By John H. Foote
28. BODY HEAT (1981)
Miami is going through a heat wave in Body Heat and in every frame of this superb, superior film noir director-writer Lawrence Kasdan allows us to feel it, to sense the sweltering temperature as it rises. There seems to be a sheen on the characters, sweat stains mark their clothing, and everyone moves a little slower. But the devious minds of the two lead characters never stop moving, one of them much quicker than the other.
“You’re not too smart are you? I like that in a man” Maddy Walker (Kathleen Turner) tells lawyer Ned Racine (William Hurt) just after meeting him, and if Ned had been smart, he would have walked, no RAN away. But men often think with a different part of their anatomy, and seeing Maddy for the first time, most would do the same thing, that is chase after her like a dog in heat. To see her is to want to have her, right then, right now, and more. When she stands dressed entirely in white, leaving the audience behind her, walking towards Ned, his entire life is altered and he does not even now it.
But she does.
And Maddy has known it for a very long time.
Maddy is sex incarnate, a walking, talking sex machine, who also happens to be brilliant and has been setting Ned up from long before the moment she stood to walk out of the concert, he in obvious pursuit. They banter, they flirt, and she sends him away, toying with him as a cat plays with its prey before eating it alive. Maddy is predatorial, and in a very dangerous kind of way she is, in fact, why the term femme fatale was created. They meet one night and have violent, extraordinary sex, their shining bodies glistening with sweat, devouring one another, the kind of sex you are lucky to have in your life at anytime. They appear to fall in love, but there is a problem – of course there is – Maddy is married to a rather shady man and Ned suggests, being the fool he is, that they kill him. What he does not realize is that he is playing right into her hands, doing precisely what she wants him to do.
The narrative in motion, the film hurtles to its conclusion as Ned finds himself deeper and deeper in a hole, more of a web spun by no other than Maddie. The husband is killed, but then little events keep pointing the police to Ned, his friends are investigating him, and every turn tells them Maddy is very bad news. Peter (Ted Danson) believes his good fried Ned is involved somehow in the murder and as a lawyer is investigating along with the local chief of police, another good friend. It is killing them both as Ned is looking more guilty each day. The more Peter tells him, in between his Fred Astaire dance moves and large drinks of iced tea, the more Ned realizes Maddy set him up from the beginning, nearly a year before they met.
When it appears Maddy is killed Ned (of course) goes to jail but believes with every fibre of his being she is still alive. The last shot of the film shows us he is right, Maddy sits in the sunny tropics, sunning herself, now a very rich, single woman.
The performances in Body Heat were from top to bottom electrifying, each one Oscar caliber in a very strong year at the movies. Audiences were just starting to get know William Hurt, a Broadway actor who started making films in 1980 with Altered States (1980) and Eyewitness (1981). His work before this film and after always came off a tad smug, like he was always the most intelligent man in the room and knew it, very much like Kevin Spacey in the nineties. Hurt was a very fine actor, if a tad pretentious off screen. He greeted me at an interview once with “how’s your soul man”. He dominated from Body Heat on through 1988, and then for whatever reason fell out of favour with audiences, though made a comeback in A History of Violence (2005) earning a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his villainous turn as Richie.
As Ned, he is superb, not the brightest bulb in the legal profession though he could be if he was not chasing skirts. We see how easy a mark he is for Maddy, and watch him fall deeper and deeper into the pit she has dug for him, until he realizes far too late she is deadly. By the end we almost feel sorry for him.
Hurt won the Academy Award eventually for his haunting performance as a homosexual in prison in Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985), a superb performance. Before that he had been excellent as the Vietnam veteran in Kasdan’s The Big Chill (1983), and then in 1985 went on a run of three consecutive Oscar nominations for Best Actor with Kiss of the Spider Woman, followed by Children of a Lesser God (1986) and Broadcast News (1987) as the dim bub but good locking newscaster. He should have had a fourth nomination for The Accidental Tourist (1988), brilliant as a lonely man recovering from his child’s murder. After that he seemed to drop off the planet until 2001 when he appeared in A. I. – Artificial Intelligence (2001).
Kathleen Turner was an unknown before Body Heat, but everyone knew about her after. As femme fatale Maddy she was terrifying in her manner of convincing Ned of anything, even as she was betraying him. Brave in the portrayal of the carnality between the two, Turner threw herself into difficult sex scenes with abandon, always managing to make the sex about the character, a weapon of choice she has used throughout her life. She is a bold, confident woman who fully understands and exploits her appeal on men, and knows no man could turn her down. Turner was brilliant and went on to great fame in a series of films like Romancing the Stone (1984), Crimes of Passion (1984) and best of all Peggy Sue Got Married (1986).
Mickey Rourke burst out of Body Heat to the front of the upcoming great American actors with a stunning, movie stealing performance as Teddy, the arsonist who helps both Ned and Maddy. We first see him lip synching to a Bob Seeger tune as he gently, almost intimately instructs Ned on how to build a bomb that cannot be traced. He is quiet with him, appreciative, seeming to pull him closer to him with that voice. Though a criminal, Teddy has a sweet smile that audiences liked instantly and Rourke would not be in supporting roles for long. He had what Pauline Kael called “bite you on the nose talent” and everyone who saw Body Heat knew it at once.
Ted Danson is excellent as the limber, graceful Peter, always executing a dance number wherever he might be, metaphorically dancing around Ned trying to get a straight answer and get to the crime. He does not want to put his friend away, but he will if he has too, and he is pretty confident the walls are closing in on Ned, fast.
I am not sure I have ever seen a film in which the weather and atmosphere was so perfectly shown by the director and cinematographer. We feel the Miami heat, see the results and impact of it, even opening the film with a fire and placing an explosion near the end. That says nothing about the chemistry between the two lead characters, which was explosive.
It was a tremendous directing debut for Kasdan, one of the finest in American film. There was an urgency to the film, something that suggested a constant danger and it never let up until the last frame of the picture. What a ride!
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.