Thursday, 8 March 2012

Body Heat (1981)

Dir. Lawrence Kasdan
Starring: William Hurt, Kathleen Turner. William Crenna, Ted Danson

Heat. Sweat. Fire. Danger. Sex. Murder. Florida lies smothering under a sticky, sultry heatwave. People gasp for a breeze, the air cons are turned up high, even in the evening people fan themselves to cool down. And in a mansion in Pinehaven adulterous lovers Ned and Matty are having to tip ice into their bathtub to cool down.

“It’s hot.”

Ned Racine (William Hurt) is a sleazy small-town south Florida lawyer. He drives a convertible and has a different woman every night but his practice barely exists and his ineptitude is notorious around the courtroom (his friend Lowenstein, played by Ted Danson, jokes “You’ve started using your incompetence as a weapon.” And then by chance one sultry evening he bumps in to Matty Walker (Kathleen Turner). She is everything he is not: classy, rich, smart, married. But that one meeting gets under his skin. He tracks her down. He wears down her defences. And while her husband is away out of town they consummate their lust.

This leads to a passionate affair conducted in secret. The one obstacle stopping them from being together is Matty’s husband, Edmund (William Crenna). Walker is an unscrupulous businessman with equally unscrupulous partners. It is implied that he is a dangerous man. And, due to a prenuptial agreement that he made Matty sign, any divorce would leave her with next to nothing. Ned decides to kill him. Taking advice from a young ex-con he has helped (a remarkably smart and good-looking Mickey Rourke) Ned incinerates Walker’s body in one of his properties, planning to make it look like an insurance arson job gone wrong.

So far this is so straightforward. Two lovers resorting to murder to rid themselves of the husband and get his money (well, 50% of it anyway – Edmund’s will leaves the other half to his neice). But then wrinkles creep in. A new will emerges, supposedly drafted by Ned, superseding Edmund’s previous one; this new one is so badly put together it is declared null and void, leaving Walker intestate. As a result his entire fortune reverts to his widow. One of the witnesses cannot be tracked down. Nor can Edmund’s glasses. Ned’s alibi in Miami on the night of the murder comes into question. And then he starts to hear from other people that Matty had known about him long before he first met her…

Sex Panther: 60% of the time it works every time...

Like Key Largo the Florida weather plays a part in Body Heat. The close, unrelenting heat drives people crazy. The detective Oscar (J.A Preston) comments that work “always starts hopping in weather like this. When it gets this hot, people try to kill each other.”  It is a land awash with sweat and pheromones. Everyone is ‘on heat’. The noteworthy conditions also provide an ‘in’ for anyone to start a casual conversation with a stranger. And it’s not just the temperature that’s hot. Matty Walker is hot too – sizzling hot. Everyone comments on it. “Maybe you shouldn’t dress like that”, Ned comments: “You shouldn’t wear that body”. And maybe this is the problem for me. Matty Walker was Kathleen Turner’s first film role, and she nailed it. But, with her sexuality, her confidence, and – of course – the famous Kathleen Turner husky voice she embodies the 1940s-ish vamp too well. I knew that there was no way this could be a straight love story with her involved, and I kept waiting for the twist. Sure, she played it na├»ve in Romancing the Stone, but her iconic role really has to be Jessica Rabbit. The ‘vamp-o-meter’ might not be turned all the way up to 10 here, but it is easily pushing 8.5. This femme is most certainly fatale. One of her first comments to Ned is “You aren’t too smart are you? I like that in a man.” To be honest, she is only one of several people who comment on his supposed lack of intelligence throughout the film. But it is clear from the outset that she could run rings around him if she wanted to. And that is what she does. Every decision he thinks he makes was orchestrated by her long before.

The screenplay is top notch though – as might be expected from Lawrence Kasdan, the man who wrote The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark. And the characters have their chance to fill the screen – not just Hurt and Turner, but also the iced-tea-drinking, tap-dancing Ted Danson who lives vicariously off Racine’s sexploits and the James-Dean-channelling Mickey Rourke who proves to be both smarter and more trustworthy than his lawyer. John Barry’s jazzy sax-heavy soundtrack fits right in: if it’s 1981 and we’re talking sex then we need a smoky saxophone rippling in the background. In fact several scenes of the lovers resemble nothing so much as an adult-rated Flake advert. For an adult neo-noir I would recommend it. It might not have much of a twist, but the plotting is still fabulous.

What have I learnt about Florida?
I have to be careful with what I say here. In this film quite a lot of the information about Florida is faulty. The film was originally going to be set in New York / New Jersey, and it was only shifted down to Florida because of a teamsters strike. So the law that left Edmund’s estate intestate does not exist in Florida (the previous correctly-drawn-up will would have applied). Furthermore Lowenstein states that oral sex is no longer illegal in Florida. Actually, it still counted as an ‘unnatural and lascivious act’, and therefore a misdemeanour, until 2003. And there fog is apparently unknown in those parts.

Still, once again, we have reference to the enervating heat. And, once again, we have corrupt practices. Edmund Walker might not be Johnny Rocco, but he states flat out that he and his associates are prepared to do “whatever it takes” to turn a profit. We also see snapshots of the mainland – of big-city Miami, of the big Pinehaven mansions, and of the boardwalks and centre of smaller towns like Ned’s Miranda Beach sprinkled in between.

Can we go there?
Ned’s Miranda Beach and Matty’s Pinehaven don’t exist in real life. But the film was shot in south-east Florida, specifically Palm Beach County. The bulk of the location shooting took place in Lake Worth, south of Palm Beach itself. Lake Worth bills itself, fittingly for this movie, as “Where the tropics begin”. I can’t help but feel that it must be a bit down-at-heel for this neighbourhood though – after all, it is twinned with Southend-on-Sea. Stella’s Diner (where the pies are “cherry, cherry and cherry”) was on the corner of Lucerne and Dixie Avenues. The band shell, where Ned first bumps into Matty ‘by chance’ is further down the coast in Hollywood Beach.  

Overall Rating: 3/5

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