness" of Body Heat

Before creating the enthusiastically optimistic Western Silverado, before almost singlehandedly starting the “oldie-scored nostalgia” film genre (thank you very much, Cameron Crowe) with The Big Chill and before interweaving multiple stories into a deep and richly textured study of racial prejudice and urban living in modern day Los Angeles (pre-dating Crash by a good 14 years) in Grand Canyon, Lawrence Kasdan-then known primarily as the co-writer of Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Empire Strikes Back (movies that, for my money, represent the best of their trilogies) brought to theatre audiences in 1981 one of the sexiest, most stylish and most thoroughly engaging pieces of neo-noir to grace the silver screen in a long time. I am talking, of course, about Body Heat.

By the late 70’s/early 80’s, film noir had become virtually non-existent. Several directors had attempted to recreate this much beloved and time-honored type of film but, aside from a few notable exceptions, with little success unfortunately. This prompted many film scholars and historians to declare, as many still do today, that film noir was essentially a dead genre. Film noir, as the intellectual elite elucidated, was the kind of movie that resulted from a very specific economic, cultural and socio-political climate: namely post-WWII. Thus, outside of that particular period of history, film noir didn’t (and couldn’t) exist. Like the screwball comedy, noir was only a temporal manifestation in motion pictures; a fond memory of a bygone era. It was great while it lasted, but it wasn’t coming back. Flying in the face of this conventional wisdom, Lawrence Kasdan attempted to prove that film noir was not only alive, it could actually be more relevant than ever. However, while selecting a genre that many consider to be long-deceased may be a bold move for any filmmaker, doing so for your debut picture is practically suicidal. If he was going to make it work, Kasdan needed to demonstrate a thorough knowledge and understanding of the material; a firm grasp of the “essence” of noir, not just its surface. He needed to reproduce both the form and the function of film noir.

To accomplish this, Kasdan turned to one of the most perfect, and most iconic, examples of film noir to come out of Hollywood: Billy Wilder’s classic Double Indemnity. The premise of a man who has an affair with a married woman and eventually conspires to murder her rich husband and inherit the insurance money seemed like appropriate fodder for a film that was going to deal with the darker, uglier side of human nature (as film noir, by definition, does) but rather than attempt to carbon copy Wilder’s masterpiece, Kasdan wisely uses it merely as the “starting point” from which he then ventures off into different territory, creating his own characters with their own dynamics, his own environment with its own atmosphere and his own distinct story with its own twists and turns. While it does indeed parallel Double Indemnity in many key spots, this endeavor allowed Kasdan to bring his own unique vision to the process, his own “take” on the subject matter. Body Heat is not a remake of Double Indemnity, nor is it, to use contemporary nomenclature, a “re-imagining.” It is an original story that simply derives it’s inspiration from the classic movie, but which also stands on its own as a fine piece of filmmaking.

Kasdan begins by “upping the ante” with the film’s locale. While Indemnity took place in the heart of Hollywood, Body Heat opens in Florida during one of the hottest summers of the state’s history. With temperatures at an all-time high, and people’s comfort levels at an all-time low, Kasdan establishes a world of intense irritability and tangible sensuality, where tampers can flare up at any moment and passions can ignite just as easily. In the film’s opening scene, after a wonderfully moody main title sequence, we are introduced to Ned Racine (William Hurt), a shady lawyer whose incompetence annoys judges but proves surprisingly effective in the courtroom. He is a none-too-bright character, doing most of his "thinking" not with his brain but with a certain other part of his anatomy. Still, Hurt plays him with such an earnestness and charming aloofness that he is eminently appealing. The first glimpse we get of Ned, he is standing shirtless in his apartment, having just done the “horizontal tango” with a waitress acquaintance of his (not unlike John Gavin’s character in the introductory scene of Hitchcock’s Psycho), sweating as he stares out the window at a large fire burning across the town that is nearly lighting up the night sky, another in a string of arson incidents plaguing the area. This time, however, the building being destroyed is from his own past, a place of personal relevance to him (his family used to eat there when he was a child). “My history is burning up out there,” he says to the unsympathetic woman lounging on his bed. Something valuable to him is being taken away. Alas, it is a harbinger of events to come; the first of many things he is will lose before the film is over.

