Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Body Heat Knows Classic Film Noirs Well But It Also Knows How To Subvert Their Norms

Though the classic film noirs of the 1940s were known for their grim nature, the Hayes Code that ruled American cinema with an iron fist prevented the genre from embracing its darkest tendencies in several departments. For one thing, nudity was out of the question as was language harsher than the occasional "damn!" But the time 1981 rolled around, the Hayes Code had been abolished for sixteen years and features nudity and strong language were now commonplace in then-modern-day R-rated fare. Lawrence Kasdan's Body Heat, released in that exact year, decided to take a classic film noir set-up and wrap it up in a screenplay that fully embraced all the raunchy elements Hayes Code era noirs could never even dream of touching.

Lawyer Ned Racine (William Hurt), despite working an occupation designed to uphold an ideal form of justice, isn't exactly the kind of guy who lives on the path of the straight and narrow. It's no wonder, then, that he'd engage in an affair with a married woman by the name of Matty (Kathleen Turner). It's a relationship that becomes as hot as the Florida heatwave all of the Body Heat characters are trapped in and soon, Matty and Ned decide to pull a Double Indemnity/The Postman Always Rings Twice and murder Matty's husband, Edmund Walker (Richard Crenna). It's a bold plan that needs to be pulled off with careful precision and eventually, Matty and Ned do just that and do away with Edmund.

Immediately after the murder transpires though. Ned begins to realize that he might have bitten off more than he can chew since Matty seems to have her own agenda at work here. Femme Fatales in film noirs, always up to some kind of shenanigans!  Though the broad strokes of the plot are familiar,  Body Heat does manage to come up with some creative subversions of film noir norms, though in order to get to the majority of those twists you have to sit through a first act that leans too heavily on the shock value of injecting profanity into a traditional film noir setting. F-bombs are as abundant in the early sequences of Body Heat as ducks in a pond and unfortunately, they frequently come off as an attempt at finding a shortcut to coming off as mature rather than serving a purpose as simple as "this dialogue sounds cool".

All of the extraneous profanity makes the early pieces of dialogue in Body Heat sound choppy rather than carrying the verbal elegance that could be found in the best classic film noir dialogue exchanges. On a more positive note, the extended sex sequences, though not as taboo today as they were in their initial release, succeed far better as an example of injecting more mature-content into a conventional film noir screenplay simply because they still manage to work as intentionally steamy in their own right, it's not like they just succeed because they're edgy af. Best of all in this script is that once the actual story gets underway, Lawrence Kasdan's writing kicks into a whole new gear and the movie becomes outright engrossing.

It's a treat to watch how the script makes both the viewer and Ned gradually aware of just what kind of larger scheme Ned has become a pawn in. There's so much suspense uncovered in depicting this guy realizing just how out of his element he really is and how he tries to figure a way out of this situation. Whereas classic film noirs tended to be about reinforcing the classical ideal of macho masculinity, a fellow who couldn't be unnerved even if he was held at gunpoint, one of the best parts of Body Heat is how much its lead character is a departure from that norm. For much of the second and third acts of this story, Ned is being driven mad by how just how far out of his control everything in his life has become.

William Hurt captures this part of Ned in an effective manner that sees him fully embracing the sweaty unpolished nature of his characters nervousness. Accompanying him for much of the movie is Kathleen Turner in a star-making turn that sits right next to Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity as the ideal femme fatale performance, Turner is just riveting whenever she's on-screen and has a wicked sense of calculating craftiness to her that's always unnerving. Both Hurt and Turner deliver performances that bring new dimensions to these film noir archetypes and make Body Heat a movie very much worth watching despite a first half-hour that leans too heavily on clunky profane dialogue.

No comments:

Post a Comment