“Body Heat” (1981) starring William Hurt, Kathleen Turner, Richard Crenna, Mickey Rourke, & Ted Danson

Lawrence Kasdan’s neo-noir (and first film- wow!) is inspired by classic noir films: Double Indemnity (1944) and The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946). Kathleen Turner (in her debut role at age 28- wow!) played a woman so alluring/confident that we can believe her lover could be convinced to do anything for her. Kasdan wanted a woman editor, Carol Littleton, to have a female perspective on the erotic scenes; she would go on to work on 9 films w/ him. Unlike many of the films of the ’80s, Body Heat has a balanced take on revealing skin. I saw this film maybe three times; on this most recent viewing, I noticed how well the editing turned out!

Women are rarely allowed to be bold and devious in the movies; most directors are men, and they see women as goals, prizes, enemies, lovers and friends, but rarely as protagonists. Turner’s entrance in “Body Heat” announces that she is the film’s center of power.

One of the brilliant touches of Kasdan’s screenplay is the way he makes Ned Racine think he is the initiator of Matty Walker’s plans.

-Roger Ebert

It is a very hot/humid night in a small town in South Florida. A small-time lawyer, Ned Racine (Hurt- then only 30 y.o.), is strolling on a pier where a band is playing. We can see straight down the center aisle to the bandstand. Suddenly, a woman in white stands up, turns around and walks directly toward him- Matty Walker (Turner). She is slim, tall, w/ hair down to her shoulders. The white dress w/ long sleeves she wears might remind some viewers of how of the actresses in ’50s films (such as Barbara Stanwyck, Lauren Bacall, or Lana Turner) dressed.

The characters here are constantly hot and sweaty. The film was shot in freezing cold temperatures. The actors sucked ice cubes before speaking to eliminate foggy breath and had water sprayed on their skin and shirts to simulate body sweat. Christopher Reeve was offered the lead, but turned it down by saying: “I didn’t think I would be convincing as a seedy lawyer.” Kim Zimmer (who plays Mary Ann) had originally been offered the role of Matty, but the producers of The Doctors (a soap opera) wouldn’t give her time off to shoot the film. This movie- slated to be shot in the NYC/New Jersey area- was moved to Florida because of a Teamsters strike.

[1] …I felt the music really pushed the movie over the top. The hauntingly melancholic string work serves not only as ambiance, but also acts as narrative. The sweet yet cautionary score mirrors the plot theme of ‘moth to the flame’- obvious danger yet unavoidably seductive beauty. 

[2] William Hurt is very assured in one of his early roles as an incompetent small time lawyer who’s also an inveterate womaniser. He’s driven by lust and greed and his gullibility makes him easy fodder for the manipulative Matty.

-Excerpts from reviews on IMDB

The film opens with an inn burning (w/ shades of yellow, orange, and red) in the distance; Ned leans against a window and lazily comments to his hookup: “Somebody’s torched it to clear the lot. Probably one of my clients.” There is use of the color red, incl. on the pier (when a snow-cone stains Matty’s blouse, in the lighting of the Pinehaven bar, and the infamous scene where Matty brings Ned home to listen to her (creepy IMO) wind chimes. She is wearing a white blouse and a bright red skirt (“revealing that though she acts cool, she is red-hot below the waist,” as Shannon Clute and Richard Edwards discussed on their podcast- Out of the Past).

Maybe you shouldn’t dress like that. -Ned advises Matty (when she mentions re: local men hitting on her) / This is a blouse and skirt. I don’t know what you’re talking about. -Matty retorts quickly / You shouldn’t wear that body. -Ned comments

The above dialogue is inspired by noir of the past, but it works in this ’80s movie (as Ebert noted). If you take away the smoking (or fiddling w/ cigarettes) and a few lines related to the role of women, this film has aged pretty well. Matty even gives Ned a fedora- a direct homage to classic Hollywood. Kasdan surrounds the lead characters w/ good supporting roles; he creates world of police stations, diners, law offices and restaurants. An adorable/young Mickey Rourke, playing an arsonist/former client of Ned’s, steals the show in his scenes. Matty’s husband (Richard Crenna), who she calls “small, mean, and weak,” is nothing of the sort; he obviously knows how to make money and is no pushover. Ted Danson (wearing thick glasses) is an A.D.A. and Ned’s friend, who eventually suspects him of murder, as does their police detective friend. The dancing Danson does was choreographed based on the dance moves of Fred Astaire. The following year, Danson got the lead role on the iconic sitcom- Cheers.

Hurt does a fine job in this anti-hero role; he is a sleazy guy (hooking up w/ various women w/o any emotion, having an arrogant/superior attitude, and taking on shady clients). However, he is far from a one-note villain; he is troubled by his conscience. The film delved into content that would’ve been censored earlier, incl. the explicit love scenes and also the femme fatale getting away w/ her crimes in the end. Ned goes to jail, b/c he never was as smart as Matty; she was always a few steps ahead. Pay attention to the scene in Ned’s office when he and Matty resolve to kill her husband. They speak softly (and calmly) re: murder.

That man is gonna die for no reason but . . . we want him to. -Ned flatly tells Matty

What do you think of their relationship? In the last act, Matty says: “Ned, whatever you think- I really do love you.” Does she? Does he love her? Matty got what she always wanted- “to be rich and live in an exotic place.” The ending, showing her relaxing w/ a drink on a sunny beach under blue skies, is ambiguous. She reacts to an (offscreen) man, but sounds indifferent to him. What is she thinking about under those sunglasses? Matty is a mystery at the end!

In 2003, director Mahesh Bhatt made a Bollywood reimaging- Jism (“body”)- starring two former models-turned-actors (John Abraham and Bipasha Basu). Kabir Lal (Abraham) is a young, alcoholic lawyer who sees an attractive woman hanging out on a beach (Pondicherry) and is intrigued by her. He sees her again in a local restaurant (where she is wearing a backless black dress) and offers to buy her a drink. This is Sonia (Basu) and she’s married to an older/wealthy man (Gulshan Grover) who neglects her. The lead actors looked self-conscious together, though they were (at that time) a real-life couple. I recall thinking that Abraham had a few good scenes w/ the character actors who played his friends (Vinay Pathak and Ranvir Shorey). Siddharth (Pathak- an experienced indie/theater actor) plays a policeman who goes from from wanting to beat the hell out of Kabir to wanting to protect him. Unlike in Body Heat, Kabir gets very emotional (and shows it); there is not much nuanced about his character. Basu (as expected) is tan, toned, and wears an excess of eyeliner; she was put in vampy roles in Bollywood in her time. Women w/ darker skintones are (often) put in negative roles in this genre; it’s a well-known/troubling fact. Though the production design (as well as many scenes) are a direct copy of Body Heat, the ending is very different!

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