Another nudity classic: Kathleen Turner in Body Heat (1981)

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Body Heat is one of my favorite films, so I’ll prattle on about it for a while.

It’s a great entertainment and guilty pleasure film, but also more than that. In its own way, Body Heat was one of the most influential films in history, kind of the Pulp Fiction of its time, at least in terms of the trends it started and how often it was imitated. Just about every “erotic thriller” of the next 15 years seemed to be a variation of this film. Soft-core sex films copied it. Murder mysteries copied it. Even hard-core sex films borrowed from it. Even its name was copied. There have been many XXX videos named Body Heat since 1981.

In fact, Body Heat itself was not really original, but was a brilliant revival of a long-dormant genre. The “duplicitous woman noir” was a popular B&W genre in the 40’s and early 50’s, but disappeared for a while until director Lawrence Kasdan brought it back in color, with his own flourishes, in 1981, casting Kathleen Turner and Bill Hurt in the roles formerly reserved for the likes of Barbara Stanwyck as the scheming femme fatale and Fred McMurray as the gullible dupe.

Hey, I’m not so impressed that Kasdan made such a great film in his first attempt to direct. I mean any schmuck can make a great directorial debut if he has a script written by one of the greatest screenwriters in history. Kasdan simply hired the guy who had written Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Empire Strikes Back, the two best films of the preceding year, and would go on to win three Oscar nominations for films written after this one: The Accidental Tourist, The Big Chill, and Grand Canyon. Hell, the only thing director Kasdan really accomplished was being lucky enough to hire that guy. Of course, finding him wasn’t that hard. He only had to look in the mirror.

Kasdan did an especially good job at recreating the “sassy dame” dialogue from the 40s. Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler would be proud of this, their step-child.

“You’re not too bright, are you? I like that in a man.”

“What else do you like? Ugly? Horny? Lazy? I have it all.”

“You don’t look lazy”

Those lines are not only entertaining, but they also foreshadow the plot twists perfectly. Those twists were unpredictable when this film came out, although we’ve seen the formula copied so many times that it seems formulaic now. The fundamental requirement for a good femme fatale picture is that the woman has to make the patsy do her dirty work, but both he and the audience have to think it was all his own idea. If she pushes him into it, he will realize he’s being set up, and the audience will lose the pleasure of the ultimate surprise. Therefore, the spider really has to do her homework on the fly’s weaknesses, and she has to spin her web subtly and slowly, so as not to appear obvious. In this case, Ned Racine (Bill Hurt) wasn’t ugly at all, but really was intellectually lazy and incorrigibly horny, just as he claimed to be in that snippet of dialogue cited above, so those were the faults that Matty (Kathleen Turner) exploited.

The film also includes some of the hottest, sexiest build-up of sexual tension in film history. Who can forget the scene when Turner and Hurt first make love? The wind chimes tinkle gently in the sweltering evening. Hurt can see Turner through the locked glass door. Hurt grabs the chair from the porch, shatters the door, storms through, and takes her. She is more than willing.

Finally, I have this on my short list of films where the casting director should have gotten a special Oscar. (The Outsiders also comes immediately to mind.) The casting was sheer genius, right down to the minor roles. Check out Ted Danson of Cheers as the D.A. who really wanted to be a dancer. If only they could have obtained the musical rights to the dance classic written especially for him. I refer, of course, to “You Make Me Feel Like Danson.”

Dude, what are you waiting for? If you haven’t seen this film, do so. If you already love it, get your hands on a special digital edition, immerse yourself in special features and watch the deleted scenes.

8 thoughts on “Another nudity classic: Kathleen Turner in Body Heat (1981)

  1. A great film, I remember seeing it in the theater and being blown away. Your review is spot-on.

    1. Scoops: KT has a PDG corpus but singles out BH that she wouldn’t have traded for any other role. That said, “in its own way” is weasel words. I’m not a fan of the whole “best”, “sexiest”, “most influential”, ie comparative, manner of speaking about quality. Like, I liked your 1st sentence just fine, except the part about “also more than that”. That leads directly to making a case for “most influential”. Then you have to build up the numbers so it contends for “most”. What’s wrong with saying it was just “influential”? For that matter, how is being copied an unconventional take on influential? Isn’t that just normal influential? As opposed to “in its own way”? Isn’t the weasel there for no other reason than to make the reviewer sound smart?

      For example, I’d say Inception was influential, too. Was it more so, even, than The Matrix? A case could be made for it. I don’t happen to agree with that, but then, I don’t like the question at all. Frankly, we overvalue novelty & exceptionalism because that’s our lifelong habit, a leftover from our youth, when we were consumed by the merciless imperative to prove ourselves.

      As an old fogey, I’m consumed by a new passion: I can’t do or know everything I ever wanted to, but I’m going to focus on the things I’ll enjoy doing & learning. Behind me I have rankings & scores & lists for everything I came across. Did I ever derive one good thing from that cataloguing? I realize you may see things differently. OK, so YMMV. But, for me, no. I did not get a single jot of extra enjoyment from personally deciding that Batman was a better myth than Superman. Now, I’ve stopped thinking like that. And guess what? I don’t miss it one bit.

      FWIW, your reviews are good. That’s not that common. So, great. Further superlatives would only diminish the compliment. I don’t have to puff it up & you surely don’t need me to.

      1. I hedged my bet on “influential” because this film did not affect society in general, but only other films.

        True influence happens when a show or film reaches beyond its medium and changes our behavior. Seinfeld affected the way we spent our work breaks. Miami Vice affected the way we dressed. Saturday Night Fever created fashion trends and almost single-handedly caused the big bang of the universe of disco. Body Heat did none of that, but it was influential “in its way.”

      2. OK. That’s it then. You’re a purveyor of opinions on things that don’t matter. They’re all correct, “in their way.” Meanwhile, you are steadfast in wrong opinions on things that matter. I’m out.

  2. Just brilliant. My favorite line is when she tells both men “Look out, he’s got a gun” at once. And that tacked-on last scene – he’s in prison and looks through her yearbook – totally ended my long-standing epilogue hatred.

    1. Very good point. It’s one of the best epilogues in film history, if not the very best. It added yet another layer of fun, and I did not see it coming.

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