As is always the case with these kind of stories, there is a woman, a gorgeous woman, a sexy woman, a dangerous woman. Her name is Matty Walker and she is played by the then unknown Kathleen Turner in her first film performance. I have long been of the opinion that Turner (much like Cybil Shepherd) was born at least three decades too late. Had she been around in the 30’s and 40’s she would not only have been a star (as she is now), she would have been an icon. There is a classical element to her beauty, a sort of “old Hollywood” allure that truly shines in this film. She's like a young Lauren Bacall, finely-chiseled features, husky voice, smarmy demeanor... She is, in other words, the ideal woman for this kind of role. While watching some of the more recent attempts at noir, it occurred to me that there aren’t many actresses that can convincingly pull off these kind of “black widow” characters anymore; who can balance both the danger and the attraction without it seeming incongruous; who can be tough, hardened women without seeming like they’re just weaklings pretending to be strong; who can be drop-dead gorgeous without looking like they’re just posing and preening (Scarlet Johanssen? I don’t think so). Turner was a rare breed and Kasdan could not have cast his femme fatale more perfectly.

When Ned first lays eyes on Matty in her all-white dress (in true film noir fashion) he is immediately taken by her… and so are we. He approaches her and engages in the kind of dialogue that we just don’t hear in movies anymore.

NED: I need tending. I someone to take care of me, someone to rub my tired muscles, smooth out my sheets.
MATTY: Get married.
NED: I just need it for tonight.

Scenes like this emphasize another major difference between Body Heat and most other recent attempts at film noir: this story is set in a modern-day world (or what was modern in ’81). Although it is, again, a risky venture to try to capture the essence of film noir outside of its post-WWII setting, Kasdan boldly drops all pretense of “period” and makes his neo noir truly “neo,” a modern story with very modern sensibilities and attitudes. As in What’s Up, Doc?, Peter Bogdonavich’s love letter to screwball comedy (especially Bringing Up Baby), Body Heat still has a number of the “trappings” of the genre but they have been updated and modernized. Paradoxically, this makes the elements a far “purer” translation of the original than if Kasdan were to simply imitate them. The verbal exchanges in Body Heat, though far more blunt and graphic than the old Hays Code would have ever allowed, are fundamentally of the same ilk that Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck traded forty years earlier. The flirtation may have become more overt but the motivation is still the same... as is the result.

Eventually, in what is probably the film’s most memorable sequence (I saw it spoofed on an episode of Moonlighting once), Ned finally seduces the beautiful blonde (or is SHE the one really doing the seducing?) after she invites him over to her house to look at her... *ahem* windchimes. She teases him a little bit, locks him out and then stands staring at him through the window. Finally, Ned tosses a lawn chair through the glass, rushes in and takes her right there at the base of the staircase. The scene is incredibly sexually charged, not because of what it shows but rather because of what it doesn’t show. Kasdan demonstrates that the artist's most powerful tool in making a movie of this nature is the audience’s imagination. To help cut the film, Carol Littleton (future editor of E.T.) was hired, perhaps to present a "female" perspective on the love-making, and it seems to me that her presence helps give these scenes, as aggressive as they are, a somewhat romantic, almost lyrical, quality; a sort of (dare I say it?) sensitivity that makes it all seem far more potent and meaningful than just two people screwing. Despite its very lurid title, Body Heat is NOT a pornographic movie (though it did cause a bit of stir when it was released), but it is an extremely erotic movie. There are no “money shots” in it. The nudity is mostly implied and the sexual acts themselves always occur outside of the frame. This is, as it turns out, very consistent with the film’s themes. This is a story about desire, not satisfaction; about the illusion of something versus the reality. At any rate, the sex scenes are certainly steamy, but they feel more explicit than they actually are.

Before long, Ned has become obsessed with the woman and after meeting her creep of a husband (Richard Crenna who, ironically played the Fred MacMurray role in an embarrassingly bad television remake of Double Indemnity) realizes that the only way he can ever truly have Matty is if Crenna were out of the way. Though he does fight the temptation, to quote MacMurray, "he doesn't fight hard enough,” Ned eventually succumbs and in one of the film’s best shots, Ned and Matty embrace in his office while he drops the “bomb” and tells her that they are going to kill her husband for no other reason than they want him dead (“He doesn’t deserve it. Let’s not ever say that.”). As they look intensely into each other’s eyes, the camera shoots them both in profile and then slowly starts to ascend up toward the ceiling until it is looking down on the two of them.

