Body Heat

Front Row at the Movies by Shirrel Rhoades

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I used to own a publishing company that specialized in neo-noir mysteries. So you can expect that I’m a fan of noir and neo-noir movies.

Noir is a genre of crime film characterized by cynicism, fatalism, and moral ambiguity. These movies are recognized by their low-key, black-and-white visual style and overriding sense of pessimism. The term was originally applied by a group of French critics to American detective films made in the period 1944–54.

Examples would include “The Big Sleep,” “The Big Heat,” and “D.O.A.”

Neo-noir merely means “new noir,” modern revivals of the film noir genre.

Without question, my favorite neo-noir film is “Body Heat,” a 1981 thriller written and directed by Lawrence Kasdan. Better known as a screenwriter (several “Star Wars” films, “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “The Bodyguard”), this was Kasdan’s directorial debut. He went on to direct such classics as “The Big Chill,” “The Accidental Tourist,” and “Grand Canyon.”

But “Body Heat” remains as the top of the list, in my book.

In it, we meet a seedy South Florida lawyer named Ned Racine (perfectly embodied by William Hurt) who is having an affair with Matty Walker (sultry Kathleen Turner). Matty wants to divorce her wealthy husband (Richard Crenna), but a prenup would leave her penniless. So too-clever-for-his-own-good Ned suggests they kill her hubby, a quick solution for achieving their happy-ever-after.

But, of course, this being a neo-noir, it doesn’t work out that way.

The plot pivots on a forged will and an obscure law that prevents people from using a deed or will to exert control over the ownership of private property for a time long beyond the lives of people living at the time the instrument was written.

A bad lawyer with a bad history, Ned falls under suspicion.

Has he been set up?

As Matty Walker says: “You aren’t too bright. I like that in a man.”

Lawrence Kasdan tells us he “wanted this film to have the intricate structure of a dream, the density of a good novel, and the texture of recognizable people in extraordinary circumstances.”

Critic Paulene Kael hated “Body Heat,” saying it made her “cringe.” And critic John Simon called it “derivative.”

Roger Ebert disagreed, adding “Body Heat” to his Great Movies list and noting that Kasdan was well aware of the films that inspired it – especially Billy Wilder’s “Double Indemnity” (1944).

The original cut was graphic with extensive sex scene footage, but much of this was later edited out for wider distribution. Empire magazine cited Kathleen Turner as one of the “100 Sexiest Stars in Film History.”

The New York Times observed that Kathleen Turner’s “jaw-dropping movie debut” in “Body Heat” propelled her into a career built on “adventurousness and frank sexuality born of robust physicality.”

The smoky-voiced actress disappeared from the screen in the ‘90s as she battled rheumatoid arthritis. Some medications changed her looks and interfered with her ability to memorize lines, so the star of “Prizzi’s Honor,” “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” “Peggy Sue Got Married,” and “Romancing the Stone” found herself unable to work.

In the years since, somewhat recovered, Turner has developed a thriving stage career (“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”), a one-woman act (“Finding My Voice”), and she works on the occasional movie project.

Turner says she started taking on new film roles to send a message: “That I had changed and aged. And my body was not ‘Body Heat’ anymore, and get over it.”

She adds, “I’m lucky I escaped ‘Body Heat’ being typecast as just a sex symbol. Everyone kept saying ‘Sure, she’s sexy, but can she be funny?’ I mean – it’s called acting!”

Even so, Kathleen Turner will forever be Jessica Rabbit (“I’m not bad. I’m just drawn that way.”) … and the plucky writer in “Romancing the Stone” … and the sexy femme fatale in “Body Heat.”

As I said above, I’m a big fan of neo-noir. And “Body Heat” remains at the top of my list. It’s hot – in more ways than one.

America Film Institute seems to agree. AFI added “Body Heat” to its 100 Years…100 Thrills list and also to its 100 Years…100 Passions list.

Email Shirrel: srhoades@aol.com

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