One of the great things about the motion picture is the way certain kinds of stories lend themselves to its unique storytelling vocabulary, the utilization of sound, image, and the manipulation and juxtaposition of multiple images in time (editing), to create a multilayered narrative and to effect an emotional response in the audience. The Romance, The Western, Science Fiction: these categories all have their roots in the realm of literature (books) and movies made based on these various story forms naturally incorporate additional elements that (ideally) add depth and dimension to them. In very special cases, however, an alchemical reaction occurs, creating a new form entirely unique to the film language. In the 1930s the Romantic Comedy, supercharged by the intangible chemistry between certain actors and the rapid fire dialogue written for them, spawned a genre called “Screwball.” And in the 1940s, a number of European emigre directors began to adapt dark, fatalistic Crime Dramas for the screen, often incorporating in them the visually dynamic elements of German Expressionism, thus giving rise to what the French referred to as “Film Noir” (literally “Black Film.”)
Accompanying these tales of desperation, doom and despair with images of rain-soaked streets, fog, hats and trenchcoats in the night, was a masterstroke. The visible gloom of these worlds matched the darkness of the characters’ souls, and it all looked gorgeous when photographed, as most everything was back then, in glorious black and white. John Huston’s version of Dashiell Hammett’s THE MALTESE FALCON (1941) is often cited as the genre’s first true example, and it was the success of Billy Wilder’s adaptation of James M. Cain’s DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944) that made Film Noir a widely imitated form. Both those films contain the charismatic presence of a “femme fatale,” a seductive female character who attempts to, and usually succeeds in, leading men to their destruction, Barbara Stanwyck’s performance in the latter being perhaps the pinnacle of the phenomenon, thanks in no small part to Wilder’s crackling script (co-written with Raymond Chandler).
Time and tendencies being ever-fluid, the Noir genre faded into the background as the 1960s and 1970s saw other genres emerge and become popular in turn, but Film Noir was quickly taken up and celebrated by film buffs, academics and historians; I can recall a time in the not-so-distant past when every Monday was devoted to it here at the Brattle Theater. There is even an ongoing debate as to whether it can be considered a “genre” or a “style.” And then, in 1981, came Lawrence Kasdan and BODY HEAT.
In 1981 Lawrence Kasdan was in the dream spot for a Hollywood screenwriter. During the previous year he wrote the script for THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (also known as STAR WARS EPISODE V for those of you keeping score), what is certainly one of the great action-adventure screenplays of all-time in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, and the off-beat John Belushi vehicle CONTINENTAL DIVIDE. BODY HEAT was his first effort at directing one of his own scripts, and it is a taut, gripping Noir thriller in the classic style, updated for the “modern” sensibility (the explicit sexuality was shocking at the time and still carries an intensity), and, in true Hitchcock tongue-in-cheek fashion, it upends certain visual expectations by setting the action in Florida during a brutal heatwave. Sun-drenched streets and sweat-soaked white linen replaces rain and trench coats, and with a sly wink Kasdan includes a fedora as an incidental prop. BODY HEAT is as classic an example of Film Noir as you can find, one that settles forever the Noir “genre” vs. “style” debate (it is a genre that is traditionally but unnecessarily tied to a certain style). The term “Neo-Noir” was coined to distinguish this newer form from the black and white “classics” that preceded it, and became a flourishing genre of its own in the years that followed. William Hurt’s amazing performance as Ned Racine is concentrated in his eyes, which go from showing his easy confidence in himself and his place in the world to flashes of pure horror, registering his mounting dread at the magnitude of the intricate web in which he has been unwittingly caught. Kathleen Turner as Matty Walker is a femme fatale for the ages, and the entire cast shines, including memorable turns by newcomers Mickey Rourke and Ted Danson. The great John Barry (MIDNIGHT COWBOY, a dozen James Bond films) contributes a lush and haunting score.
Kasdan’s script is not only strong in creating believable characters, but in building the suspense to unbearable levels and revealing its mysteries to us little by little, right up to the shock ending. It also successfully uses the heatwave as an emotional backdrop for the action, in the tradition of REAR WINDOW and THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH. As Ned’s detective friend Oscar (J. A. Preston) says early on, in a speech that builds the atmosphere of foreboding, “It’s that crisis atmosphere, you know? People dress different, feel different, they sweat more, wake up cranky and never recover…everything is just a little askew…pretty soon people think the old rules are not in effect. Start to break them, figuring nobody’ll care ‘cause it’s crisis time!” As BODY HEAT proves brilliantly, the old rules are definitely in effect.