Body Heat

Year: 1981
Genre: Noir
Director: Lawrence Kasdan
Cinematography: Richard H. Kline
Editor: Carol Littleton
Music: John Barry
Screenplay: Lawrence Kasdan

Major Actors:
Kathleen Turner – Matty Walker
Richard Crenna – Edmund Walker
William Hurt – Ned Racine
J. A. Preston – Oscar Grace
Ted Danson – Peter Lowenstein
Mickey Rourke – Teddy Lewis
Michael Ryan – Miles Hardin
Carola McGuinness – Heather
Lanna Saunders – Roz
Kim Zimmer – Mary Ann

“Body Heat” is a very interesting film. It is also quite exciting to watch, and unless you’ve seen other ‘neo-noirs’ like it, you’ll be kept guessing to the end about what is, for the type, the inevitable outcome.
The opening scenes and the title harbor the dominant image of the film: intense heat and destructive fire. Ned has just finished with a whore. He is standing, sweating, at the window and watching a fire burn out of control in the nocturnal distance. The final scene, completing an evocative ring composition, suggests that Matty, with her new nameless faceless guy telling her “It is hot”, is also a whore, and the cycle is about to begin again.
Body Language [1995], also featuring a lawyer befuddled by lust for a vamp, makes this identical point about cycles of evil). Fires of various sorts will burn him, and he will sweat from a heat that is as physically oppressive as fire is destructive. Keep this point in mind as you watch the film, and note how people play with matches and lighters throughout the narrative, as if they did not quite know what to do with all that smoldering passion that swirls around their greedy hearts like a choking smoke. Somehow it must out!
Fire is itself an interesting literary symbol, older than Homer. The ancients liked using it in their poetry, where it ranges in its signifying capacity from the burning passion of Achilles for revenge in the Iliad to the destructive fires of Troy in Book 2 of the Aeneid and the ubiquitous symbolism of sexual desire in the amatory elegy of both the Greeks and Romans. It is an ambivalent thing: controlled, harnessed, it makes civilization and civilized life possible (the point about fire in Prometheus Bound of Aeschylus); left to its own devices and not subject to rational oversight, it leads humans and entire societies to ruin.
When, in Body Heat, the incendiary device planted in the basement of The Breakers explodes and torches the old building, it is the explosion of a powerfully destructive avarice for lust and loot that has been building in Ned and Matty. Like all the ‘femmes fatales’ in these kinds of tales, Matty is an incomparable huntress of men: she understands their psychological motivations better than they do themselves, and their blinded egos eagerly fall willing victim to the sociopathic savagery of her game. One of the more ironic lines in the film comes at a dinner she and her husband are sharing with Ned. The husband, an arrogant and pompous fool who is really no less a lamb being led to slaughter than Ned, jokingly comments on how incapable his wife is of understanding his business dealing. Ah, how blind these mortals are when all goes well for them — they think it will last forever!
The photography of Richard Kline is superbly moody, alternately somber and flamboyant, a perfect visualization of the kaleidoscope of intense passions and moral darkness that hang over these benighted characters as they stumble about in their murky jostlings for power, sex, money. And the sassy soulful music of John Barry offers a marvelous commentary on the unfolding action — erotic saxophones and muted trumpets.
The two main characters, Ned and Matty, are both realized with consistency and believability: he a sleazy lawyer driven largely by his sexual appetites, she your basic tramp in profitable thrall to her appalling amorality. Ned, almost like a character in a Greek tragedy, thinks that he has everything under control, refusing to heed the numerous warnings that his two best friends (a kind of ‘chorus’?) give him about Matty’s lethalness. He exemplifies that sad, common human type who believes his hormones can do his thinking for him — a belief of which the type must soon enough, and invariably, be as sadly disabused.
Body Heat, then, is exciting — excellently so — as cinematic character study of varieties of greed, but it is also depressing. One cannot help asking, “Why didn’t he see what she was doing to him?” Or he to himself? And therefore I am prompted to ask myself, what potentially catastrophic situation in my life is it that I am not seeing? And you?

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