Saturday, March 28, 2015

Body Heat

The characters in BODY HEAT (written and directed by Lawrence Kasdan, 1981) are trapped in a brutal heat wave in a claustrophobically small Florida town. The residents remark that it seems like there was never a time when it was anything but hot. This kind of detachment from a more pleasant time, a detachment that grows so extreme that you forget there ever was a better time, mirrors the way in which the characters are presented in this (and pretty much all) noir movies. Things are so bad that it seems like they always were that way, and maybe they really were. Why go into the backstory of Ned Racine (William Hurt) and Mattie Walker (Kathleen Turner)? They are in a place where the past doesn’t matter anymore. They are thirsty for something with a raw and desperate intensity, and can’t remember a time when they weren’t.

Their thirst is so great that they will do anything to try to quench it, and anything to avoid the painful realization that there is nothing that will. Ned is a small time no-account lawyer who has the lack of morals that would seem to augur success, but he is not successful: laziness and incompetence hold him back. He thinks he hasn’t got hold of the brass ring because fate has not presented him with the chance to go for it, but the evidence for that is to the contrary. He comes to court unprepared, and seems more interested in bedding waitresses than advancing his career. He drinks too much, and the only thing close to a genuine friendship he has is with assistant DA Lowenstein (Ted Danson) who regularly bests him in court, but doesn’t have as much luck with the women. The one healthy thing he does is run, but he always promptly fires up a cigarette when finished.

Mattie Walker seems to be that brass ring. She is quite a serving of woman, a cut above the usual waitress-sized sexual meal Racine is used to having. She tells Racine, or rather gets him to drag it out of her, that her husband Edmund (Richard Crenna) is both despicable and rich. He actually is a pretty morally challenged guy (although he seems to kind of worship her), and Racine decides (surprise!) to be her knight in tarnished armor. Her damsel-in-distress routine and declarations of undying love for Racine would only fool a complete narcissist, but that is what Racine is.

Edmund Walker explains to Racine, in one of those oblique tough guy conversations where they may be talking about what they are talking about and they may be talking about something else, that to be successful you have to be willing to “do what it takes.” Crenna thinks he has Racine pegged as strictly small-time, a guy not willing to do the ugly, the abhorrent, the criminal, to get what he wants. He’s the kind of guy used to having people afraid of him. He’s also used to people wanting his wife, but he figures their fear will outweigh their desire every time. He is arrogant enough to not see that the intensity of Racine’s desire, his desperation, his obtuseness, maybe just the damn heat itself, may finally balance the scale on the other side.

Edmund also doesn’t count on his wife’s ability get men to do what she wants. She enlists Racine to do her dirty work for her, all the while protesting that they aren’t murderers, are they? Could they really be doing this? Maybe their love, their lust, the heat, is so great that the social contract can be violated just this once, sweetheart, because no one ever loved the way we do (lust).

There are plot twists galore in this movie, and they are really impressive, but what interested me most was its tone. There is not one really likeable character in this film, except maybe the minor character of the Police Chief, who goes after Racine even though they are friendly with one another. Lowenstein approaches likeability early on when he tries to warn Racine that Mattie is poison. Later though, he laughs when Racine tells him of Mattie’s 7 year old niece finding her performing fellatio on Racine, and of the child getting an intimate view of him in an aroused state. That soured me on Lowenstein, to say the least. And I think it was supposed to. No one in this film is even tolerable.

So Mattie does what any woman who wants to be caught by a man does (at least according to the Noir School of things): she runs. And she catches the man (Racine) who thinks he is pursuing her. And then submits to him only after he has smashed in a window and taken her in a way that borders on rape, but apparently is just foreplay for a certain class of people.
Mattie convinces Racine that she has never been in love before (and never had orgasms like that before) and he is willing to believe her. Interesting that a guy so cynical, so untrustworthy himself, is so easily taken in. But he is. He believes that she is as desperate for him as he is for her, and even believes her when she says she doesn’t want her husband’s money, but to simply be rid of him, to be with the man she really loves. I smiled when I thought of how it is the lawyer who is supposed to make money off the depravity of human nature, but here finds himself outmaneuvered by a smoky, smoking hot blond so many moves ahead of him he should have surrendered his King, sued for peace, or run for the hills (but, of course, there are no hills to run for in Florida).

Like I said, plot twists galore in this flick. I won’t tell you about any of them, in case you want to see it. The sex scenes were supposed to be pretty hot, especially for 1981, and I guess they were. But what got me was the way that the sex was portrayed as the kind of need that only grows more powerful each time it is satisfied. As if everything you desperately drag in the front door results in two things bolting out the back. Racine and Matty are noir losers, which is what real noir characters are. I won’t tell you if they end up with the money, or if one does and the other doesn’t, because I don’t want to ruin the enjoyment of an ingenious plot, but I will say that the way the movie is shot, the skill with which the bleakness of these characters is portrayed, makes it clear that no matter what they get, it will never be enough.

© 2015 Mike Welch

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