With its moustachioed everyman, steel-hearted femme fatale and schlocky twist ending, Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat remains a touchstone of the erotic thriller genre. Looking back 40 years on from the film’s release, it’s clear to see how Kathleen Turner’s breakout performance forged a new path for women in Hollywood throughout the 1980s and ’90s.
Many films that emerged during the erotic thriller boom were dismissed as misogynistic – the products of screenwriter Joe Eszterhas’s coke-fuelled, cum-stained scribblings. But they had an undeniably seductive effect on audiences, wearing their sleaze on their sleeve and giving women complex roles that placed the power firmly in their sweaty, post-coital palms.
While the New Hollywood era had previously centred tortured male protagonists, Body Heat put Kathleen Turner’s Matty Walker in a position of dominance over the film’s spluttering, dumbstruck male characters. “Not only was Matty a fantastic character in a truly great film,” Turner said in a 2018 interview, “she was at the centre of the film. The whole movie rotated around her. A part like that is difficult to get as an established actress, let alone as a virtual unknown.”
William Hurt stars alongside Turner as Ned Racine, a sloppy lawyer bitten by Matty’s black widow, whom he meets by apparent chance in Florida during a heatwave. The pair soon fall in lust and scheme to murder Matty’s rich husband, but after Ned begins to doubt Matty’s motives and fears he has been duped, he falls down a rabbit hole of paranoia. When we first meet Matty in a neon-hued suburb, with her immaculately waved locks and white cotton dress, Ned’s reaction mirrors our own; we’re instantly entranced and enthralled by this woman.
More than just a noir knock-off, Body Heat transcends its cinematic influences by aligning with the newly acceptable promiscuity of Gen X, thrilling audiences in an anything-goes, consequence-free manner. (Even the seediest film noirs had to bow to the Hays Code.) It has been said that Double Indemnity’s Phyllis Dietrichson walked so Matty Walker could run – but it’s equally true that Matty Walker walked so that Fatal Attraction’s Alex Forrest and Basic Instinct’s Catherine Trammel could fuck.
Body Heat positively drips with sweat, all soft focus and slick surfaces. The heatwave that the characters constantly refer to becomes a character in itself, quite literally adding a layer of hot air to the atmosphere of intense passion and deceit. When Matty lifts her hair to allow the nape of her neck to cool, the masterful directing, editing, production design and acting combine to give the moment a charged feel: it’s by no means a cheap, flesh-baring trick.
For all its nudity — of which there is plenty — the film’s hottest scene comes fully-clothed. Ned is pacing the porch of Matty’s mansion, having been shut out and asked to leave, presumably before they do something they may regret. He rattles the door, but it’s locked. Through Venetian blinds they gaze at each other; her face imperceptibly dares him to come inside and take her. He picks up a chair, smashes the window and strides in, cementing his fate as the fall guy to whatever scheme Matty has seemingly cooked up. The ultimate thrill of Body Heat comes not from sex, but seeing the woman win.
Published 28 Aug 2021
By Anton Bitel
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