Film Noir Series: Body Heat (1981)

by tigermanifesto


Lawrence Kasdan makes an ideal person to direct a postmodern remake of Double Indemnity. He was a participant, along with George Lucas, of ushering in the contemporary blockbuster-driven, nostalgia-saturated, sensory-overload era of cinema, writing the scripts for Star Wars episodes five and six. As the studios were snapped up and consolidated under the umbrellas of corporate behemoths and the revolutionary fervor and  auteur model of filmmaking the studios desperately adopted in the late 60s, studio films began to consolidate around a sleeker aesthetic. Body Heat is a film of the 1980s, orange fireballs and all, but it is at least a highly intelligent and competently directed piece. It takes the essential plot of the classic Double Indemnity–a sexually confident woman ensnares a man into helping her murder her husband for money–and makes it more explosive and explicit. It is a quintessential neo-noir, a pastiche of stylistic tropes and plot points from earlier films. Other than one scene where characters fill an entire room with tobacco smoke, much to the delight of my class, there is little in the way of jokes. Body Heat is more a loving embrace of old noir than a spoof or satire.

Made long after the Motion Picture Production Code was dismantled and the MPAA rating system was enacted, Body Heat is free to represent sexuality and the human body with a frankness that does not need to rely on repressed suggestions in mise en scène to convey its meaning. The noir tropes thus function differently in this lurid color environment, where scenes are bathed in red glow and piercing light instead of shades of grey. Its subtropical Florida setting and use of erotic reds suggest an unsteady decadence or overgrowth. Where consumerism is implicated in moral corruption in the 1953 film The Big Heat, here it has become overripe and absorbed into the film itself, which features copious Coca-Cola product placement. Fog diffuses the red glow of tail lights, the sun blasts through the windows of the diner, and, for some reason, no one has air conditioning. Leaving aside the question of why these people would live in Florida without air conditioning, it creates the same stifling explosiveness that would later fuel films like Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. When scenes do employ the classic noir chiaroscuro, it portends a kind of doom, the darkness desaturating the normally striking colors and plunging us right back into those smoky 1940s hotel rooms. The entire film exists in a timeless space that is constructed more through reference and aesthetics than realistic detail. If asked what time period this film took place in, I would reply “in film noir times,” since the precise time matters to the film far less than the fact that it is a time ripe for transgression, snooping, cigarettes, and stylish headgear.

Does Body Heat succeed? It does when it manages to crack open the conventions it borrows, exploring in greater detail the nature of its characters’ desires. Corruption becomes more tangible, violence more sickening, and the sex, while remaining erotic, is put up on the screen rather than left to our imagination. While I would maintain that its nostalgic indulgences count against it rather than for it, it is more than the sum of its references and makes noir relevant to the Reagan era, even if I think its reliance on what came before it is too uncritical to make it work all the way.