A mournful saxophone. Lots of cigarettes. The tinkle of ice in a cocktail glass. Mist, smoke, fog, long shadows … a sultry woman, a world-weary, cynical man. Faces half in darkness. Venetian blinds … (Why Venetian blinds? Because of the way they throw shadows, I guess.) And sweat. Buckets and buckets of sweat. There you have Body Heat, Lawrence Kasdan’s homage to film noir.
Robert Mitchum once said that, back when they were being made, they didn’t know from film noir. “We called them B pictures.” They were made on low budgets and starred the lesser contract players on the lot. Then the French discovered them and gave them a fancy name, and now you study them in film school. Which is not a bad thing. This time the French got it right, these wonderfully trashy films are worth seeing, and imitating. (They had to get something right, eventually, after two big strike-outs with the cult of Jerry Lewis and the auteur theory. “The director of a film is the ‘author’ of the film.” What rubbish! He’s only the author if he writes it as well.) These days film noir imitations are mostly made in color, like this one, because it’s real tough to sell a B&W film. There are exceptions, like the Coen Brothers’ The Man Who Wasn’t There, but most “neo-noir” employ a slightly faded color palette, like L.A. Confidential (the opening scene which was shot practically in our front yard, just two doors down!) and Chinatown. That’s okay, since noir means, literally, black, but it really refers to a mood as well as an absence of light, and shadows work well in color, too, in the hands of the right cinematographer.
Maybe somebody can help me out here. There was a scene in a movie—I can’t remember the title—where some guys were trying to name the sweatiest movies of all time. I think some action films were mentioned, maybe Rocky and Predator, and also some erotic ones. When Body Heat came up, everybody agreed that was a pretty sweaty one. No kidding! Everybody sweats in this small Florida town. Nobody’s air conditioner seems to be working well. It’s all part of writer/director (auteur!) Lawrence Kasdan’s schtick, of course, but it works pretty well. Kathleen Turner as Mattie Walker makes sweat look good, and that’s fortunate, as for about half the movie about all she’s wearing is a coat of sweat. (Any male would like to lick it off of her.) This was her first movie role, and only the third for William Hurt (as sleazy lawyer Ned Racine), after Altered States and Eyewitness. These two stars are astonishingly willing to do nude scenes, love scenes, and snuggle-naked-after-sweaty-sex scenes. There is everything but full frontal nudity. Their affair is the very definition of torrid, right from the moment they meet and exchange wonderfully wicked banter (“You’re not very smart, are you? I like that in a man.”), to the iconic scene when he hurls a lawn chair through French doors to get to her.
And you soon suspect that she’s the one in control here, and that her plans for him might not be entirely in his interests. In case you don’t get it, at one point she leads him through a scene by pulling him by … well, by a body part that’s often used as a metaphor for a woman controlling a man. (This happens just slightly below the edge of the screen, but there is no doubt that Kathleen actually had William by the … you know. There would be no way to fake that. Rather astonishing that, so far as I know, they did not have an affair.)
But, oh my, is she bad! She’s bad in a way that leaves me shaking my head in admiration. She may be the baddest woman in films until Linda Fiorentino redefined bad in the ultimate bad-girl movie, The Last Seduction. There is something enticing about badness on that scale, and it goes beyond admiration. In the last scenes, when Ned is laying out just how devious Mattie was in landing him in jail and getting off scot-free, I believe he still admires her. And further, I think if she were to show up again and grab him by the same handle, he would willingly be led, even though he knew it would come out bad in the end. Hell, I might, too.