MATTY: It's real then?
NED: It’s real, all right... and if we’re not careful it’s gonna be the last real thing we do.

It’s a haunting moment and the great John Barry is right there with his music to support it. His main theme swells with a series of rising notes (accompanying the visual elevation) and becoming equal parts passionate, mysterious, dramatic and frightening. While on the subject, I should probably mention that Barry’s lush, jazzy score for the film is not only one of his best efforts but one of the best examples of its kind. Though the principal instrument is a sax, Barry uses his entire orchestra to its full advantage. The main theme is quite hummable and captures the sultry essence of the film beautifully. It’s a great score by a great composer.

I should also point out that the cinematography is another outstanding element in the film. Though using a lot of the traditional motifs of noir (dark shadows, sparse rooms, ceiling fans, foggy nights and those all-too familiar Venetian blinds), cinematographer Richard H. Kline, following Kasdan’s lead, doesn’t just transpose the “look” of classic noir to contemporary color. He creates a thoroughly modern-looking film, marrying the gritty with the glossy and creating a very “balanced” final product, where the camera can move with confidence (swaying and swooping in a balletic fashion) but also knowing when/where to let it rest in a static shot and simply allow its characters to inhabit the screen. He also manages to capture the titular "heat" quite brilliantly (not just the sexual heat but the actual, physical heat). This film really does look hot and humid. You almost feel like perspiring just watching it. Finally, he knows how to tell a story and/or communicate an idea visually. There’s a moment later in the film, long after the murder has been committed, where Matty and Ned are standing in a room arguing with each other. By this point, things have begun to go bad and the facade of their relationship is starting to come crumbling down. Things are spiraling out of control and they are beginning to feel differently about each other. Kline captures this by shooting them standing on opposite sides of the frame, emphasizing the distance that lies between them (whereas earlier in the film, they were always intimately close in shots, literally “on top of each other”). It’s beautifully stylish, and yet at the same time absurdly simple, camerawork.

I haven’t yet mentioned any of the colorful supporting characters who provide Body Heat with some of its most entertaining moments. J.A. Preston plays Oscar Grace, an investigator (more or less the equivalent of Edward G. Robinson’s “Keyes,” though not nearly as charismatic) who slowly, and reluctantly, begins to suspect his friend Ned might have had something to do with the murder. A young Mickey Rourke plays Teddy Lewis, an explosives expert who helps Ned with his murder weapon: a time bomb intended to make the murder look like a simple accident that occurred during a botched arson crime. Rourke doesn’t have much screen time but he does have one of the best lines in the film: "Any time you try a decent crime, you got fifty ways you're gonna fuck up. If you think of twenty-five of them, then you're a genius... and you ain't no genius." Coincidentally, there’s a virtually identical line in Coppolla’s adaptation of the Grisham novel The Rainmaker, which also stars Rourke.

The best character in the entire film though is Ned's sleazy lawyer friend and competitor Peter Lowenstein (marvelosuly played by Ted Danson). He posseses even less moral fiber than Ned does, and has no qualms in frequently making that known, but he is nonetheless incredibly likable and manages to effortlessly steal every scene he's in because, in a magnificently inspired bit of weirdness, his deepest desire is apparently to be Fred Astaire. Everywhere he goes, Danson is dancing. He is incapable of simply picking up his coat and walking out of a room. He has to grab the coat with flair, do a little turn and slide out the door (“They can’t buy me. I don’t come cheap.”). There is a wonderful nighttime scene near the end of the film where Danson is waiting on the end of a pier for Ned to come by, as he always does, while jogging. Naturally Danson can’t just stand around doing nothing. He simply has to be dancing and Kasdan virtually stops the movie to allow us to watch him step, leap and twirl across the wooden boards for a few brief seconds before Ned arrives.

STELLA: Why does he do that?
NED: He’s pretty good. That’s the weird part.

It’s a great character and a bravura performace, arguably some of Danson’s best work.


