Turner and Hurt sizzle, Kasdan gets hotter.
By Michael Roberts
Lawrence Kasdan was the hottest writer in Hollywood when he stepped up to the plate for his directorial debut with the neo-noir Body Heat in 1981. Kasdan had written the screenplays for Star Wars V – The Empire Strikes Back, and for the Spielberg mega-hit Raiders of the Lost Ark. George Lucas, who produced both of those films served as an un-credited producer on Body Heat, seemingly wanting his family friendly reputation not to suffer, but effectively guaranteeing the project’s completion. Kasdan’s inspiration flows from the Noir period of classic Hollywood and the script has undeniable overtones of Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice, et al; but the 1980’s permissiveness allows Kasdan to ramp up the sexual content and explicitness to boiling point.... remember this is an era when porn was borderline mainstream post Deep Throat, which Hollywood took seriously, after all it was a (bad) movie and it made a LOT of money.
Ned Racine (William Hurt) is a lothario lawyer, a ladies man with a reputation for chasing skirt, and skirt par excellence stumbles across his path one steamy night in the shape of Matty Walker (Kathleen Turner). Ned and Matty strike up an incendiary relationship that soon founders upon the impediment of her husband, Edmund (Richard Crenna), and the pair plot to do away with him. Ned constructs a tight alibi and the coast seems clear until Matty’s past begins to catch up with her. Ned’s predatory sexual confidence obscures his ability to see warning flags in Matty’s behaviour, and his blindness leaves him vulnerable to manipulation.
Kasdan manages to balance an intricate and complex plot with the frisson provided by the intensely sexual nature of the couple’s illicit relationship. Kasdan cleverly utilises the atmosphere provided by the Floridian heat, which adds a level of discomfort to the tense proceedings, as the characters sweat in every sense of the word. “When it gets hot people try to kill each other”, is the conventional wisdom in Ned’s world of small town law. The warm and gaudy light of the Miami summer plays into a surreal Noir landscape, which adds a powerful sense of closeness to the drama, and as the paranoia increases the heat seems to get even worse. It also affords Kasdan the opportunity for some ironic and highly stylised dialogue, as in Ned's flat, "You look good in black", directed to a drop dead gorgeous and newly widowed Matty at the hearing of the will.
Kasdan decided to cast unknowns instead of stars in the lead roles, and found the perfect collaborators in the stage trained Kathleen Turner and William Hurt. The success of the film propelled both to stardom and soon they became A-list properties with the pick of the best Hollywood roles on offer. Turner’s experience in TV soap opera also paid off in the way she was able to render Matty, as a tremulous damsel-in-distress, exploiting Ned’s more earthy instincts which appear to trump his intellect at every turn. Hurt brings a convincing patina of braggadocio and smarm to the part, managing to convey Ned’s professional incompetence as a result of spending his life focussing on the ephemeral.
While Turner approximates a woman that combines Bacall’s Big Sleep persona with Stanwyck’s Double Indemnity coolness, she is at least a fully grown woman. Hurt’s Ned is more adolescent than full man, and it’s his passion and naked lust that compromises him. Ned is contrasted by the stolidity of Edmund, a throwback to the bull-necked ‘40’s noir type, a successful businessman happily negotiating a grown up’s world. Edmund tells Ned, “You have to know the bottom line, to do whatever’s necessary”, sensing that Ned is a boy in man’s world and out of his depth. In fact, Ned may be subliminally compensating for his lack of testosterone the business by making up for it in the boudoir. Crenna is fine as Edmund and Ted Danson and Micky Rourke deserve mention for solid support in early career roles.
Kasdan marked himself as a talent to watch in American films, and soon consolidated his reputation as a writer-director with the superior The Big Chill, also starring Hurt, who was soon to win a Best Actor Oscar in 1985 for Kiss of the Spider Woman. Turner went on to alternate mainstream success with the adventure-romp Romancing the Stone, with art-house type films, such as Ken Russell’s remarkable Crimes of Passion. Body Heat is a fine record of three top talents working on a classy script at the beginning of their Hollywood fun ride, and a top entry in post ‘70’s neo noir.