Lawrence Russell

Body Heat (1981) writ. & dir. Lawrence Kasdan cine. Richard H. Kline edt. Carol Littleton music John Barry star. William Hurt (Ned Racine), Kathleen Turner (Matty Walker), Richard Crenna (Edmund Walker), Ted Danson (Ass. D.A. Lowenstein), Mickey Rourke (Teddy), Kim Zimmer (Mary Ann), J.A. Preston (Oscar)

Warner Bros.

sex and identity

Are you who you really say you are? Are you living under an assumed identity? Such identity masking is usually the cover-up for a crime, but in Body Heat it's the prelude to a crime. Yet the question of identity goes well beyond such maudlin pursuits as greed and fast money. The architecture of fantasy is sex. And the femme fatale is the architect.

Ned Racine (Hurt) is a thirty something lawyer working the seedy side of the street in Miranda Beach, Florida. You first see him standing on a small balcony looking at a column of fire in the distance as a casual lover dresses and banters in the room behind. He's naked from the waist up, his slender body sweating from the tropical heat. He assumes the fire is arson, a real-estate swindle. "History is burning up out here," he says, and you sense that he is the cynical post-modern replacement... even if his Creole name and the fact that he grew up here suggests otherwise.

Body Heat: Turner & HurtRacine is presented not so much as careless as casual. As a single male, his slow talking sensuality and hip cynicism mark him as a man whose first priority is sex, his second, business. While he's a womanizer, you don't get the feeling that he's an abuser or a crook. He's just an opportunist, a drifter in search of something he has yet to define. "Next time you come into my courtroom, I hope you've got a better defense... or a better class of client," says the Judge in his reprimand. So perhaps when Racine encounters Matty (Turner) that evening at the concert down on the beach, he's following the Judge's advice, moving up from his waitresses and female cops into a higher class of lover.

And who would think that this encounter was anything other than chance? As usual, it's lust at first sight. An elegant woman in summer white leaves her seat near the stage, walks slowly towards where he stands on the boardwalk overlooking the beach. She pauses for air, leans on the railing. He moves in swiftly like the hustler he is. Their exchange is bold, the innuendo sexual. "I'm a married woman," she says. "You didn't say happily married woman," he says. He quickly intuits that she's from the upscale Pinehaven neighbourhood and just as quickly seems to be in control of the situation. He buys her a Cherry float... she spills it on her dress. He takes the cup from her, heads for the can to dump it. "Don't you want to lick it?" she says.

When he returns, she's gone.

Matty is a woman on the nub of discontent. The grass widow of a shady businessman who only comes home on the weekend, her elegant body unmarred by children or bad diet, her restlessness is the classic signature of the neglected woman. Or so it seems to Ned as he hunts her down in Pinehaven and begins a raunchy affair under the chimes that move softly in the sea air, seem to represent the mystery of this exciting woman. They screw here, they screw there, they screw like humans, they screw like animals... and so how long can it be before they're scheming to get rid of her husband?

"He's small... and mean... and weak," says Matty. Later, as they lie on the beach under the stars, she says, "I'm afraid... because when I think about it, I wish he'd die." And Ned, greedy and pussy-whipped, says, "It's what we both want."

noir, sex and the totemic woman

Matty's manipulation of events is standard for the film noir genre, of which Body Heat is the redefining drama of the post black and white era. At first you think of Double Indemnity as its ideological model, but in many ways Body Heat is closer to Hitchcock's transitional noir masterpiece Vertigo, as Matty Walker's deception uses masquerade as a form of totemic sexual hypnosis. Like Hitchcock's detective, Kasdan's Ned Racine is pursuing a woman who is masquerading as an ideal when in fact she is anything but. The similarity is also atmospheric, as John Barry's beautiful score is clearly in the dream sonata tradition of Bernard Herrmann's Vertigo theme. There are differences, of course, the main one being that Hitchcock's fatale (Kim Novak) is the agent of another man while Matty is strictly the author of her own agenda. In this regard, she is like Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity.

It's Matty who insinuates the problem, then suggests the solution even though Ned thinks the solution is his. While the death-fight with Edmund Walker in the hall of his opulent home is a fitting parody of Ned's first sex with Matty, the disposal of his body by arson bomb in the abandoned beachfront club The Breakers is sublime. The method is crude, yet the desired insinuation is that Walker died as part of an on-going real-estate scam engineered by the shadowy criminal investors with whom he's associated.

Yet even Teddy (Rourke) the bomb maker and client warns Ned against this audacious act. "Don't do it," says Teddy.

Cut To: a slow pan along Matty's legs, ass, naked reclining body. "Don't do it...." Sure. "Next time I see you," says Ned to Matty, "he'll be dead."

