Lawrence Kasdan's debut film is a fine piece of work. On it's own, it is a mostly tight little neo-noir for the 80's, and seems to have been one of only a few. Neo-noir did not really take off again until the late 80's and 90's. There was the success of a few films in the 70's, notably Chinatown, but Body Heat harkens directly back to the noir standard, Double Indemnity. In fact, it feels almost like a remake in many ways. But the more impressive feature of this film is the cast. With any other actors, this film cannot hold together with tone, music and script alone. But using a young William Hurt and Kathleen Turner certainly helps turn up the heat and hot it is.
The story is fairly straight forward for a noir - beautiful woman uses horny male to cheat her husband and inherit a great deal of money. Turner shows this almost immediately. Her Matty Walker is all shape and lust, angles and guile. She is willing to use any man in any way and plays Hurt's Ned Racine like a fiddle. For his part, Hurt does not display a weak man completely, but at least weak for the opposite sex and is completely taken with the woman. He is easy prey. There are some interesting moments in which certain elements of an old style noir are deconstructed as the motives are explained and the double-cross becomes clear. But for the most, the actors are given a typical script to work with and elevate the material to showcase the talents that would become apparent. On it's own, the film is perhaps not forgettable, but simply of a piece alongside other attempts to re-envision a classic style, but its more useful feature is to show the development of its major players - Hurt, Turner and Kasdan.
This was the beginning for all three of them, for the most part. Hurt had some films under his belt already (notably Altered States) and Kasdan had been writing, but this was Kathleen Turner's first major role and she bit into it hard. She is a beautiful woman, and never allows the audience forget it. In many ways, she has been coasting on this performance ever since despite having a fairly healthy twenty some odd year career. Many of her most famous parts are simply derivations or plays on this role - Romancing the Stone simply takes this role and turns it on its head and her voice-work as Jessica Rabbit plays directly to it. There is little doubt that her roles distinctly different from this have been few and far between, though to be fair, she is especially good in War of the Roses and Serial Mom.
Hurt's promise is another that seems to have fallen off in recent years. Though he would have an incredible run during the mid-80's, he has seemingly flown under the radar since. It has not been for lack of work as he has made plenty of films over the last twenty years, but the roles he plays have not had the same seeming level of care applied to them, with only a few notables to suggest such as his roles in Michael and A History of Violence (though I was not as impressed as some with that part.)
And as for Kasdan, let's just say that this was a very nice start and it is no wonder that studios were willing to go full ahead with him after this debut. His writing was already a proven thing with this film coming out around the same time as his other major writing triumphs - The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Continental Divide. And this film did very well at the box office from what I recall. The early 80's were still under the drug of post-hippie, disco era free sex without the fear of AIDS. This film belongs directly in that time period and the audiences ate it up. The mood is classic noir thriller, but the look is stylized gloss that focuses on the sweat of our main characters, be they having sex or trying to determine how they are being double-crossed. It's desire is to be dirty while wrapping it all in a clean package.
As a "genre man" it is clear that Kasdan is able to see what works and what does not in past examples of this style and he utilizes it, almost in a workmanlike attempt. It comes across well because we have talented and pretty people inhabiting the world and perhaps because audiences were starved for this type of story, Hollywood having lost sight of the old style noir. If I had to give it a star rating, I'd say three and half out of five. It scores points because of the great cast (including a young Ted Danson and a beautiful Kim Zimmer before she went on to become famous as Reva Shayne on the daytime soap opera Guiding Light) and for the attempt to recreate a classic feel, but loses some due to the clinical feel of the finished product. Sultry, yes. But almost as if they tried too hard. It's worth a watch for the history of it all, but it has a hard time equaling any of the great noirs of the past.
Next up, The Big Chill. That is all.