Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Body Heat

A few weeks back, I was watching this video on YouTube that featured a running commentary from legendary video game designer John Romero as he (and an interviewer) played through arguably his most famous game, Doom. At one point, Romero is asked his opinion of Doom 3, which as far as I know, he had nothing to do with. Romero said the game looked good, all the monsters looked impressive, but the gameplay was predictable, and when the gameplay becomes predictable, the game is in trouble. I couldn't help but have similar thoughts while watching the neo-noir, Body Heat (1981).

Written and directed by Lawrence Kasdan, then riding high on the success of having written the screenplays for Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Empire Strikes Back, Body Heat is certainly well made and acted, and it has a dark, sweat-inducing atmosphere, but the plot takes no chances, and all its twists and turns come right out of the film noir playbook of the 1940s. Sure, it has some modern sensibilities, but if you've seen Double Indemnity, you know how Body Heat plays out.

Ned Racine (William Hurt), a lazy and sleazy small-town Florida lawyer, is instantly attracted when he spots Matty Walker (Kathleen Turner) one particularly hot, humid night. It isn't long before they start having an affair, and not long after that, the two decide to murder her rich husband, Edward (Richard Crenna), and make off with the inheritance. But of course, in film noir, nothing ever goes according to plan, and Ned begins to suspect he can't trust Matty.

Why are these stories about women who whatever it takes - whether it's lie, cheat, steal, seduce, or murder- to get what they want so popular? Well, for starters, they might be bad, but they're definitely strong and determined. Especially in these types of thrillers, in which the men are often fools or no better themselves, femme fatales certainly having a way of being the most memorable characters by being the smartest, most ruthless, and toughest. They don't feel sorry for themselves or care what others think of them; they have a goal and go for it without mercy.

All this is certainly true of Matty. Ned is a sap, lazy and easily led about by his ... desires. And while Ned grows panicked, desperate, or paranoid, Matty always remains cool and in control. She not only manipulates him into bumping off her husband, she remains at least two steps ahead of everyone, not only Ned but also the lawyers and cops.

Everyone but those in audience who watch a lot of film noir, where all these plot points are very familiar, and for all the multitude of twists Body Heat packs in, there's not one that isn't predictable. Like I said, if you've seen Double Indemnity, you've seen Body Heat, except for all the added sex scenes. Hurt is a stand in for Fred MacMurray's insurance agent patsy, Turner is a replacement for Barbara Stanwyck's femme fatale, and the business with the wealth and inheritance takes the place of an insurance payout. Instead of Edward G. Robinson's sharp insurance investigator, you have Ted Danson as a good-natured district attorney and J.A. Preston as a suspicious detective. Instead of the murdered man's daughter, we get his sister and niece getting caught up in the post-mortem conflict. The only really new character element is Mickey Rourke as the bomb-making, rock-and-roll-loving arsonist Teddy, who steals both scenes he appears in. Additionally, Body Heat came out the same year as the remake of The Postman Always Rings Twice, another story of a man and woman teaming up to kill the woman's husband.

Kasdan brings a steamy, atmospheric style to the proceedings. This is the kind of movie you need to watch with the air conditioning on or a window open; seeing all these characters sweat under the hot sun, stick their faces in the freezer, and stand under fans in the muggy weather is enough to get the perspiration going. Much has been written about the movie's sexual nature and the chemistry between Hurt and Turner, and while that stuff is certainly intense and visceral, it gets overdone after a while. Yes, it establishes how much in thrall of Matty Ned is, but it really slows the movie down, and when you already know where the movie is going, that can be frustrating.

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