Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Sizzle and High Stakes

The 1981 trailer for Body Heat

(Editor’s note: The following essay comes to us from author Kathleen George, the author of Simple--a novel set to be released today by Minotaur Books--and the editor of Pittsburgh Noir [Akashic]. A previous novel of hers, 2009’s The Odds, was an Edgar Award finalist. George teaches theatre and writing at the University of Pittsburgh. This marks her first appearance in The Rap Sheet.)

A few weeks ago, I happened upon 1981’s Body Heat already well in progress on television. I was bouncing around, exercising, when I realized I could no longer count repetitions. Even though I had seen it before, the movie demanded my full attention. I decided later to order it and watch the full film properly.

Critics have called Body Heat neo-noir; it stands up very well to the great noir films that came before it.

I think what I’m most in awe of is the sexiness of the movie. Many X-rated films later, nothing competes with the sizzle of this one. Strangers, danger, illicitness, beautiful bodies, booze, and heat, heat, heat. I watched it, wanting to write something like it--the physicality is so palpable. It was a great film to watch during this very hot, record-breaking summer.

Body Heat may be Lawrence Kasdan’s directorial debut, but it reads like the masterwork of a seasoned director. Glistening faces. Sweat. Clothes that stick to the body. Sweat. Necks moist. Ties unbuttoned. Necklines plunging. Clothing (no tank tops) crying for air; anything will do, another button undone, a skirt that swishes. Cool drinks--glasses with ice cubes--pressed to the forehead. Wind chimes that signal more hot air on the way in. Cigarettes. People at the edge, self-destructive.

Actress Kathleen Turner has the beginnings of a whiskey voice. Her Matty Walker drinks and smokes a lot, as do other characters. They give off an “I don’t care anymore” message, flirting with death. They are hungry for relief, any sort.

William Hurt’s character, Ned Racine, is a fool and a slacker. We’re not only told he’s poor, but we see the cheesy clothes, the worn bottoms of his shoes. At first Matty Walker seems too beautiful to be within his reach, but he tries for her anyway, willing to play the fool. He’s used to a small hot room; he moves around wonderingly in her grand mansion. I love the detail of his worn shoes.

The sound of this world is not television, radio. Instead it’s the motors of cars, the clink of ice cubes, occasional telephones, the voices of two people in the throes of lust, and when we don’t get those sounds, we get a wonderful jazz score. Other voices in this movie seem wrong, intrusive. Matty Walker (“relentless,” “keeps coming,” “will do whatever has to be done”) destroys Ned Racine as he realizes what is happening to him, but the others (Ted Danson, J.A. Preston, Richard Crenna) make the real world seem harsh, coarse, and uninteresting. We get to obsess along with these two main characters; everybody else, the real world, comes off as unwelcome.

Great job, Lawrence Kasdan. To think this film was made in cold temperatures with spray-on sweat!


Ramona said...

I love Body Heat. There's a great scene when Mickey Rourke gives William Hurt his own advice about being a criminal: There's 50 ways to f up, and if you're a genius you can think of 25, and you ain't no genius. Very noir sentiment.

Kathleen Valentine said...

I absolutely adored that film and, though I've seen it many times, your beautiful description makes me want to see it again.