He first sees her on a hot summer night. The wind tosses her air and rumples the edges of her white skirt. The humid, stagnant air is able to keep everyone feeling destitute. Except her – in the heat, she comes alive, glowing as jocose conversation revolves around her. Men buzz around her like mosquitoes swarming a naked lightbulb. Her name is Matty (Kathleen Turner), and she is the wife of millionaire Edmund Walker (Richard Crenna).
For Ned Racine (William Hurt), an influenceable lawyer, his introductory glimpse of this specimen of a woman is enough to satisfy his boyhood fantasies for the rest of his thankless life. Not starting a flirtation is out of the question; opportunities to liaison with femmes as poised as Lauren Bacall rarely arise in this small Florida town — her being married is not an obstacle. It’s something to sneak around, like an unusually intelligent house rat who knows where the family feline fancies to stretch out.
The chemistry between Ned and Matty is electric to the touch, instant and irreversible the moment they make eye contact. Their dialogue is coquettish and clever — a connection as cinematic as this one has never occurred during Ned’s banal existence, though we suspect that Matty could deliver breathy one-liners in her sleep. She was born to maneuver men, wear them like a 16-carat diamond ring shining on her middle finger. Ned, whom she begins having an affair with almost immediately after their initial meeting, is a fly trapped within her black widow’s web of manipulation.
Matty swears to her newest plaything that she hates her husband, that he’s a brute of a man who doesn’t give her the attention, both emotional and physical, she needs to survive. Divorcing him will leave her penniless; she’ll have been a part of a loveless union for nothing. Concerned that his dream woman cannot make it the rest of her life on love alone, Ned, despite being a man on the right side of the law, conjures up a plan that comes to show that he isn’t familiar with the film noir genre: What if they killed Mr. Walker, made it look accidental, and therefore give Matty the financial oneupmanship she feels she so much deserves?
The trials and tribulations of Body Heat are certainly derivative of a certain movie I’m sure you won’t be able to stop thinking about during its length: Double Indemnity, a film noir classic that introduced the recurring thriller storyline in which a seductive femme fatale coerces a morally sound man to leave his doubts at the door in favor of appeasing his female master. Some praise Body Heat for breathing new life into this sort of plot, and some dismiss it for its repetitive nature.
I sit somewhere in the middle, cognizant of the film’s proficiency in making a new kind of noir (sexually explicit, not reliant on censors, and more intent on modernization than paying homage) rather than imitating the dance moves of its objects of affection. But I also found myself bothered by just how much it takes from its ’44 model — things don’t feel as crisp as much as they do simplistically updated, as though we’re watching a better-than-average remake starring the modern equivalents of Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck.
But I cannot wholeheartedly say that this is a bad thing: film noir is a timeless genre and because MacMurray and Stanwyck still make for one of the most memorable star-crossed pair of lovers to be spotlighted on the silver screen. Body Heat isn’t the classic it is so frequently billed as, and yet it holds a certain kind of smoky interest that never lets us turn a blind eye to its delicious noir cinematography, old-fashioned score, and strong central performances. It is what a 1940s film noir might have been had sexual frankness been something the Hays Code agreed with — Kathleen Turner, with her husky voice and sinuous composure, is an H-bomb. But Body Heat borrows more than it invents, diverting though subordinate. B-