Body Heat by Vincent Canby

Body Heat by Vincent Canby

25 octobre 1981. Notre passant cinéphile aime le risque. Il ne craint pas le regard des autres. Et en ce jour d’octobre, il n’hésite pas une seconde en choisissant d’aller voir Body Heat, premier sulfureux film de Lawrence Kasdan. D’autant que les critiques s’enflamment.

Critique d’époque :

« With Body Heat, the steamiest, most thoroughly satisfying melodrama about love, lust and greed to be seen since Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity and Tay Garnett’s The Postman Always Rings Twice (forget about this year’s lethargic remake), Lawrence Kasdan, heretofore known as a screenwriter (Raiders of the Lost Ark, Continental Divide), suddenly emerges as a member of the American directing elite.

I can’t remember a film debut to equal it, that is, when a director has made a first film as fully and intelligently realized as Body Heat. Here is an inspiriting tale of contemporary adultery and murder set somewhere north of Miami, in a small, dull coastal town, in a Florida that has not yet been efficiently air-conditioned from one coast to the other. Body Heat is about a number of things that don’t work, including air-conditioners, and no one seeming to understand why.

Because Body Heat opened here in late August, during the vacation period, I’ve just now caught up with it. Nothing I’d heard about it in the interim had quite prepared me for the vitality of Mr. Kasdan’s original screenplay, nor for his remarkable treatment of it as its director.

Most directors work up to their first major hits, those films that establish them as directors of particular, one-of-a-kind talents. Before he directed The Graduate, Mike Nichols had more or less tailor-made the screen-version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf ? Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets followed Who’s That Knocking at My Door and Box-Car Bertha. Francis Coppola had made a number of films of all kinds before he hit the jackpot with The Godfather, and Robert Benton had directed two very fine though virtually unrecognized films before the public took notice of his Kramer vs. Kramer. With one giant leap Mr. Kasdan has made the big time.

One of the few American films of comparable quality this year is Ulu Grosbard’s True Confessions, based on a screenplay by John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion, but though both films are about misbehavior of an unkind and unusual variety, they are very different sorts of commercial entertainments. True Confessions is an introverted movie, a meditation not upon crime but upon its farreaching implications within the community, which happens to be Southern California.

Body Heat is a hard-breathing, sexy, old-fashioned morality tale, which evolves into a mystery story with a couple of twists that are only matched by the last four or five minutes of Billy Wilder’s screen version of Agatha Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution. That, however, is the only similarity between Dame Agatha’s gentle world of wrongdoing and Mr. Kasdan’s world of amoral second-raters, where the only sin is to be nabbed by the cops.

The opening scene of Body Heat : the camera looks across a pitch-black night landscape to the billowing flames of an abandoned old hotel, burning fiercely some miles away, then pulls back to find Ned Racine (William Hurt), half-naked and sweating, as he stands at his window idly watching the fire while, behind him, a happily chattering young woman is putting on a uniform that seems to have been modelled on those worn by Playboy bunnies.

The town is Miranda Beach (which may or may not be a reference to the troublesome Miranda decision about one’s civil rights when one is arrested), where Ned makes out better in casual, one-night stands with cocktail waitresses than as a practicing lawyer. It’s not only that he has no great drive for professional success, but that he’s not very bright about the fundamentals of the law. « Next time », a judge warns him at the conclusion of one more lost case, « either have a better defense or a better class of client ».

Ned’s not stupid. He’s unmotivated and, until his chance meeting with the beautiful, sultry Matty Walker (Kathleen Turner), he’s just a cheerful, good-looking stud with a gift for the kind of superficial friendships that prompt people to think of him as one all-right guy. Matty changes all that. Matty is different in a number of ways, including her body temperature, which normally hovers around 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

Matty represents the kind of woman Ned has never met before. She has the taste to buy her clothes at places like Bendel’s, a gift for remaining unsurprised by any sort of vulgarism and the wit to be always one step ahead of Ned when he comes on to her with lines that catch cocktail waitresses. At their first meeting she seems to be laughing at him. She tells him that she is married but that her husband is away. « I like him », says the swaggering Ned. « He’s away most of the time », says Matty. « I like him even better », says Ned, ever-ready with the tired quip. Just as he thinks he’s making out famously, Matty disappears.

When, not by chance, they meet a second time, Matty allows him to follow her home, which is not your usual jerry-built condo but a big, pre-Depression, Florida mansion, vaguely Spanish in style and surrounded by enough real estate for a couple of retirement communities. Her husband, Matty says, is not only rich, he’s very rich, though what he does is not clear even to her. It has something to do with land and investments and speculation, and it may not all be on the up-and-up. He’s also « small and mean and weak ».

