Wednesday, 30 August 2017

1,001 Films: "Body Heat" (1981)

Only the sex (and perhaps the underlying fascination with real estate) establishes Body Heat, Lawrence Kasdan's elegant rewrite of the Double Indemnity plot, as set in 1981; the rest of the film seems to be taking place forty years before, as William Hurt's sweaty, horny small-town lawyer Ned Racine tangles with woman-in-clingy-white Matty Walker (Kathleen Turner) and gets himself ensnared in a plot to bump off her husband. Kasdan's achievement is to keep the stylisation (wind chimes, a John Barry score, much business with hats) from toppling over into pure pastiche: Body Heat works as a thriller as well as it does homage, and retains some tension even if it's possible to intuit every last one of its twists well in advance. Hurt dials down his formidable screen intelligence from under a nebbishy 'tache as a man whom Matty has rightly skewered as "not too smart", one prepared to continue servicing her even after she's screwed him legally, and then boast about his conquest to an opposing counsel. 

Turner, giving a masterclass in how to stoke a guy's passions while keeping him at bay, makes more than just a cartoon out of a woman who's essentially too hot to handle. A femme fatale like Matty inevitably arrives trailing a whiff of misogyny; more crucial to the film's moment of release may be that Racine, who kills for love or lust, is out-thought and undone by someone who kills out of sheer greed. (A high-school yearbook reveals Matty's ambition "to be rich and live in an exotic land".) Though contemporary audiences will recognise a softly spoken Mickey Rourke and Ted Danson in glasses, the real supporting cast is the array of fans and air conditioning units gathered in the corners of each frame. Whether the sizzle of deep-fat fryers or cigarettes, or the (moral?) fog that envelops Matty and Ned as they go about disposing of bodies, few films have so generated their own climate: you practically feel the celluloid itself getting tacky, just as its characters come to slip up on all the sweat and sex. 

Body Heat is available on DVD through Warner Home Video.

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