Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat takes place in a small, dreadfully hot, humid Southern Florida coastal town. The heat of the title reflects three important elements of the film. First up, the obvious; the stifling hot Florida weather. Every character’s skin glistens with beads of sweat. Shirts are constantly seen with sweat stains.
Right from the opening scene Florida’s oppressive hot weather plays a major character in the film. “My God, it’s hot. I just stepped out of the shower and started sweating again,” a woman William Hurt’s Ned Racine has just spent the night with states. In this same scene, Racine, bare-chested and sweating, is leaning next to an open window searching for a breeze. Day or night, the Florida heat is on. It may be 1981 Florida, but air-conditioning seems to be a rarity which adds to the unsettling feel.
Second is Kasdan’s spicy dialogue, reminiscent of Billy Wilder’s classic noir Double Indemnity, it boils over with suggestive stylish dialogue just the way it ought to be. Every character has a slick answer. It’s not the way people talk in real life, but hey this is noir land. Kathleen Turner’s femme fatale, Matty Walker tells Ned, “My temperature runs a couple of degrees high, around a hundred. I don’t mind. It’s the engine or something.” Finally, there is crime, the third element affected by the heat. Racine asked detective Oscar Grace (J.A. Preston) “How’s the cop business, Oscar?” He replies, “Real good. Always starts hopping in weather like this. When it gets this hot, people try to kill each other.” Florida in the middle of the summer is one hot deadly bitch!
While the film takes place in modern day (1981) Florida it is strictly 1940’s noir in structure, style and mood. Body Heat has been criticized for being derivative of the classic noirs of the 1940’s particularly the aforementioned Double Indemnity, and you could also include The Postman Always Rings Twice. All have a love triangle consisting of a seductive woman, a male sap and a husband who ends up dead. But Kasdan goes deeper into the sexuality than either of those two earlier films or others from that period. They could only hint or suggest at the sex going on. Let’s face it, sex, seduction, double dealing is what all these films are about. Additionally, Matty Walker, unlike other deadly femme fatales, gets away with her plan. Kasdan, however, adds one final twist. The final shot of Matty, now living in some faraway exotic country with a young stud by her side shows a woman who is possibly conflicted, maybe even regretful that she double-crossed Ned who sits in a jail cell. She actually might have fallen in love with the guy.
Ned is a low rent, not too bright lawyer who gets hooked on Matty as soon as he spots her in a clinging white dress at a boardwalk concert one hot evening. She’s married, unhappily, to Edmund Walker (Richard Crenna), a slimy millionaire. Verbal sparks fly immediately. Ned tells her, “Maybe, you shouldn’t wear a dress like that.” She replies, “This is a blouse and a skirt. I don’t know what you’re talking about.” He say’s “You shouldn’t wear that body.”
Matty wants to leave her husband, but he made her sign a pre-nuptial agreement that would leave her with hardly anything if she did divorce him. With Matty’s help, Ned unknowingly soon finds himself coming up with a plan to murder her husband. Matty is slick enough to make the simple minded Ned think it was all his idea.
Kathleen Turner, in her film debut, falls perfectly in line with the great femme fatales of the past. Her long flowing hair and sleek slim body are reminiscent of Lauren Bacall. Her character’s deviousness suggest Stanwyck. She moves with the sexual mastery of an artist; completely in control. Secure in her seductive powers, enough to know that she can wrap the not too bright and unscrupulous lawyer Ned Racine around her finger. He’s willing to do anything for her…even murder her husband.
In her memoir, Kathleen Turner speaks about doing the sexy nude scenes. Particularly the boat house scene which is one of the most revealing. Due to a production schedule change they had to shoot this scene on the first day of filming. So here are Turner and Hurt who only just met dressed in robes ready to strip. Uncomfortable to say the least.
At the time of its release the film was met with two opposite extremes critically. Some calling it a neo-noir masterpiece. David Chute going a bit overboard in calling it, “the most stunning debut movie ever…” Others, most famously Pauline Kael wrote, “insinuating, hotted-up dialogue that it would be fun to hoot at if only the hushed, sleepwalking manner of the film didn’t make you cringe or yawn.” She was particularly hard on Kathleen Turner saying she performed “as if she were following the marks on the floor made by the actresses who preceded her.” Turner actually delivered a sexy spot on performance though reminiscent of her femme fatale predecessors, yet unique in its sexiness and style. And Chute must have forgotten about, Welles’ Citizen Kane or Huston’s The Maltese Falcon, both films that truly deserve the “most stunning debut ever” tag before Body Heat.
Other impressive performances include Ted Danson’s tap dancing Assistant Deputy Prosecutor and Mickey Rourke in a very early role as a low rent client of Ned’s who’s handy with combustible type devices. Finally, there is the soundtrack by John Barry that creates the perfect noir mood.
Body Heat is a steamy and stylish neo-noir executed with a strong visual look and sharp spicy dialogue. Its characters, like many in classic noir, are self-destructive. They know they are playing a losing game but they can’t help themselves.
The film was shot in various locations in Florida including Hollywood, Palm Beach and downtown Lake Worth. Much of the interior photography was shot back in Hollywood, California.
Fernandez, Susan J & Ingalls, Robert P. 2006 Sunshine in the Dark: Florida in the Movies University Press of Florida
Los Angeles Times, December 9, 2005, An Appeal to Power By Steam
Turner, Kathleen, Feldt, Gloria, Send Yourself Roses: Thoughts on my Life, Love and Leading Roles