Monday, August 26, 2019

An Exchange On Body Heat As Film Noir


“Neo noir" doesn't do it for me. How about "ersatz noir"?

True, there's "not much dividing (Body Heat) from The Postman Always Rings Twice or Double Indemnity in terms of plot or theme..." That's the problem. The movie doesn't reflect Lawrence Kasdan's artistic vision but an attempt to walk a mile in someone else's shoes. No, not walk, fly. He was determined to out-noir his predecessors. Like Quentin Tarantino's overrated parodies, Body Heat is all style and no substance. Screenwriter Kasdan was content to recycle the plot of Double Indemnity because plot was the least of his concerns. Body Heat is closer to soft-core porn than entertainment. Unlike the movies it attempts to emulate it's completely predictable. Even the title is a "spoiler".

The filmmakers who have been lumped under the "film noir" category weren't trying to shock or titillate, they were just trying to tell a story. Each in his own way. Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice, and Mildred Pierce are similar in "plot and theme" because they were based on the work of the same novelist, James M. Cain. I read all of the novels in question and the movies are relatively faithful adaptations.

Body Heat, on the other hand, is light on storyline and heavy on "atmosphere". It's so over-the-top that it shoots itself in the foot. There's a saying in the movie industry: "less is more". Lana Turner, standing in a greasy spoon diner, wearing that white turban and bathing suit, is more arousing than a stark naked Kathleen Turner, moaning under the bedsheets. When you show EVERYTHING you leave nothing to the audience's imagination. Which, apparently, is a lesson Quentin Tarantino didn't learn during his apprenticeship as a video rental clerk.
Maybe "ersatz noir" is too narrow a definition for these plotless wonders; how about "shock shlock"?


B, thanks for your thoughtful note, which I enjoyed reading: I guess one man’s neo is another man’s ersatz. 

Body Heat is a different movie for me than it is for you. 

We have common ground that it fits into the slot of a film noir but you think it’s duplicative rather than original. I disagree. The creation of atmosphere through the, what to call it?, the leitmotif of heat as evident in the persistent imagery of and references to burning, sweating, fanning, sexual desire, febrility and so on contrasts brilliantly with the cool, manipulative calculation of Maddy Walker, the cool, ironic self restraint of the Ted Danson character, the moments of humour at the expense of Ned Racine, especially his legal ineptness, the coolness of Teddy Lewis even as he’s an arsonist for hire. 

That contrast forms a central tension in the film and yields a sophisticated, almost literary kind of complex unity that the old noirs don’t have. That contrast is even evident in Ted Danson’s caring but cool detachment, including dance moves, and in the heated rumpledness of Oscar who sweats out trying to exonerate Racine but then must do his duty and arrest him. Unlike Oscar, Danson/Lowenstein (presumably Jewish) is cooly indifferent to the murder of a really bad guy like Edmund Walker.  

So I don’t agree the film is “all style and no substance.” What substance would you want? It’s a terrifically crafted story of manipulation through sex and brilliant wiles that brings a weak, flawed man low and finally to prison, while cunning evil succeeds in fulfilling all of its ambitions. And in all that we’re left with a bit of tantalizing ambiguity as to the extent, if any, of Maddy Walker’s feelings, if any, for Racine as she was conning him, seductively bending him to her will. Some substance: consider the theme in the film of will and wilfulness as relentlessness, as doing whatever is necessary.

In Body Heat both titillation and explicit sexuality are integral to the story. So I’m not offended or put off by them. The film, made in 1981, reflects a different cultural sensibility towards sex compared to the time of the old noir standards. This more modern sensibility is evident in the art that its culture produced. 

I see nothing pornographic or even approaching pornography in the film’s sexual scenes. They’re not there for their own sake or simply to arouse. They’re there to give us the concrete and real sense of how Maddy Walker lures Racine, step by calculated step, as the means to her ends. And in fact everything isn’t shown. Mostly, we see the shadows and outlines of everything. We never see Maddy Walker’s or Racine’s genitalia for example. We never see prolonged scenes of their lovemaking. The blow job she gives Racine as witnessed by Edmund Walker’s niece is never explicitly shown, only suggested at. 

For me, finally, a big difference between Tarantino generally and Kasdan in this particular film is that Tarantino typically winks at us and with us in subverting his own movies with violence so over the top that it’s surreal and thus rends the fabric of his movies. That takes a different turn in Once Upon A Time...In Hollywood. But that’s another story. There is none of that winking subversion in Body Heat. Kasdan wants us to suspend disbelief in watching it, enter and believe in its world, without him exploding that world with calculated outlandishness.

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