As much as devotees of horror and science fiction will often quite reasonably complain about their favoured genres failing to get the respect they deserve, I’m not sure there’s any genre with quite so bad a name as the erotic thriller. The very utterance of the words invariably elicit titters, not just from childish types who automatically giggle at anything sexual (which, obviously, isn’t like me at all, honest), but also because so much absolute crap has been produced under the heading of erotica. 9½ Weeks, Showgirls, Body of Evidence, Striptease, all the way up to Fifty Shades of Grey; while there’s certainly a case to be made for the entertainment value of such movies, the bulk of them are high camp guilty pleasures at best. It seems almost unheard of now for a glossy, studio-produced erotic movie to feature a truly great cast working from a truly great script with truly great direction, treating the character and the drama with every bit as much importance as the bare flesh. However, this is very much what we get from 1981’s Body Heat, and it’s a feat made all the more remarkable given it was the first film of both director Lawrence Kasdan, and lead actress Kathleen Turner.
William Hurt (a relative film newbie himself at the time, coming to this straight from his breakthrough roles in Altered States and Eyewitness) is Ned Racine, a small-time lawyer in a small Florida town caught in the grip of a stifling heatwave. Scraping a living from the most tedious cases imaginable, Ned clearly doesn’t get much in the way of job satisfaction, and so it seems his principle means of fulfilment is womanising. When we meet him it’s apparent he has a slew of one-night stands and casual affairs under his belt, but when he crosses paths with the wealthy, alluring and oh-so-married Matty Walker (Turner), that’s when – as the film’s title clearly implies – the temperature rises. The two become lovers, and very enthusiastic ones at that, but all on the understanding that it has to remain a total secret, especially from Matty’s husband Edmund (Richard Crenna, of the Rambo series). You know the drill: the older man can no longer fulfil his younger wife in any manner save monetarily, but thanks to a prenup, leaving Edmund would leave Matty with almost nothing – and so it is that Ned and Matty decide they’ll have to murder him in order to have the life they want together. But once again, you know the drill: no murder plot ever goes as smoothly as planned, and there are always a few unexpected twists along the way.
From the premise, the title, and the title sequence in which saucy saxophone tones (props to the legendary composer John Barry) play out over extreme close-ups of feminine curves cross-fading into one another under low light, one would be forgiven for going into Body Heat expecting something very trashy indeed. The remarkable thing – indeed, the thing that’s hardest to believe after decades of upmarket skin flicks promising ‘tastefully done’ nudity and sex – is just how genuinely classy a film Body Heat is. The simple explanation is that, rather than going out of their way to make an overtly titillating film as so many others would in years to come, Kasdan and co clearly focused on making a good film first and foremost, in which sex just happens to be a key component. While the sexual content is pretty strong by mainstream standards, it doesn’t feel forced; nor does it feel specifically intended to shock, as was so often the case with the movies that came in the wake of Basic Instinct. It’s a direct, natural sexiness which surprisingly never feels voyeuristic, and is pleasantly undercut with low-key humour.
Much of this is down to the casting. Both tremendous actors at the top of their game, Hurt and Turner have remarkable chemistry, and are of course fine-looking people, which does rather factor into things given how frequently they appear naked and/or in the throes. I doubt I need to tell anyone what a sex symbol Turner became in the 80s, and while she went on to take a few more raunchy roles (the raunchiest of all being Ken Russell’s Crimes of Passion), she was never again quite such an authentic femme fatale vamp as she is here. Sure, she played up the femme fatale stereotype in The Man With Two Brains, and most famously as the voice of Jessica Rabbit, but – once again – the key to Body Heat is that neither Turner as actress nor Kasdan as writer/director are playing it as a stereotype. As Kasdan remarks in the extras (recycled from a 2006 DVD release), while the film is very clearly modelled on the romantic noir thrillers of the 40s and 50s, his intention with the film was to present “recognisable people in extraordinary circumstances,” and that’s very much the way the end result plays.
As terrific a launchpad as Body Heat proved for its director and lead actors, it doesn’t short-change its supporting cast either. It’s curious now to see Ted Danson, who I think it’s fair to say went on to become a much bigger heart-throb than Hurt off the back of Cheers, cast as a weirder, geekier guy in horn-rimmed glasses with a habit for breaking out in impromptu tap-dance routines. While very much playing third fiddle as Hurt’s fellow lawyer buddy, he gets quite the interesting journey of his own to go on, particularly as the drama builds and he and their mutual cop friend JA Preston (another great supporting turn) come to suspect their pal of foul play. I found it particularly striking that Mickey Rourke also gets a supporting role, given that actor would later play a key role in the commercial rise and artistic plummet of the erotic movie via tripe like the aforementioned 9½ Weeks and Wild Orchid.
Kasdan to this day remains best known for his work as a screenwriter – writing Raiders of the Lost Ark and three of the best Star Wars movies will do that for you – but revisiting Body Heat now, it’s hard not to be a little sad that his directorial career didn’t prove to have quite the same enduring lustre. (Remember Dreamcatcher? Yeesh.) No matter though, as his debut truly is a remarkable piece of work, and one that a lot of filmmakers in these post-Grindhouse days might do well to look at, given it shows how a film can pay homage to favourites of years gone by without labouring on explicit references and aesthetic trappings. Write a great script, get a great cast, and all being well the rest should take care of itself.
Body Heat is available now in dual format Blu-ray/DVD as part of Warner Bros’ Premium collection, exclusive to HMV.