The final image of Body Heat is, along with Being There, perhaps one of the most ambiguously satisfying ones I have ever seen in a film. Unlike Double Indemnity, where the villainess is ultimately punished for her crime, Matty gets away. Ned discovers (via a high school yearbook he had delivered to his cell) that she was never who she said she was; that she had assumed the identity of someone else allowing her to disappear and live exactly the kind of existence she’d always wanted: “a rich and prosperous life in an exotic land somewhere.” The final shot, done entirely in close-up, shows Matty reclining on a tropical beach looking off as some nearby man comments on the heat. Matty, lost in her own thoughts, doesn’t hear him and so asks him to repeat it. When he does, she agrees and puts on a pair of sunglasses. I always loved this ending because it seemed to suggest to me that the last words she said to William Hurt, before she was "killed," might have indeed been true; that she did love him and that although she had now gotten everything she always wanted, it wasn’t enough for her. She wasn’t satisfied. She felt guilty for what she did to her lover and now she couldn’t even enjoy it all. That’s why she put on the sunglasses, so nobody could see the regret in her eyes. To me, this seemed consistent with the Stanwyck character from Indemnity (not her fate so much as her apparent “change of heart”).

Viewing the film again recently though, I was struck by something else in this last shot. As it turns out, there isn't necessarily anything substantial in Turner’s performance to indicate a “change of heart.” Her lines are delivered not with a sense of sorrow or regret, but with a lack of emotion. Her delayed response to her unseen male companion does not necessarily reflect introspection on her part but instead perhaps sheer boredom. Her final gesture of putting on the sunglasses, rather than an attempt to hide her humanity, could simply be a demonstration of a cold heart and a calculating mind. Perhaps there is no humanity there to hide. Perhaps Ned’s final diagnosis was right. Matty was someone who would do “whatever it takes” because she was the ultimate femme fatale.

This mystery of Matty’s true state of “soul,” this elusiveness of her inner workings, makes her all the more interesting, and simultaneously maddening, of a character. Although both Kasdan and Turner have said they believe Matty was sorry about what she did in that last shot, I don’t think it’s an accident that they decided nonetheless to construct the film's final image in a rather “non-specific” manner leaving more than one way to interpret it. Her face is almost like a blank canvas onto which we can project our own inner wishes and desires. How we interpret Turner’s expression at that moment says more about us than it does about Matty. What do we want her to be thinking? Do we want her to feel bad? If so, is it not possible that have we also been duped, in much the same way that Hurt’s character was, into believing there’s an actual human being beneath that flawless exterior? Could the final joke be on us? In any case, it’s a brilliant "capper" to the film.


When you watch Body Heat now, it certainly has the characteristic of coming out of a certain time and place, namely the 80’s: a decade characterized by greed and excess, and these qualities are typified not only in the film’s content and themes but in the film’s aesthetic as well. Body Heat is a very sumptuous movie loaded with larger-than-life characters, melodramatic emotions and extreme circumstances, but these are all staples of film noir. What impresses me most about it when I view the film, what jumps out at me, are the film’s subtleties. Kasdan’s touches of humor, irony and sometimes just flat-out bizarreness (such as the shot involving a clown which I'm still not 100% sure I understand) that make it just as much "post-modern" as modern. There is a scene where Matty buys Ned a gift: a hat. Not just any hat though, one of those sharp grey fedoras with a black band; the kind of hats worn by EVERYONE in classic film noir. He tries it on and she laughs at him because it does look a little awkward on him. The filmmakers simultaneously “tip to their hat” to what has come before and bring it into the modern era by acknowledging its age and absurdity. This gives Body Heat, I think, a somewhat timeless quality.

Body Heat is a very self-aware example of film noir (it almost borders on satire at times) and Kasdan’s intent, much like his delightful Western Silverado, is clearly to have fun with the genre, to share his passion for the material and hopefully create an enjoyable viewing experience for the audience as well. This he absolutely does. Whether there is anything deeper going on is debatable. Steve Jenkins once wrote that “film noir, if it is to be successfully reworked, needs to be approached with a sense of analysis, rather than simple excess.” This is a criticism that could perhaps levelled at Body Heat, but I tend to feel that the film's strengths overcome its weaknesses. There have been a variety of different attempts to do film noir in the last thirty years. Some have cleverly transposed a “noir narrative” to a different setting (Brick, Blade Runner), some have more or less spoofed the elements of noir (The Big Lebowski, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Sin City, The Man Who Wasn’t There) and some have tried simply to re-create it in its original form, both successfully (L.A. Confidential, Devil in a Blue Dress, Chinatown) and unsuccessfully (Mulholland Falls, The Black Dahlia, The Two Jakes). Body Heat is one of those rare neo-noir films in that it employs (I would argue even celebrates) the language and iconography of the genre while bringing it into a present-day paradigm in an attempt to highlight the disparity between the two eras and yet simultaneously emphasize their similarities (the only other films I can think of that do this are Altman’s The Long Goodbye and Robert Benton's woefully under-appreciated Twilight with Paul Newman). After all, did not the 80's and 90's (and now the twenty-first century) have its fair share of "darkness" and be just as capable of producing "noir" stories as the 40's and 50's? I think so.

