Body Heat is one of the most highly regarded neo-noirs of the ’80s, and rightfully so. It’s usually said that the French New Wave directors like Truffaut and Godard made arguably the first films to reinvent the noir for a post-noir audience. However, I personally think that the classic noir period actually ran later than most film historians believe—if the assassination of JFK marks the true end of the ’50s and the beginning of the ’60s, you’ll see that noir around that time starts to move on, with the genre reflecting changes in society. This was the case especially in France but also in the US, with films like Point Blank and the Don Siegel version of The Killers. Both starred Lee Marvin, coincidentally, who had himself started his career in films noir and westerns in the ’50s—two genres that even crossed paths in films like The Ox-Bow Incident and Pursued, and which of course featured a lot of the same actors.
The New Hollywood of the late ’60s and ’70s really got the neo-noir ball rolling with Chinatown and Night Moves, but it was the ’80s when it became more of a fully formed genre onto itself, and a seemingly constant run of films followed. Body Heat came out in 1981, a year that saw four major entries in the neo-noir ranks with Cutter’s Way, the remake of The Postman Always Rings Twice and Thief. This all paved the way a major re-evaluation of both noir films and the pulp fiction writers like Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Jim Thompson whose work inspired many filmmakers. This was mostly down to the cult success of filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino, the Coen Brothers and David Lynch.
Body Heat also marked the appearance of Lawrence Kasden as a major player in the ranks of Hollywood directors. He was already known as a screenwriter from working with Steven Spielberg and George Lucas on The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark. However, he was not yet seen as a director, and with the help of George Lucas as an uncredited producer he got a chance to shine with this film, and he would never better it as a director. His follow-up is the painfully dire and pretentious baby-boomer dramedy The Big Chill, a critical and commercial hit at the time.
Kasden basically remakes Double Indemnity, literally the textbook example of a film noir, in Body Heat. Like that classic, Body Heat is about an unsatisfied wife who plots with a man who comes into her life to murder her husband so they can get his money. Her co-conspirator is switched from being an insurance man to a small-town lawyer in this film, and is played perfectly by William Hurt in one of his first major roles. It may seem like a long time ago, but Hurt blew onto the screen in a string of leading-man roles, starting with Altered States (Body Heat was only his third film), and within just five years he was an Oscar winner. However, by the ’90s he was starting to take supporting roles, which he is probably known for now—but he was a major star for awhile in the late 80s.
Like Hurt, most of the Body Heat cast were actors who were all considered “hot” at the time, especially Kathleen Turner (in her film debut) as the femme fatale Matty Walker and Ted Danson, a few years before he became a major star with his role on the TV show Cheers. However, viewers then and now will mainly be wowed by Mickey Rourke, who in literally in one scene completely owns the film. Unsurprisingly, after this film his career blew up and he was considered “the new Robert De Niro,” etc.
Kasden perfectly blends the classic noir style with a new-found freedom of what you could show on the screen. The film is fairly “steamy” and is somewhat unfairly sometimes classified an “erotic thriller” because it’s a far classier film than the tag implies. The visual aesthetic is helped enormously by Richard H. Kline’s cinematography. Kline had himself already shot some fascinating neo-noirs, including the sci-fi noir Soylent Green and The Mechanic, and is a cinematographer whose work is worth a second look. He also shot Jim McBride’s widely underappreciated remake of Breathless, which had a profound influence on a young Quentin Tarantino and even plays like a Tarantino film, especially in its first half.
Kasden had slightly more lofty aspirations with his film, saying that he “wanted this film to have the intricate structure of a dream, the density of a good novel, and the texture of recognizable people in extraordinary circumstances.” This kind of sums of some of the pretentiousness that runs through his subsequent works, but Body Heat survived because it’s just a rock-solid noir with a great cast of the cream of the crop of then-young Hollywood actors. The way it was shot in a hazy Florida sunshine also helps. It’s worth saying that Body Heat wasn’t even the best neo-noir of the year it came out (Cutter’s Way is), but it’s still a great watch, and Kasden should’ve retired immediately afterwards instead of making his constant string of Oscar-bait films.
This Premium collection release is an HMV exclusive. It includes postcards and the film on Blu-Ray and DVD, and it’s all in a nice slipcase. The special features are pretty solid, with a string of featurettes that total around the 45-minute mark, a vintage interview with Turner and Hurt, and a bunch of “rightfully deleted scenes.”