This post is part of the 'Till Death Us Do Part Blogathon, hosted by CineMaven's ESSAYS from the COUCH.
I first saw Body Heat in college in a film class. In this class, the professor compared and contrasted classic films with contemporary films, like Casablanca with The Graduate (it was the early 1980s, so The Graduate was still considered contemporary). I don't remember all the film pairs, but I know Double Indemnity and Body Heat was one of them. The comparison of the two is pretty natural. Per IMDB, Halliwells Film Guide called Body Heat an uncredited revamp of Double Indemnity, and The Thriller Film Guide said that the "plot (although not credited as such) is a virtual reworking of Double Indemnity."
Though the basic concept (man and woman conspire to kill her older husband for the money) is identical, Body Heat works just fine. If anything, it takes the idea further and to a much darker place. As neo-noir goes, it's one of the best and for me, Body Heat holds its own with Double Indemnity quite well.
I hadn't seen Body Heat in probably 20 years until I watched it again a couple of weeks ago. I was confident that I would not be disappointed, and I was right. The film was written and directed by Lawrence Kasdan, a name that looked familiar to me when I saw the opening credits. He also directed, The Big Chill, Silverado, Grand Canyon, and others, and wrote the screenplays for Raiders of the Lost Ark and Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, yes, the good Star Wars movie. Body Heat was his directorial debut, and at the time, he was afraid he might not get another chance. Thus, he wanted to do a modern film noir, like his favorite classics, Double Indemnity, The Asphalt Jungle, and Out of the Past. Suffice it to say, he succeeded.
Wikipedia calls Body Heat a "neo-noir erotic thriller," and there is no denying the raw sexuality of the film. Even today, I would call it one of the most erotic films I've ever seen. It's about as explicit as a film can get and still retain an R rating. Director Lawrence Kasdan was concerned about the sexuality and wanted to make sure it didn't come off as a male sex fantasy. He hired a female editor, Carol Littleton, the first of many collaborations between the pair. The sexuality is integral to the story and is deftly handled. It doesn't come across as gratuitous. Okay, maybe it does, but you won't care.
The cast consists of at-the-time mostly unknown actors, Kathleen Turner's film debut, and William Hurt's third film role. Though Ted Danson had been getting regular TV work, Body Heat precedes Cheers by by over a year, so he was largely unknown as well. The only well-known member of the cast is Richard Crenna as the ill-fated husband.
William Hurt plays Ned Racine, a slimy lawyer, not a slimy insurance agent, but to carry on with the Double Indemnity reference, he plays Ned Racine way slimier than Fred MacMurray. In fact, the Ned Racine almost seems to embrace his sliminess. Fun fact: Body Heat was produced by The Ladd Company. Alan Ladd, Jr., made one demand of the film, that William Hurt shave his mustache. He thought it made Hurt look slimy. He even had a rep at Warner Brothers threaten Lawrence Kasdan that if the first dailies came in, and Hurt still had the mustache, it would be a big problem. Lawrence Kasdan was uncertain what to do but ultimately decided to ignore it. To his relief, he never heard anything more of it. The mustache does make William Hurt look slimy, and it's perfect.
The Ned Racine character is portrayed as a womanizer from the very start. In the very first scene, he is standing covered in sweat in his boxers, as the woman behind him is getting dressed. When he meets Kathleen Turner's Matty Walker character the sparks fly. The dialog in Body Heat is crisp and funny like you would expect in a film noir, but between Ned and Matty, it crackles. The chemistry between William Hurt and Kathleen Turner is palpable.
Kathleen Turner wanted the part of Matty from the very beginning, but as her professional credits were mostly a TV soap opera she couldn't get an audition at first. She was working out of New York at the time, and when she returned to L.A. to audition for a different movie four months, she found out that they still had not cast Mattie and finally was able to get an audition. Lawrence Kasdan liked her immediately and said that when he closed his eyes, she sounded exactly like he had heard the character in his head. Her sultry voice is reminiscent of Lauren Bacall, and it sure doesn't hurt that at 26, Kathleen Turner was insanely hot.
Again, there's the temptation to compare Matty to Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity. If anything, Matty is better, or worse. There are no cracks in the veneer. At the beginning of Double Indemnity, Walter Neff sees through Phyllis and goes in anyway. For Ned Racine, he doesn't have an inkling until it's too late, and later, as the layers fall away, and he sees how smart and manipulative and bad she is, he can't even do anything about it. He just gets more and more screwed. There isn't even a chink in her armor, not a tear or furrowed brow, until possibly the very very end.
