Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Body Heat: Neo-noir at its finest

Almost 40 years after its initial release, Laurence Kasdan's directorial debut remains one of the greatest neo-noirs of all time. A superlative update of the Double Indemnity template, the thing which separates Body Heat from most of the neo-noirs which followed it is simple: depth.

Most neo-noirs of the 80s and 90s took on the visuals and archetypes, but Body Heat has the intelligence to recognise that what made the classic noir great was not their visuals or the conventions (which are not uniform to all noir), but the underlying theme of characters falling into an abyss of their own making. 

The characters in Body Heat don't feel like genre mannequins being pushed through the motions, they feel like desperate people with all-too-human weaknesses for money, power and sex. The reason Body Heat works is down to the superlative work of its lead character.

While much has been written about his co-star, William Hurt is the sweaty, beating heart of the movie. If Kathleen Turner is the perfect femme fatale, he is the perfect fall guy -- he is flawed, not particularly likeable and he makes mistakes. All the great noir of old were based around a single isolated, desperate person engineering their own downfall, and Body Heat stands proudly in that tradition.

Ned Racine (Hurt) is not smarter than his forebears, but he is more self-aware. He even tells Mattie Walker (Turner) that he is not smart -- he's just a lazy, corrupt lawyer who is more interested in sexing his way through town than doing his job properly or living a semblance of an adult life.

To quote Judi Dench in Casino Royale,  'Arrogance and self awareness rarely go hand in hand.' Ned may be aware of his short-comings, but that is only his way of deflecting criticism -- just because he knows he's an asshole does not mean he is going to change. Like a classic fall guy, Racine's own weakness causes his downfall. Kasdan and Hurt just grease the wheels so that his race to Hell goes faster.

Kathleen Turner is the very definition of a femme fatale -- she is certainly one of the most duplicitous and successful of the breed. With Mattie Walker, Laurence Kasdan created a new archetype -- the femme fatale who wins. There would be no Basic Instinct or Last Seduction without Walker to lead the way.

A few words about the supporting players.

Special kudos should be given to Richard Crenna as Walker's unlucky husband. Probably most well known for his hammy turns as Rambo's confidant Colonel Trainman, Crenna has never seemed so alive onscreen before. Perhaps energised by the chance to dig into a truly great role, he injects Walker with a venom and malevolence that almost makes you forgive Mattie and Ned for what they are about to do.

Ted Danson and J. A. Preston form a terrific double act as Ned's friends -- they see that their friend is slipping into a trap and cannot do anything to dissuade him.

The rest of the filmmakers involved in Body Heat perform above and beyond the call of duty. Richard H. Kline's photography oozes humidity and John Barry's score is one of his finest, sounding both classic and yet timeless. It could be a contender for the best score for a film noir ever.

Final thoughts: Body Heat is a great movie. Either as a film in its own right, or as an example of neo-noir, it is first class.

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