Critics over the years have called Lawrence Kasdan’s sexy, 1981 crime flick “Body Heat” a “sultry noir.” Fair enough. Certainly, the setting is humid and the love story is torrid enough; more important, it is one of the better noirs to come along in ages. Dark places and dark deeds dominate; despair and paranoia abound; and you can’t beat the film’s sizzling femme fatale to lead a man to desperate measures.
William Hurt stars as the man caught up in a web of lies, lust, greed, and deceit; and Kathleen Turner is the woman who lures him in. It was one of Hurt’s first big pictures and Turner’s breakthrough role. Moreover, it was writer and director Lawrence Kasdan’s (“The Big Chill,” “Grand Canyon,” “Silverado”) first directorial effort. Together, they made if not a great film, at the very least a memorable one.
Hurt plays Ned Racine, a shabby Florida lawyer working in the sleepy little town of Miranda Beach. He’s not a very good lawyer, and not a very honest one. Still, he ekes out a living and earns enough money to bed down a different waitress or nurse most every night. Turner plays Matty Walker, a beautiful woman married to a rich businessman (played by Richard Crenna). Ned and Matty meet by happenstance one evening at a jazz concert and strike up an instant friendship. Well, OK, it’s more than a friendship. Although Matty plays coy and hard-to-get at first, the two more or less fall instantly in lust and don’t stop making it together for the rest of the movie. But there is that pesky matter of the husband.
Matty lives in a house the size of New Jersey, and fortunately for her and Ned, who do their lovemaking there, the husband is gone on weekdays and they’re alone in the place nights. You guessed what’s coming next. Matty says she can’t stand her spouse: “He’s small and mean and weak.” She wishes her husband were dead. And Ned is just unscrupulous enough to accommodate her.
If this plot sounds familiar, you’re right. It’s Billy Wilder’s “Double Indemnity.” In fact, that’s one of the film’s weaknesses. It tries so hard to draw on old noirs, it can sometimes seem like a parody of the old movies. The dark lighting, the dark night clubs, the dark places, the constantly hot days and foggy nights, and John Barry’s evocative forties-style jazz score all underline the noir mood. Matty even goes so far as to buy Ned a man’s hat of the kind worn in the forties. And just how “hot” is Matty? She’s so hot, her skin is noticeably warmer than a normal person’s. She says her body heat runs several notches high, around 100 degrees. I’ll say she’s hot. Anyway, you see what I mean; Kasdan piles it on maybe a little too much. However, he redeems himself in the movie’s second half by introducing some clever twists and turns.
In the last hour, Ned’s two best friends, a county prosecutor named Peter Lowenstein (Ted Danson) and a police detective named Oscar Grace (J.A. Preston), begin to suspect foul play and start sniffing around what they consider unusual circumstances. Mickey Rourke also has a small but notable part as a petty crook and explosives expert, Teddy Lewis, who becomes involved in the goings on.
Hurt and Turner couldn’t be better. Hurt plays Ned as just smart enough to see where he’s going and just dumb enough to miss the main curves; Turner plays Matty as just sincere enough not to be doubted and just cunning enough not to be trusted. Besides, with Turner’s sensual voice and body, who cares what she’s up to?
Kasdan develops all the essential qualities we remember about good noir: the dark look; the mystery; the romance; the suspense; the tension; the excitement; the irony; and the surprise. And almost everybody smokes. This film is hot, and if it were not for the steamy sex, the nudity, and the profanity, it might easily pass for a genuine noir of the 1940s.
“Body Heat” builds slowly, then grabs you and never lets go. The last forty minutes or so will have you glued to the screen. Fun stuff, if a tad overdone.
The Warner Bros. video engineers transferred the movie to disc in a high-bit-rate, anamorphic reproduction that captures most of its original 1.85:1 theatrical ratio, completely filling a widescreen TV. However, the picture quality is nothing to brag about. The image is most often soft, a little blurry, and occasionally fuzzy. Colors can sometimes be deep and natural, but they can just as often look ill defined, bleeding into one another. Although black levels are good, darker tones can obscure inner detail. I have no idea if this is the way director Kasdan intended his picture to look, in order to emphasize the old noir look, or not.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio displays a good front-channel stereo spread, a fairly well-balanced and realistic midrange, and quiet backgrounds. Other than that, there is little activity in the surrounds, a rather clipped bass, and a somewhat limited dynamic range.
The bonus features begin with five “lifted” (deleted) scenes, lasting about nine minutes. Then we get a series of three newly made featurettes: “Body Heat: The Plan: Screenplay and Casting,” “The Production: Filming,” and “The Post-Production: Editing, Scoring and Release.” You can play these items, with comments from the director, editor, and stars William Hurt, Kathleen Turner, and Ted Danson, separately or all at once, and together they last about forty-three minutes. After that is a pair of vintage 1981 interviews with Turner and Hurt, lasting about twelve minutes. Things wrap up with thirty scene selections (but no chapter insert); a widescreen theatrical trailer; English and French spoken languages; and English, French, and Spanish subtitles.
If there is any serious drawback to this modern take on old-fashioned film noirs, it’s that it probably goes too far in trying to imitate the style of the older genre. In trying too hard, it tends to call attention to itself too often. That said, “Body Heat” is undoubtedly fun to watch, whether or not you are a fan of or even familiar with 40s’ noir. Just the sight of Turner and Hurt together is enough to keep you interested to the very end.