On the problems with heat captured by a classic film noir.
The plot of Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat (1981) couldn’t possibly be more film noir: a sexy, sleazy lawyer (William Hurt) and a sexy, wealthy housewife (Kathleen Turner) begin a dangerous love affair, one that leads to financial scheming, murder, investigations by cynical police detectives, double-crossings upon double-crossings, secret identities, and shocking plot twists (none of which I’ll overtly spoil here, I promise). But to my mind, at least as emblematic as all those plot elements is the film’s sultry setting of Florida during an intense summer heatwave; noir is (obviously) known for its dark, night-time settings, but I would say that just as important as the time of day is the season, and the way it amplifies the heat that comes from passion and jealousy, from lust and hatred, from greed and suspicion, from all the emotions that comprise the genre’s beating heart. There’s a reason why so many recent film noirs have been set in the Sunshine State.
Moreover, if film noir works can be read as cautionary tales—and given how much fun they are to watch, that’s not necessarily the case, but for the sake of argument I’ll go with it—the message often seems to be a simple and crucial one, one certainly repeated in Body Heat: don’t give in to the heat. Without getting into all the spoiler-y details, it’s fair to say that Hurt’s Ned Racine would have been better off resisting the appeal of the titular body heat, should have denied his passionate attraction to Turner’s Matty Walker. And it’s equally fair to say, as the film’s famous ice scene suggests, that the summer heat and body heat are intimately connected, that the season and setting seem at least as responsible for what happens to Ned as are his libido and the woman who draws it out. Moreover, the film noir characters who tend to come out in the best shape are, I would argue, those who can maintain their cool, not because they aren’t affected by all these forms of heat but rather because they can resist enough to think and act coolly nonetheless (a description that, MAJOR SPOILERS in this clip, ultimately does seem to apply to Matty far more than to Ned).
Don’t give in to the heat, find a way to stay cool—seem like simple and logical enough lessons, and certainly applicable ones in these dog days of summer. But I think they’re problematic, and not just because no heterosexual male could be expected to resist or even think clearly around Kathleen Turner in her prime. No, the deeper problem with film noir is that, much of the time, it seems to take a prudish and puritanical attitude toward sex, if not indeed all passions—to portray them as innately dangerous and destructive, temptations that will inevitably lead us to our doom if we are unable to resist them. Again, this argument would be complicated by how much fun it generally is to watch characters give in to their passions—but of course doing so can provide a vicarious thrill while still instructing us in the need to resist similar fates. Yet the truth is that we can’t and shouldn’t resist our passions, not only because they’re what make us human, but also because without such heat, uncomfortable and even overwhelming as it can be, life would be far too cold.
Next dog days film tomorrow,
BenPS. What do you think? Summertime movies you’d highlight?
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