Retro Film Review: Body Heat (1981)

Hollywood movies are full of different stereotypes, but one of the most noticeable is about the lawyers. Such stereotypes are probably the result of deep-rooted view of the legal profession among ordinary people in USA. Lawyers are always portrayed as slimy, rich bastards that not only make a living by twisting justice and common sense, but also become rich, powerful and dark invincible pillar of American society. The only exception lies in movies that take quite an opposite view by portraying lawyers as noble individuals ready to fight the system for the sake of common, and often completely helpless man. Very few movies actually try to portray lawyers as ordinary human beings, with all the normal strengths and weaknesses (with the exception of television, that usually takes real life more seriously than Hollywood). Body Heat, 1981 directorial debut by famed screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan, is one of those films.

The plot of the movie is loosely based on Double Indemnity, 1944 film noir by Billy Wilder and one of the most celebrated movies of the Classic Hollywood era. Kasdan, who also wrote the screenplay, sets it in Southern Florida and turns its protagonist into lawyer instead of insurance agent. Ned Racine (played by William Hurt) is an attorney who works in small town, and whose pool of clients is very small due to his notorious incompetence. Racine, on the other hand, hides his bad luck by cocky demenour and mostly successful womanising. The latest of his romantic conquest is Matty Walker (played by Kathleen Turner), extremely attractive, emotionally cold, but sexually insatiable woman. Before he knows it, Racine falls in love with her, and the only obstacle to their perpetual bliss is Matty's husband Edmund (played by Richard Crenna), local businessman with shady connections. After accidentally meeting the man and seeing him as the arrogant bastard, Racine devises the plan to kill him. After the murder Matty would collect the inheritance and later live happily ever after with Racine. Both lovers agree on the plan and kill Edmund. However, after the killing things don't go that smoothly for Racine. Damaging evidence starts popping up in the hands of the local law enforcement, and Matty doesn't seem to be as forthcoming about her own plans.

In the current debate between those who are for and against the Hollywood practice of re-makes, the pro-remake side would probably case by using Body Heat as its argument. Lawrence Kasdan very cleverly used the old film noir formula, yet he also set in an familiar environment and used the new techniques and plot twists that would make this film original not only by its look. First of all, he emphasised the heat as a metaphor for the atmosphere of moral corruption and decay that engulfs the movie protagonists and their surroundings. Racine is portrayed as immoral character, but he is hardly an aberration from the rest of society; his only crime is his own stupidity, that allows him to get caught. The heat in the movie is also an metaphor for sexual lust, and Kasdan here uses almost all the liberties of mainstream Hollywood in order to portray it as depraved as possible (it is implied that Racine and Matty did break anti-sodomy laws in their relationship); yet his portrayal is very subtle compared with some "erotic" films of the same nature, so Body Heat remains as a shining example of the less explicit use of erotica. The movie also can be seen as a really ironic twist on popular American beliefs; the lawyer, who usually screws over common men, is the one who gets screwed over at the end.

The characters of the movie are extremely well-drawn. William Hurt, who was considered to be one of the hottest WASP-stars in the early 1980s, was perfect in his role of a man who is on the outside epitome of virility, but utterly weak and stupid on the inside. But the real show stealer is Kathleen Turner in her debut role - her sexy look and seductive deep voice, in contrast with her cold and calculating personality, made her a most impressive femme fatale for many years to come; Hollywood had to wait for Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct to enjoy the sinister man-eater of the same calibre. The other actors are also more than fine; Ted Danson as Racine's friend, equally but much smarter colleague (although his tapping sequence seemed a little bit redundant); J.A. Preston as a policeman whose friendship towards Racine doesn't prevent him from doing the right thing; Richard Crenna as incarnation of rich businessman's arrogance. But the best side role is one made by young Mickey Rourke as petty criminal who seems to have more common sense than his supposedly smarter and more educated lawyer.

The other artists contributed to the Body Heat too. John Barry's melancholic and jazzy tunes were perfect for such erotic film noir set in a hot locations of Southern Florida. But the movie's photography by Richard H. Kline was slightly uneven - in the night, red and orange colours were dominant, but the daytime scenes look too bright, especially those set in interiors. However, despite those small flaws, Body Heat remains one of the best directorial debuts in Hollywood history, and probably the best film noir ever made in previous decade.

RATING: 9/10 (++++)

(Note: The text in its original form was posted in Usenet newsgroup on November 15th 1998)


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