In Body Heat, Ted Danson plays Ned's friend and a young assistant district attorney with a penchant for dancing like Fred Astaire. They never explain this. It is just a quirk that he has like chewing gum. In fact, William Hurt talks about it with another character, that he finds it weird that he's so good at it. While all of the dialog is smart and funny, Ted Danson's character gets many of the best lines.
Best known among the cast at the time was Richard Crenna as Matty's older husband, who only comes home on the weekends. They leave a lot of Crenna's character up to the imagination. He is unrespectable in a respectable sort of way. He says he was/still is a lawyer, but no longer practices. He is involved with real-estate investments, but you get the feeling he is a gangster but up high enough that he no longer needs to get his hands dirty unless he really needs to. There is an impression of danger about him, like he would kick your ass or shoot you if you messed with him.
Rounding out the cast are Mickey Rourke as an ex-con arsonist/client of William Hurt and J.A. Preston as a police detective and friend of both Hurt and Danson. Mickey Rourke is only in two scenes, but both are great. Though he doesn't know what Ned is up to, only that it involves arson, he tries talk him out of it and even offers to do it for him knowing that William Hurt would make a mess of it. Mickey Rourke tries to protect him, because he owes Ned (wouldn't be on the street without him). He knows that whatever Ned is doing, the reward can't justify the risk. Rourke has a speech about crime that hits about as hard as Edward G. Robinson's actuarial table speech in Double Indemnity does.
J.A. Preston has made a career out of playing detectives and the like. He is cynical and tough, but mostly an honest cop, who cares about William Hurt, even though he considers him a screwup. When he is he is put in charge of investigating Richard Crenna's murder, he too tries to warn William Hurt about not doing anything stupid, but by this time, he's in so far over his head, there's nothing he can do. Preston has a bulldog intensity and uses it to try to clear William Hurt, but too many loose ends have unraveled.
Body Heat is a dark movie. It picks up where Double Indemnity left off and takes it about three steps further. There are some great touches, nods to Body Heat's film noir roots. Matty gives Ned a fedora hat even though they were hardly in style in 1981. There's a great shot of him trying it on by looking at his reflection in the car window. In one scene, Matty stomps out a cigarette as she gets out of her car, and it just makes you go weak inside. My favorite little touch happens right before, they commit the deed. Ned is on the street and a very unusual car and driver go by, serving as a surreal and ridiculous warning to him. If you watch close, you'll see a number of great noir touches running throughout the film.
Body Heat is set in Florida in the sweltering heat, but the actual production was anything but. The original plan was have the film set and shot on location on the Jersey Shore. A Screen Actor's Guild strike delayed production by about four months. It was snowing in New Jersey by the time they could shoot. The best alternative was Florida, but it turned out to be the coldest winter Florida had seen in years. For nighttime shoots, the actors had to suck ice cubes to keep their breath from showing. The breeze that Matty complains doesn't make things cooler was practically gale force winds that had to be blocked with a truck to make it look like just a breeze. The sweat that covers the actors had to be spritzed on, and the actors were constantly cold from being wet all the time. It works though, I never would have known had I not watched the DVD special features.
I would be remiss if I didn't mention that the score by John Barry was excellent. He called the main title theme a jazz ballad with strident piano chords and low-end strings. He was going for the feel of a Humphrey Bogart film, and it works very well. I love 1980s music and electronic music, but there's a tendency for films of the period to embrace it, and the films seem very dated in retrospect. Sticking with a classic feel, Body Heat is timeless and perfect. Another tendency at the time was load films up with pop songs for the sake of selling a soundtrack. That would be have been all wrong. There is just one pop song, Bob Seger, "Feel Like a Number." It works perfect in the one scene, but then we are done.
I guess I should just come out and say it. I love Double Indemnity. It's one of my all-time favorite films. I love Body Heat too. If I had to choose one, I would pick Double Indemnity, but that doesn't take anything away from Body Heat. It's still as great film. The premise of the two films are the same, but Body Heat tells a unique story and places it in a modern context, while embracing the film noir roots it springs from. I could put Body Heat up against any classic film noir or neo-noir, and it holds its own.