Enjoy the here and noir

Debuting director's solid first impression

Published: Jun 19 2015, 01:01:am

Wednesday, September 16, 1981.
BODY HEAT. Music by John Barry. Written and directed by Lawrence Kasdan. Running time: 113 minutes. Restricted entertainment with the B.C. Classifier's warning "some nudity and suggestive scenes, occasional violence.
HERE'S A HOT TIP ON a late summer movie. Body Heat is a winner, an incendiary suspense drama ablaze with new talent both on screen and off.
    On screen we re-encounter William Hurt, who made his feature debut earlier this year [1981] as the psychic adventurer in Ken Russell's Altered States. We are introduced to Kathleen Turner, a stage and TV actress making her first appearance on the big theatre screen.
    He plays Ned Racine, a young lawyer stuck practicing in Miranda Bay, Florida, a small coastal community not far from Miami. Truth to tell, Ned is not a very good lawyer. His mind is on other things.
    She plays Matty Walker, an attractive young woman who has married well. Although she has every material comfort, she is tired of being a doll-wife to mysterious financier Edmund Walker (Richard Crenna), a man who only has time to visit their palatial home on weekends.
    Ned and Matty meet during a heat wave. As usual, he is on the make. She is just bored.
     They banter.
    Behind the camera is first-time director Lawrence Kasdan, a bespectacled young man whose career is about to go nova. A virtual unknown two years ago, his talent with a typewriter has made him one of the hottest properties in Hollywood today.
    A screenwriter, Kasdan's big break came when Star Wars creator George Lucas hired him to produce the final version of The Empire Strikes Back. The results pleased Lucas, and he called on Kasdan again, this time to give him the Raiders of the Lost Ark assignment.
    Although Kasdan was now in a position to sell as many scripts as he could write — Continental Divide, opening here Friday, is a Kasdan screenplay — what he really wanted was to direct. To fulfill that ambition, he had to overcome the reluctance of a major studio to risk its stockholders' dollars on untried artists.
    Again, The Force was with him. Lucas agreed to "guarantee" Kasdan's first picture, thus turning the key and setting the project in motion.
    Lucas's faith is rewarded with Body Heat, a screen scorcher that is literate, refreshingly adult and a sure contender for 1981 Oscar honours. Kasdan's subject is enflamed passion; his vehicle, the mystery-thriller.
    Ned Racine's problem is that he's not as bright as he thinks he is. His career is going nowhere, but he has managed to become an adept plck-up artist, so most of his brooding is confined to moments of post-coital fatigue.
    For Ned, Matty represents little more than an uptown conquest. The situation becomes a little more interesting when she rebuffs his first come-on, because he detects smouldering passion beneath her cool, well-kept exterior.
    What begins as an idle, off-hours project soon develops into a major obsession.
    When Matty finally gives in to him, the explosion is powerful enough to change both their lives. Together, they decide to murder her husband.
    In outline form, Body Heat owes a great deal to James M. Cain. A 1930s novelist, Cain's 1936 Double Indemnity (adapted to  the screen in 1941) and 1934 The Postman Always Rings Twice (a movie in 1946 and again this year) both featured illicit lovers who do away with inconvenient husbands.
    In the movie house, Body Heat is very much its own work. Based not on a novel but on an original screenplay, it uses the full potential of its sight-and-sound medium to involve and absorb us. Kasdan creates rather than adapts his characters and situations and does so masterfully.
    He begins by introducing us to Ned, a man aware that his life has stagnated and who is hot for a great passion. Beneath his apparently successful Playboy-philosophy exterior is a man feeling the sting of failure.
    By contrast, Matty is offered to us as an intriguing mystery. We see her through Ned's eyes, and the nuances of her character are revealed only gradually. As the heat increases, Ned ignores the danger signals.
    Kasdan wants us to see Ned and Matty. By insisting on little-known actors for the key roles, he insures that we will watch his characters, and feel the intensity of their emotions.
    The same is true of the supporting players, a group that includes Ted Danson as Ned's friend, public prosecutor Peter Lowenstein, and J.A. Preston as honest cop Oscar Grace. Their ensemble playing is absolutely first rate.
    As a screenwriter, Kasdan provides them with a class script. Fans of sparkling dialogue and clear, subtle story exposition will discover that the art is not dead.
    As a director, Kasdan brings it all together with precision and economy. Here's two hours of solid screen entertainment, a fine first film from an exciting new talent.

The above is a restored version of a Province review by Michael Walsh originally published in 1981. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: My enthusiasm notwithstanding, there were no Oscar nominations for Lawrence Kasdan's sizzling feature Body Heat. (A year soaked in nostalgia and sentiment, the 1981 best picture award went to the period sports drama Chariots of Fire.) In revisiting the above review, I was suprised to realize that I mentioned two of the genre's classics — Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice — without actually using the phrase film noir. A tale of cynical sinners, in which a male is played, and ultimately betrayed, by a femme fatale, Kasdan's picture fits precisely into that classic mould. As the duplicitous Matty Walker, Kathleen Turner delivers the picture's best line to William Hurt's Ned Racine: "You aren't too smart, are you? I like that in a man." Turner, who celebrates her 61st birthday today (June 19), took her bad girl persona to the outer limits in two subsequent features. In 1984, under Ken Russell's direction, she played the seriously kinky China Blue in his examination of American urban morals, Crimes of Passion. In 1988, she reunited with Romancing the Stone director Robert Zemeckis to provide the voice of Jessica Rabbit in his animated epic Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Director Kasdan confirmed the promise of his first feature, following up with a 1983 best picture Oscar nominee The Big Chill, a suburban ensemble piece, and the rousing 1985 Western epic, Silverado. In 1988, he reunited Kathleen Turner and William Hurt, added Geena Davis to the mix, and produced another best picture nominee, The Accidental Tourist. Though his seven more recent directorial outings have been less memorable, he continues to generate new projects. Currently, he is credited with the screenplay for director J.J. Abrams' continuation of the Star Wars franchise, Episode VII - The Force Awakens, scheduled for a Christmas 2015 release.