She gives Ned a quick peck on the mouth and leads him out the glass front door. Ned starts to get into his car, thinks better of it, returns to the house where Matty is standing just inside the door, now locked. They look at each other. Ned picks up a porch chair, smashes the glass and takes the ecstatic Matty on the hall floor.

From that initial encounter it’s a foregone conclusion what Ned and Matty will eventually do, but never how. Before they begin to think seriously about the idea of murder, Ned accidently runs into Matty and her husband, Edmund (Richard Crenna), in a Miranda Beach bistro and is asked to dine with them. Edmund is not quite the fellow Matty described. He’s physically smaller than Ned, older and undoubtedly mean, but he’s also self-confident and tough, in the way of people who are sure of their mob connections.

« If I thought Matty was fooling around », Edmund says calmly, « I’d kill him ». In talking about his business ventures in a general way, Edmund suggests that the trouble with most ambitious men is that « they aren’t ready to do what’s necessary ». That becomes, for Ned, an invitation to the murder he proposes to Matty.

It’s not surprising that Body Heat should be compared to Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice, though the only things they have in common is the central situation involving the young wife, the older husband and the wife’s lover. If not in its initial concept, Body Heat is an original in its unexpectedly romantic, lush execution. It is full of extraordinarily rich, leisurely, erotic camera movements, of which the film’s first scene is a perfect example. It’s a movie that takes something of the puritan’s delight in the details of illicit sex, as if comprehending sex for the first time, and a movie with an especially strong appreciation for narrative line.

Body Heat is also filled with a number of unusually well written characters, superbly performed by a cast of new or comparatively new actors. The film is only Mr. Hurt’s third starring role (after Altered States and Eyewitness), but it should put him up there with Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino and Robert Redford as actors who are considered  »bankable. » He has the WASPy good looks of a Redford but he also has the working theater actor’s versatility. His Ned Racine is a straight leading man with a character actor’s particularity. Ned is gullible but he knows it, and his decline and fall are not without a measure of triumph.

Miss Turner is brand new to films, and her only problem may be that she’s too conventionally beautiful in her classy, dark-haired way to register immediately as a film personality, but she certainly registers as a mysteriously wanton, sexual presense, which is the way Ned Racine sees her, and we always see her through his myopic eyes.

There’s no way of proving this, of course, but I’d be willing to bet that if Mr. Kasdan had wanted to hoke up Body Heat and had presented Miss Turner’s Matty as a woman with, say, blindingly platinum hair, she’d be one of the most talked about new personalities in films today. It may take a while for a brunette of Miss Turner’s evident quality to catch on. On the basis of this one appearance, though, she seems to be on her way.

Then, too, there are the vivid supporting performers, beginning with Ted Danson, who plays Lowenstein, the Miranda Beach prosecuting attorney, Ned Racine’s frequent court opponent and best friend, a fellow who watches what’s happening without surprise, with a certain amount of sadness and with something of a doctor’s cheery but detached curiosity. J.A. Preston is equally good as Oscar, a black Miranda Beach detective who’s also a friend of Ned’s and the man who first suspects that all is not what it should be about the death of poor Matty’s husband.

Mr. Crenna is not on long, but what he does is very good, as is the work of Lanna Saunders and Carola McGuinness, as Edmund Walker’s mostly baffled sister and niece. Mickey Rourke, who looks a bit like the young Elisha Cook Jr., has two brief but startlingly effective scenes as an ex-con and arson specialist who tries to dissuade Ned from the dirty work he’s about. The fine photography is the work of Richard H. Kline.

More important than any of these individual contributions is Mr. Kasdan’s easy command of his work as writer and director. There’s not a decision in the film that betrays that command. When, on Ned’s birthday, Matty presents Ned with a fedora of the sort that might have been worn by a character in a 40’s film, it doesn’t look like a director’s idea imposed on the characters. Instead it’s a revelation of the way Matty sees herself and Ned and the outrageous situation they have feverishly worked themselves into.

Body Heat is one of the year’s most elegant surprises ». Par Vincent Canby pour le New York Times.

Vincent Canby ne tarit pas d’éloge pour ce Body Heat débordant de qualité. Il ne se souvient pas, à juste titre, avoir déjà vu un premier film aussi réussi. Son article, ultra référencé, nous change des critiques négatives toujours à charge de son « glorieux » aîné.


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One thought on “Body Heat by Vincent Canby

  1. Étonnant qu’il ne parle pas de l’extraordinaire musique de John Barry.

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