In spite of everything else, and although it may be disputable whether or not the film succeeds at its intended goal, Body Heat is in the end, a damn good entertaining movie and it's one that I happen to have (along with my father who first introduced me to it) great personal affection for.


Pacze Moj said...

Absolutely epic! I think I'll have to digest it in chunks, though...


Good point about the dialogue. I think Body Heat is one of the best examples of what makes great film dialogue different from "realistic" dialogue.

By the way, how long did it take to think and write this piece up?

Damian Arlyn said...

Well, I need to write an "epic" post every once in a while to feel like a "real" film-blogger. :)

It didn't take me TOO terribly long to write up. Longer than most posts perhaps, but I had just finished watching the movie and felt like I had some things to say about it, so I just sat down and let it all pour out of me. I'd say it took me somwhere between 2 and 3 hours maybe.

J.J. said...

I never thought the end was terribly ambiguous, but your analysis has me broadening my own. I always interpreted that last scene as illustrating that Matty isn't bored with life; she's bored with men, including the anonymous dude lying next to her. She barely hears him. She needs to feel wanted, but can't be bothered once the hunt is over. Like you said: desire, not satisfaction. So perhaps now that she has her lifelong dream, desire is extinct. No desire of men, no desire for something unattainable -- she's attained everything, and is left with satisfaction. And satisfaction can be a dreadfully unexciting thing.

Mad Percolator said...

Wow. Thanks for this INCREDIBLY comprehensive analysis!
Makes me inclined to search your archives for a write up of "China Moon," which would be one of the few other "legitimate" attempts to do noir with the femme element...

- Mad Percolator

Damian Arlyn said...


See, I never thought it was that ambiguous either. From the very first time I saw the movie I knew exactly what she was thinking in that final shot. It wasn't until this most recent viewing that the image of her face hit me a different way and I realized that "nailing down" the specifics of her mindset, as dictated by her expression, proved extremely difficult. I think there are many different ways to interpret it and I don't claim to know anymore what's going on in it (though I still love the shot).

Thanks for taking the time to read the post and comment on it. I appreciate that.

dani l.:

I have to confess that I have not yet seen China Moon. If it is, as you say, a great example of neo-noir than I'll definitely have to check it out. Thanks for the recommendation.

Unknown said...

While Matty's true thoughts may never be known. We are left with the implication that her success may someday be reversed when "Oscar" finally finds her. Remember the conversation on the pier, when the prosecutor Lowenstien tells Ned he doesn't care who killed him;"but Oscar's not like that, his whole life is based on doing the right thing". After Ned suggests to Oscar that Matty had switched the bodies in the boathouse, you know Oscar is going to do the right thing. Great Movie.

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Cube said...

My take on the clown shot - it's purely symbolic - Hurt's character Racine has been duped by Turner's character Matty, who, like a clown, has fooled him, and is not who she appears to be, having stolen the identity of her friend. He is now the "clown." If you read the script, Kasdan comments at that point that Racine 'looks like a dead man."

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excellent analysis and commentary on a stand-out film, in a "class by itself"...

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TheFultons said...

This film has always haunted me, from the music to the cinematography. Every character was well-developed, up to and including Stella, the waitress. I have always wondered, however, about the clown and the music in that moment. I've read several hypothesis, but nothing has ever made sense to me. It was the ONE moment in the film that just never made sense. PLEASE SOMEONE give me a good explanation! LOVE LOVE LOVE this movie. Best Film Noir EVER!!!!

Unknown said...

Yeah, confused me too,

Hate to seem simplistic/tenuous .... was he merely 'seeing' himself symbolised here?

Quite a shallow, 'clunky' gesture if it was simply this ... :O