"They don't make 'em like they used to" may be a well-worn adage, but there's always an exception to the rule, and no finer example than Lawrence Kasdan's brilliant Body Heat can be found in the annals of film. Obviously a callback to the halcyon days of film noir, and specifically to Billy Wilder's iconic Double Indemnity, Body Heat has it all: a convoluted plot with one twist after another, a sultry femme fatale (Kathleen Turner in what may be her finest performance), a dumb and in love puppet (William Hurt in what may be his finest performance), and a film literally basking in the dusky and muddled ambience which is the hallmark of all great noir films. The fact is they haven't really made 'em like Body Heat since this film's release in 1981.
It's perhaps hard to realize that film noir wasn't really a much-discussed genre back in the early 80s, aside from a few critics (many of them French) who championed the dark and gritty little films that started popping up in the 1940s, most of them featuring a femme fatale and patently stupid male dupe who did her bidding. Body Heat of course updates that premise to the more sexually lurid 80s, taking the basic Double Indemnity plot of a woman plotting to off her drab husband and wrapping it around a couple more plot twists that most viewers won't see coming, and which will continue to perhaps confound even after multiple viewings.
Body Heat follows the exploits of Miami attorney Ned Racine (William Hurt), not exactly at the top of his profession and prone to being led around by the smaller of his two heads. Enter gorgeous well-married Matty Walker (Kathleen Turner), who quickly starts steaming up every room she's in with Racine, leading to them hatching a plot to kill her nebbish husband (Richard Crenna, who interestingly starred in the rather lame television movie remake of Double Indemnity). What provides three quarters of the plot of Double Indemnity is here pretty much just the first act. Once the dastardly deed is done, Racine finds himself increasingly the suspect of the murder as clue after clue mysteriously turn up in the police's hands. Once Racine finally comes to the sad realization he's been played for a dunce, Kasdan reveals one final sleight of hand in a stunning denouement that may whiz by some viewers' heads, even if they pride themselves on guessing twists way ahead of time. Suffice it to say Matty isn't exactly who she appears to be, and that sets up a delicious little coda to the proceedings that elevates Body Heat into the noir stratosphere.
Some people had trouble with Body Heat's outright theatricality when it was released, especially with Turner's arch and, to use an actorly term, "indicating" performance. I think these people miss part of the point of the film--Kasdan wasn't just reimagining the noir genre, he was simultaneously commenting on it, something he pretty much admits to in one of the extras included on the Blu-ray. This kind of hyperbolic dialogue ("You shouldn't wear a body like that," Racine comments to Walker as he attempts to pick her up in a local bar) doesn't spring naturally from everyday characters' lips, and the film needs to tonally support such exaggeration with a suitable style. Therefore you get Turner virtually having a cinematic orgasm when Hurt bursts through her veranda door by throwing a chair through it. It's perhaps a little comical, but it heightens the tenor of the film to a level where it can support the neo-noir elements that are at its core.
Body Heat is one of the more overt actors' pieces of the last generation or so, and Hurt and Turner, who were then pretty much newcomers, rise to the occasion with career-making performances. Hurt, certainly one of the smartest and most viscerally intellectual actors around, does a more than credible job making Racine just a little on the dumb side, albeit slowly becoming more and more aware of how he's being played. And Turner virtually reinvents the femme fatale wheel with her Matty. She is equal parts Bacall and Stanwyck with an added sexual liberation that neither of those classic actresses was allowed to reveal due to their era's restrictions. Aiding Hurt and Turner are superb supporting turns by Ted Danson as Racine's D.A. buddy, Mickey Rourke as the arsonist Racine hires to do his dirty work and J.A. Preston as the cop who begins to unravel the whole sordid tale.
While the film can be faulted for being a little too convoluted for its own good, not to mention its at times incredible serendipity (what would have happened had Matty not stood up and left at that outdoor concert at the start of the film?), Body Heat has become so iconic in and of itself that it is one of those films that demands to be seen by all film lovers. While its "meta"-leanings may be a bit much for some viewers to completely swallow, it recreates the feel of a storied American film genre, while reinventing it for a new age of filmgoer, and there's really been nothing like it, at least in the noir field, since (though some might argue that Kasdan did something very similar for other genres with his screenplays for Return of the Jedi and Raiders of the Lost Ark). Lurid, sensationalistic and morally bankrupt Body Heat certainly is. It's also inescapably entertaining and riveting.