It’s impossible to discuss Lawrence Kasden’s “Body Heat” without acknowledging the debt it owes one of the greatest of all ’40s noirs, Billy Wilder’s “Double Indemnity,” but to do so also reduces “Body Heat” to a mere imitation of great noir without acknowledging the greatness it achieves on it’s own. Making his debut as a director, Kasden creates a modern film noir that stands with the best of the genre, but more than that, watching it for the first time in many years, it occurred to me that rather than just paying tribute to the past, Kasden also pointed the way to a future genre…the erotic thriller. The scenes of lust between William Hurt’s Ned Racine and Kathleen Turner’s Maddy Walker when they begin their love affair, which will lead to Ned killing Maddy’s wealthy husband, Edmund, were impossible in film noir’s heyday due to the strict Production Code, but after the ’60s and the advent of the ratings system, much changed in thrillers. Still, such steamy material was not seen much in mainstream thrillers, as American filmmakers were still learning to push the boundaries, and see where cinema could go before it was considered pornography, and became an X-rated feature. Kasden doesn’t push that far, but it’s impossible to watch “Body Heat” without thinking about the countless Skinimax and Shannon Tweed films that began popping up in the ’80s and ’90s and going, “Yeah, ‘Body Heat’ inspired that.” I don’t think this perspective has been much considered when looking at Kasden’s film- most people usually just think about it’s connection to “Double Indemnity,” and the world of film noir. I know I didn’t think about it until I was watching it again this morning.
To a generation of movie fans, Lawrence Kasden is best known as a screenwriter on some of the most popular films of all-time- “The Empire Strikes Back,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Return of the Jedi” and now, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” and admittedly, those are the films that bare his name that I love the most. That’s not all there is to Kasden as a filmmaker, however, and if you’re wanting to discover his work more fully, “Body Heat” might be a bit of a shock to you. His writing is as on-point and entertaining as it is in those popcorn films, but the content is considerably more adult. When we first see him, Ned Racine is in a room looking out the window. A building is burning, and a woman is getting dressed. He is looking at the building on fire, and muses that one of his clients may have started it. He is a lawyer, although how good of one is up for debate throughout the film. The film is set in a town in Florida, and the weather is unbearable with heat this year; on multiple occasions, Ned opens up his refrigerator simply to stand in front of it to cool off. One night, he is out on the town in the back of an outdoor concert pavilion crowd when he sees Maddy walk down the aisle, dressed in white. He immediately is taken by her, and they begin talking. By this point, we’ve seen Ned at work, and we believe him when he responds to Maddy, who says he’s not very smart, by saying, “What else do you like? Lazy? Ugly? Horny? I got ’em all.” He is confident, though, and Maddy does not back away from his advances, though they do proceed with some caution, at least before they make love for that first time. After that, the seeds begin to get laid for the murder to come, and anyone familiar with “Double Indemnity” will notice the common beats- the fraudulent paperwork (a life insurance policy in “Indemnity,” a new will in “Body Heat”); the heirs to be left out in the cold after his death (the daughter in the first film, a sister and child in the newer film); the problems that arise with a “foolproof” plan to make the death look one way, but slowly reveal another; and the friendly foes to our protagonist who are investigating the case, who in this case, include a prosecutor (Ted Danson) and a cop (J.A. Preston) who suddenly are led in the direction of investigating their friend for murder and conspiracy. For Ned, however, we come to see how he may be less of an instigator of this murder and more a victim himself, as we find out how deceptive Maddy can be. Can Ned trust her when she says she “loves” him? Like Walter Neff in “Double Indemnity,” Ned may find himself a victim of Maddy’s desires, as well.
So what led Kasden, whose directorial work includes “The Big Chill,” “The Accidental Tourist,” “Wyatt Earp” and “Silvarado,” to put his own spin on a film noir classic? I think we can see that in the ways he twists “Indemnity’s” narrative into something that stands on it’s own in the second half. It’s here where Danson and Preston’s characters have a more intriguing role in the story than Edward G. Robinson’s claims adjuster in “Indemnity”; whereas Robinson was always presented as an antagonist, we see Danson and Preston as friends put in an awkward scenario- we never have the adversarial feelings for them we have for Robinson’s character. At the same time, Ned is a very different character than Walter Neff; while both open themselves willingly to the desires of women who reveal themselves to be much smarter than them, Ned may be less culpable in the plot afoot than Neff was, especially when the friend who made the bomb for him (Mickey Rourke, who made his breakthrough in this film) is arrested, and has an interesting tale to tell. Both Ned and Walter are at the whims of women who are stronger than them, but as Maddy’s plan unfolds, we see how truly devious she can be, and it’s a credit to Turner, in her debut film, that she creates a femme fatale every bit as memorable as Barbara Stanwick’s in “Indemnity,” but also seems more adept at selling herself as a “damsel in distress” to the man who will be her partner in crime. (As great as Stanwick is in Wilder’s film, like Neff, we know exactly the type of woman we’re getting in bed with in her character.) The acknowledgement of formula in Kasden’s work is what allows it’s subversion to be so satisfying, and that’s true whether you’re talking about “Body Heat” or his scripts for “Empire” and “The Force Awakens.” Simply doing something that caters to the audience is not enough for him- it has to feel fresh and lure the audience in, and Kasden isn’t afraid to go into bold directions to make that happen. Having collaborators like cinematographer Richard H. Kline, whose camera captures the dizzying heat of the Florida brilliantly, and composer John Barry, whose score is both a great homage to the moods of noir’s past as well as a seductive, sensual work on it’s own, helps immeasurably; while many of noir’s finest films happened during the black-and-white era, color can make things feel even more sinuous, and Kline’s camera combined with Barry’s music makes “Body Heat” feel less like an exercise in genre but a film that shows us what that genre will look like in the years to come. Kasden’s film may owe a considerable debt to the past, but many films (like “Sliver,” “Fatal Attraction,” “Poison Ivy,” “Body of Evidence,” “Wild Things,” and many more) owe a debt to Kasden’s film, and the path it laid for future filmmakers to take the film thriller in a new direction. If few of them live up to “Body Heat,” well, that’s because the filmmakers took the wrong lessons from the film in making their own. Showing skin worked in “Body Heat” because it worked within the context of the story; for many films afterwards, it became the main reason the films were made. In “Body Heat,” it’s simply an added perk to the overall experience, which is one of the best debut films in movie history.