As per all film noir, the woman's patsy must be an expert. What's interesting about Body Heat is that Ned Racine is chosen not only because he's an expert but also a fuckup. The criminal rewriting of Edmund Walker's will requires an expert, of course, but also one who might make the mistake essential for Matty's plan to be fully realized. For the perfect crime, perfection must interact with its silhouette, imperfection. So it is that Ned thinks he's a partner in the grand deception when in reality he's merely a part.

Yet... why doesn't he recognize this before it's too late?

When an accidental encounter with Matty and her husband at a local restaurant turns into wine, dinner and conversation, you recognize that Ned is perhaps a junior version of Edmund. "I was a lawyer," says Edmund. "Don't practice anymore." Edmund goes on to mock the man Matty was with before they got married. "You wouldn't believe the dork she was with," he says. "Tries to make it with one score... but can't do what's necessary." Ned nods slowly, says, "Yeah, I know that kinda guy... I hate that kind." Then he smiles, adds, "I'm a lot like that." Both men laugh but neither, in fact, recognizes the true extent of their tragic symbiosis.

The police know that Edmund Walker was murdered and Racine knows they know, as he's a buddy of Lowenstein, the Assistant D.A. (Danson), and Oscar (Preston), the investigating cop. He's warned to stay away from Matty but, convinced that he has what it takes "to do what's necessary", he boldly continues his affair with the new widow -- after all, she is his client. But when he discovers that she tampered with the will that he forged in such a way that the mistake makes her the sole heir of her husband's estate, he's so whipped he fails to see the fall before it happens. "I love you," she says... and she bought him a fedora, didn't she? Here the director Kasdan makes a sly allusion to the blind love chump Walter Neff in Double Indemnity, another "expert" with a fedora.

During the affair, certain incidents threaten to spoil their idyllic repose. Ned and Matty are caught in a sexual act by Heather, Matty's young niece... but when the critical moment comes, the niece fails to identify the man with the erection. More significant is the disappearance of Edmund Walker's glasses, which later factor as blackmail and the setup for Racine's elimination. Vaguely symbolic, Walker's glasses become both the talisman of death and male myopia.

Body Heat: Ned & MattyAs the story plot is synonymous with Matty's plot and this plot is both complex and sophisticated, understanding just what happens and how it affects Racine's disintegration isn't always easy. For example, you know that while Racine screwed up a previous will (the Gurson case) you wonder if in fact he screwed up the Edmund Walker forgery or if the devious Matty tampered with it to play on Racine's history of incompetence. Her admission, when it comes, can slip past you in the heat. Either way, of course, Edmund Walker's will becomes invalid and in the State of Florida "in testate" means the widow gets everything.

Part of the will deposition is the "missing witness" factor, which also figures significantly in the action and the crunching ironies of the ending. The witness is Matty's friend Mary Anne Simpson, now absent, supposedly on holiday in Europe. Somewhere in here Mary Ann is supposedly murdered by Matty and her body stashed in the boathouse in anticipation of her lover Racine's death by boobytrap bomb -- the same type as Racine used to dispose of Edmund Walker. While the symmetry is neat, you wonder why Matty would use Racine's friend and client Teddy to supply the information for such an act... after all, Teddy picks up the phone and calls Racine... so Racine expects the boathouse to be boobytrapped.

Matty has shown herself to be smarter than that. But in the arcane movement of the final sequences, you might overlook such plot conveniences, marvel instead at the sweet irony.

clairvoyance, symmetry and the femme fatale

Incarcerated for two murders, Racine has a moment of clairvoyance, knows instinctively that Matty is still alive. His friend Oscar, the black cop, visits him in prison. "Her teeth, man," Oscar says by way of incontrovertible evidence that Matty died in the boathouse explosion. But Racine has it figured out: Matty is a masquerade. She has switched identities with her high school friend and is really Mary Ann Simpson. So naturally Matty (Walker) Tyler's teeth are found. "Matty sees a way to get rid of us both at once... two killers, dead."

The symmetry is indeed a thing of beauty -- just like the fatal allure of the femme fatale herself. This symmetry forms the visual logic of the climactic scene, in fact. As Matty a.k.a. Mary Ann stops on the grassy fairway near the boathouse you see Racine in the distance and beyond him Oscar the cop, the three characters arranged like markers on a moral map. Matty is wearing the same close-fitting white dress she had on the first night she and Racine met. She stops, isolated like a white flame in the darkness. "Whatever happens," she calls. "You must believe that I love you."

Relentless? A person who could do whatever was necessary? Better believe it.

The performances in Body Heat are superb, from the principals to the secondaries. Ted Danson as the friend and Assistant D.A. who lives vicariously off Racine's sexual exploits and whose nature is so whimsical that he dances across parking lots and piers as one might doodle is a classic example of movie minimalism and the art of characterization. But Hurt and Turner as the reckless lovers are a thing apart, beautiful and crude, sexed and unhinged, just like their generation.

© LR 87/2000


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