The problem with a modern film noir or “neo-noir” such as Body Heat is of course the problem of self-awareness.
The people making the classics of film noir from the 40s, like Out of the Past or Double Indemnity, weren’t aware they making film noir as such. But anyone making such a movie in 1981 was going to be all too much aware they were making a film noir. The writers know they’re writing film noir. The directors know they’re directing a film noir. The cinematographer knows he’s photographing a film noir. The costume designer, the set dressers, the hairdressers, everyone involves is aware of the genre expectations.
And not only do the actors know they’re acting in a film noir, their characters all too often seem to be aware that they’re characters in a film noir.
This is not necessarily a fatal flaw. Some movies, like Basic Instinct, solve the problem by exaggerating it. The self-awareness becomes a crucial ingredient in the movie You can’t really enjoy a movie like Basic Instinct unless you’re familiar with the shadowy world of film noir. The entire movie is an elaborate in-joke, but it works.
Body Heat adopts a similar strategy. Although it’s set in 1981 this movie is not even remotely a realistic depiction of the 1980s, or any other decade. This is the world of film noir, the world of Philip Marlowe, the world of seedy losers and no-good dames, a world where everybody speaks hardboiled dialogue as a matter of course. This is reality heightened almost to the degree of parody, but it works because despite the self-awareness everyone involved still takes it seriously. They want you to care about these people, and you do.
The plot borrows very heavily indeed from Double Indemnity, and the mood of the film is even more indebted to Billy Wilder’s 1944 classic. William Hurt plays Ned Racine, a lawyer. And like Fred MacMurray’s character Walter Neff in Double Indemnity Ned’s character flaws are obvious right from the start. It’s clear that if offered the opportunity for easy money and hot sleazy sex Ned is not going to be overly troubled by ethical considerations. As with Walter Neff the corruption is already there as a potential presence, just waiting for the right (or wrong ) woman to come along and unleash it. The main difference is that Ned is more obviously a loser.
When he meets Matty Walker (Kathleen Turner) that seed of corruption starts to flower. And from the time he first sets eyes on her you know he will do anything at all to get her between the sheets. When Matty tells him how much she wants him, and how much she despises her no-good husband, and how unfair it is that her husband has so much money that she and Ned could make so much better use of you know he’s going to agree to anything she suggests, including murder.
An unusual feature of Body Heat is the richness of the supporting characters, and the quality of the performances by the supporting players. Ted Danson as the cynical prosecutor and J. A. Preston as the kind-hearted but remorselessly dedicated and honest cop are particularly good.
William Hurt is extremely good. He’s sleazy and he’s weak but you can’t help feeling sorry for him. Kathleen Turner as the femme fatale Matty might not be quite as good as classic femmes fatales like Jane Greer and Barbara Stanwyck but she’s still pretty damned good.
It’s interesting to compare this film to the remake of The Postman Always Rings Twice, made in the same year. Postman tries for an authentic period setting but ultimately it fails. It just looks too pretty and picturesque. Body Heat is set in 1981 but captures the feel of 1940s noir much more effectively. All the settings look like they could come from a 1930s or 1940s movie. Ned’s office even has the obligatory noir venetian blinds. It’s as if these characters have somehow become trapped in the world of 1940s film noir and they’re forced to act out the plot of Double Indemnity.
The completely non-realistic feel of the movie works heavily in its favour. It’s impossible to believe that in Florida in 1981 no-one had an air-conditioning system that actually worked, but we accept this as part of the artificial world of the movie.
The one major departure from classic noir is the amount of nudity, which is considerable. But 1940s noir was dripping in unhealthy frustrated eroticism anyway so the more explicit sex scenes don’t spoil the mood of the film. And director Lawrence Kasdan is careful not to make the sex too graphic. As in 40s noir the sex is more psychological obsession than physical expression.
It’s a movie that probably shouldn’t really work but it does. There are so many ways in which first-time director Kasdan could have shot himself in the foot but the movie successfully walks the dangerous line between homage and parody. One of the few really great neo-noirs.