Body Heat: The Last Film Noir
“Body Heat” was released August 28, 1981. The film’s domestic box office gross was $24,058,838.
A sleazy lawyer. An underhanded real estate developer. Purposeful arson, murder and a femme fatale. Carl Hiaasen’s newest book? Elmore Leonard’s latest offering? The front page of the Miami Herald? No sir. What I am describing is the basic plot of the last movie in that classic genre of film noir known as “Body Heat.” But this movie takes itself from the dark streets of New York or other unnamed northern city of Humphrey Bogart’s and places itself in sweltering South Florida in the midst of a massive heat wave. And as anyone who lives down here knows, the heat makes an already intense, crazy and passionate place ten times worse.
The movie has all the classic old elements of the film noir; the sultry saxophone score, the swelling violins, the hapless private investigator (in this case sleazy lawyer but, hey, its South Florida they had to adapt) and of course the evil, manipulative heroine with legs that go on for miles. But the oppressive heat is the running theme, and the insanity that it causes provides a constant symbolic theme for the entire film.
“Body Heat,” which was made in 1981, is the story of small-time, small town lawyer Ned Racine, played by William Hurt, who gets in a little too far with a clever, manipulative woman and ends up on the wrong side of a brutal crime.
SMALL TIME LAWYER MEETS BIG TIME SEDUCTRESS
Ned somewhat-incompetantly handles a variety of personal injury and criminal cases in a fictional small town in coastal South Florida. The county and name are fictitious, but it is presumed to be Palm Beach for anyone who has been there. This was, of course, back when there were small, hick town in coastal Palm Beach County. The area is in the midst of a searing summer heat wave, and, as Ned’s cop pal Oscar says, the heat makes people think they can break the law because it is a disaster mentality. Apparently, in this town in 1981, nobody has air-conditioning, adding that other classic film element: Everyone fanning themselves everywhere in the south.
The film begins with Ned watching a massive hotel fire from his bedroom window, with the predictably semi-clothed female companion asking him why he is so engrossed by it. The fire was deliberate, he says, torching an historic old Florida hotel to make room for condos or a shopping center or some other monstrosity of 1980s Florida sprawl. It is clear that developers set it to get sidestep those seeking its preservation. Ned seems perturbed, but is quickly distracted by his female guest.
Then one night, as Ned is walking along the beach, watching an outdoor musical show where everyone is frantically fanning themselves, even at night, a woman in white rises from the audience. She is Matty Walker, played to perfection by Kathleen Turner. If ever there was an actress of the last 30 years who was born to play film noir, it is Turner. With her resonating-yet-sophisiticated voice, her sinister-yet-irresistible face and her legs, oh those legs, she makes any man watching the film realize why Ned loses his mind as soon as he sees her. Or maybe it was just the heat.
Matty is, of course, married to a very rich man who lives in Miami, only coming up to the fictitious Pinehaven on weekends to see his bored wife. After a brief encounter on the boardwalk, Ned stalks her until one night he finds her at a bar and she invites him back to her husband’s mansion. She plays the constant game of cat and mouse, pushing Ned away, then drawing him back in until he finally breaks a window of her house, and rips her clothes off as they tumble to the floor and do the one enjoyable thing there is to do during a heat wave.
HOT SEX LEADS TO BRUTAL MURDER
The sex scenes in this film are a lot more graphic than in classic film noirs, as a bare-breasted Turner is much more acceptable in 1981 than a similarly-clad Bacall would have been in the ‘40s. But the heat is what makes the scenes in this movie so intense. If you’ve ever had sex on a hot night with no air conditioning, and gone at it like you were about to both be sent off to prison for the rest of your lives, you will know exactly what Matty and Ned are feeling when you watch this movie. It doesn’t hurt their case that Matty’s body temperature runs 100 degrees, as sweat pours off of her every time they are in bed. Of course, the most famous sex scene in this move somes when Matty’s 8-year-old niece walks in on her, shall we say, with her mouth full.
As the sex intensifies, so does Matty and Ned’s relationship and soon she begins dropping hints about how much better off they would be if her husband, Edmund, was gone. Edmund, for his part, seems like a nice guy on the surface, but you can tell just form the things he says and the way he acts that his dealings are never on the up and up. He never fully explains what he does, except that it involves land and “doing whatever is necessary.” He is a true South Floridian.
Of course, anyone who has ever watched a film noir knows exactly where this is going. Once Matty plants the seed in Ned’s head, the heat makes it grow and before long he tells his new love that he will kill her husband. He goes to Miami (interesting to see the skyline circa-1981 from both the Rickenbacker Causeway and I-95. You would barely recognize the place) rents a hotel room, valets his car and rents another for the long drive back to Pinehaven in the middle of the night. After some foreshadowing bedroom dialog, one of my favorite aspects of film noir, Edmunds races downstairs when he hears an intruder entering his home. It is Ned, who kills him, dumps his body in an abandoned hotel that Edmund owns, and blows it up to make it look like arson.
The bomb, incidentally, was sold to him by Miami’s own Mickey Rourke. Rourke plays Teddy, a Bob Seger-listening hoodlum ex-client of Ned’s. While his role in the film is small, Rourke’s character eventually becomes pivitol.
A TANGLED WEB OF LIES AND DECEPTION
But, of course, it is never that easy to get away with murder. Ned’s cop buddy Oscar, who would no doubt have been played by Morgan Freeman were the movie made today, is relentless in his investigation of the crime. After Matty forges a new will that indirectly leaves her with all of her husband’s money, the investigation becomes more intrusive, and soon all the fingers are pointing at Ned and Matty. If I go into any more about the last third of the film, I will give away the plot twists, double-crosses, and sly maneuvering which make this movie so great. And to spoil it for you here would be a disservice to the genre. But this movie does what so many like it had done so deftly before it: It combines suspense with unbelievable plot twists without overdoing it like “Wild Things” or “The Game.”
Mickey Rourke’s scene-stealing performance as Teddy the arsonist.
THE LAST GREAT FILM NOIR
Because it was shot in color, writer/director Lawrence Kasdan is able to do a lot of things older films like “Double Indemnity” could not. The use of color is obviously the most obvious. He has Matty wearing red in the beginning of the film, showing her as both an object of passion and as someone you should be careful of. The fires stand out from the night skies, and the glare of the sun off the buildings reflects a heat only someone who has spent an eternal summer in South Florida can know. The film uses classic fiim noir elements as well, like fog (and I mean, really, when was the last time you saw fog down here not caused by a wildfire?) and smoke, but because the movie is in color it gives these elements layers and, thus, more complexity.
No movie since has treid to be a classic film noir. If a movie like this were done today, it would noo doubt be in that graphic-novel adaptation style of “300” or “Sin City.” Nobody does dark anymore unless it is grisly. Nobody does suspense unless it is violent. And nobody does wuick-fir dialog except “The Gilmore Girls.’ and they’re not even on anymore.
If you are a fan of books and stories by guys like Hiaasen and Leonard, you will probably like this movie, While it does not have the humor of those authors, what it lacks in jokes it makes up for in suspense and style. Similarly, if you were a fan of the old Sam Spade movies or anything like that, you will absolutely love “Body Heat.” It captures both the carnival of the surreal that is South Florida (none of the characters are at all unbelievable) and the intensity of a local heat wave, making it an absolute must-see for the Miami movie buff.
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