Monday, April 5, 2021

Neo-Noir Watch: Body Heat (1981)

Watched:  04/03/2021
Format:  Amazon Streaming
Viewing:  First
Decade:  1980's
Director:  Lawrence Kasdan

I'll go ahead and put this out there:  this may be the best of the neo-noirs I've seen, and most akin to the original noir movement.  

Also: finally watching Body Heat (1981) gives me a big clue as to how neo-noir took a left turn by the late 80's and saw a divergent strain that became the "erotic thriller", which, itself, had several branches on the movie cladogram.

Despite the popular vision of noir, it wasn't always sexy stuff with classy dames showing up in the offices of PI's desperate for help.  The movement encompassed a lot of takes on how things can go badly, and how lust could turn things sideways remarkably fast was just one (if a popular) angle.  Body Heat delivers a 1980's spin on the Joseph M. Cain flavor of crime melodrama that gave us Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice.  No detectives here - just guys in over their head when they see a chance at romance with a woman out of their league (but aren't they all).

Down-on-his-luck and probably not great at his job, attorney Ned Racine (William Hurt) is living in small-town coastal Florida eking out a living and sleeping his way through the women who are bored enough to go for it with him.  He stumbles across the wealthy, beautiful Matty Walker (Kathleen Turner in her break-out performance), who seems interested but doesn't want to push her luck.  After a few run-ins, the power of animal attraction drives the two together.  

Matty's husband is older than her by decades, and seemingly involved in a mix of legtimate and less-than-legitimate business dealings.  She has no love for the man, marrying him for opportunity, and he treats her a bit like a favorite item he keeps stowed in their big, empty house on the ocean, visiting on weekends.  

Eventually Ned and Matty come to the conclusion the only way to have it all is if Edmund Walker (Richard Crenna) has an accident.

The movie features other name talent, including a dawn-of-cheers-era Ted Danson as a morally flexible county prosecutor and pal to Ned, and a pre-boxing-career Mickey Rourke as a former client of Ned's.  "That guy!" actor JA Preston plays Ned's pal and a cop smelling something weird about this Matty Walker dame.

As our lead, William Hurt is just off-center to the "everyman", and maybe closer to the "everyman" of anyone who isn't at their best - he's the everyman whose all of us trying to figure out why we didn't get the promotion or comparing notes and realizing maybe we didn't get the great deal we thought we did when we bought that new car.  I like Hurt in general, and his restrained performance style - and how that plays across a wide range of characters, keeping him from character-actor status.  And somehow he manages to bring you along to a point where you're kind of rooting for the guy to get away with the money and the girl.  

It's absolutely goddamn wild that we don't talk more about Lawrence Kasdan, who wrote and directed the film.  In the 1980's, he seems to have had both a mastery of genre specific story and how to make it work for the modern audience in a way that 2 hour movies are still trying to catch up with.  He's coming off Empire Strikes Back here and heading into The Big Chill and Silverado.  All inside a 6 year span or so.  

Kasdan absolutely understood the power and sexual dynamics of films that Body Heat emulates.  It's different that we aren't reading between the lines and guessing at what and when our characters' smoldering infatuation is consummated.  There's some "show, don't tell" that occurs in this film that shows the clear break in film standards decades on, but if you're going to do it, at least make sure it seems like it drives the story.


What we get from the "erotic" portion of the erotic thriller is not just the fact of sex, but the actual seduction of Ned Racine and the character beats driving his manipulation.  He's checking all the boxes - a beautiful woman who is in love with him, insatiable, tells him he's amazing, seems to grow to depend on him, and leads him to believe he's in charge during their time together.  

But not for a moment is any of this true.  There's your third act twist that bends differently from the "things fall apart" third acts of Double Indemnity or The Postman Always Rings Twice.  Phyllis is just bad news, writ large.  She trusts no one, and maybe would have stayed with Walter for a bit, until they grew to hate each other, had their plan worked.  Had the cloud of craziness not descended on Cora and Frank, it's possible they could have lived with their secret for years or their whole lives.  

But Matty Walker is none of those things.  She had a plan from the outset, and its only as the walls close in that Ned realizes what happened.

And it's goddamn great.  

None of this would work without someone to sell Matty Walker to Ned (and to a good portion of the audience).  Kathleen Turner had done some TV prior to this film, but she arrives here fully formed, the picture of the Chandler dame on the make.  Cool, gorgeous, confident and with an agenda.  Turner brings it to life with a deftness that leaves you replaying scenes in your head, right from their meeting.  

Maybe Marlowe would have spotted her, but why would a Ned Racine?  He's the dope here, but so are we, thinking we're following what's happening and the self-immolation the story will bring down upon the two leads when they screw up or the lust just isn't enough anymore.  At least - right up to the point Matty absconds with the dough, her seemingly impetuous movements all carefully planned actions.

It's both a terrific twist and utterly within the framework of a hundred noir films before it.  She's not Phyllis, she's Matty.  


And, geez, does Turner sell it.  The voice and Turner's physicality are obvious, but Turner's very presence, something she seemed to be able to bend into different characters and still maintain, is already fully formed as an actor here at around age 26.  Hollywood never had any lack of attractive women who could stand and repeat dialog, but not everyone could take the audience on the ride.  That's why we're still talking about Stanwyck 70 years after the fact.  And it's a shame Matty isn't as well remembered a character.  

Maybe it's that in the two decades that followed, and maybe trying to recapture the magic here, a great number of "erotic thrillers" hit the market, a sort of offering to the boomer movie-going audience who wanted something less bland than what was on TV, less cheesy than primetime soaps, and could give a thrill without having to cop to watching late night premium cable.  Matty probably fell in the dust-bin with those characters, and as Turner brought her more famous characters to life the memory of the sultry first role remained but it was easier to talk Romancing the Stone in mixed company.

Anyway, it was kind of funny.  We paused the movie for a moment to deal with something and Jamie just turned and looked at me and said "I can't believe you've never seen this."  And, aside from my Turner-affinity, me too.  

I had no real interest in erotic thrillers as a teen or in my twenties.  I saw a few of them, but never really cared much for the crux of the tension in the films.  As a high schooler, I didn't quite get grown adults acting like morons for sex, and when I got older, I dismissed the movies as not in my wheelhouse and for those too timid to just watch those late-night movies on premium cable.  I mean, Body of Evidence is a bad selling point and when Basic Instinct is the best of the bunch that you're aware of, that's not the highest of water marks.  Others of them seemed like dads fumbling with women they shouldn't, and while interesting on a prurient level, wasn't really as interesting to me as other problems solved in movies with robots and apes.

Passing through several dozen movies from 1938 - 1959 is a hell of a route to find yourself back at "erotic thrillers" of the 1980's, but here we are.  I do think the films of the original noir movement manage a level of sexiness that is hard to understand if you grew up, as I did, in the era of exploitative nudity and studios seeing dollar signs on a hard-R rating.  It's a fine line to say "this sex drives the story, but that sex doesn't" for many of these films.  But I'm the same guy who found the Fifty Shades movies widly boring, so it's all YMMV territory, I guess.  

But as I said - Kasdan gets how noir worked when the genre was at its best.  While tastes changed, there's nothing in those movies of the 40's and 50's that meant similar stories couldn't take place in the 1980's.  Or in 2021.  At the end of the day, as long as the characters work, the motivations are buyable, and the actors sell it... but also creating a world in color that somehow reflects the moods of those soft-lit expressionistic monochrome worlds of noir - that's not nothing (DP was Richard H Kline).  And, of course, the bit of sweaty Florida summertime was a solid choice.

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