By Stu Kobak
noir: The phrase hangs awkwardly on the tongue, shadowy images peek out from behind half-closed
doors. The phrase was coined by the new wave French critics to categorize a group of black and
white films in the Forties and Fifties characterized by dark themes, weak men and scheming women,
colliding in a cynical universe. The English translation of noir is “black” or “dark,” and
indeed it is this darkness that all noir films share. Many of the Hollywood noir films were
conceived as “quickie” B flicks, but their slick dialog and terse action found favor with
critics and filmmakers alike.
The lure of noir, since the genre’s heyday and sanctification by the
French, has acted as a flame to directors seeking their own vision of cinematic truth. With color
as a requisite for most of today’s films, the stark, defined images of film noir retain a
hypnotic power defining right and wrong in simple terms. Every few years, a filmmaker will take a
crack a making a film noir in color, composing in shadows or de-saturating the hues, trying to
revisit a simpler time when the world could be described in black and white.
Body Heat, one of the more successful contemporary noirs, manages
to exist blithely in an anachronistic world. Dialog is straight out of 1940s movies, the setting
looks like a 1980 encapsulation of post-war Florida and the characters move through this world with
a sense that they are playing out a film noir story. There is a particular pleasure in director
Lawrence Kasdan’s choice to ignore the anachronistic elements of his film. In its way, it is an
homage to the films that defined this small, elite genre, born on “B” budgets but elevated to
classic status by its admirers. By freely acknowledging his debt to the classics of the genre,
Kasdan neatly detours criticism that his work is merely a parody of past
Body Heat’s script is culled from classic noir convention. There’s
the beautiful young woman married to an older man, a womanizer waiting to be duped, an inheritance
in question and investigators hot on the trail. Matty Walker (Kathleen Turner) is married to real
estate developer Edmund Walker (Richard Crenna). While he’s off making his questionable business
deals, sweet Matty’s at home plotting a path to his money. Matty fishes up lawyer Ned Racine
(William Hurt), shakes her tightly skirted bottom and reels in an accomplice to knock off Edmund
and inherit the money. What Racine doesn’t realize is that Matty’s avarice knows no
Yes, Kasdan has written a derivative screenplay, borrowing liberally from
films like Double Indemnity, The
Postman Always Rings Twice and Pitfall. While the originals may have more bite, Body
Heat manages to ignite its fair share of sparks. There is a slothful, evil elegance to the
production style. Kasdan’s choice to take the air conditioning out of 1970s Florida is a bold
anachronism that serves his purpose well. A young, slim, cat-like Kathleen Turner as Matty is a
major asset. The many shots of Turner in perfect profile define the look of the noir goddess. She
just barely keeps her pot of actor’s tools from boiling over and makes you believe every twist
and turn. William Hurt is perfection as Racine, an oily ambulance chaser with a weakness for women
and an uncomplicated moral code.
The opening shot is particularly brilliant: Racine peers out of a
bedroom window at a nighttime skyline dominated by raging fire. Framing through the window, using a
red filter, cinematographer Richard Kline defines the mood. Thereafter, Body Heat is shot
either through hot red or cold blue filters, an interesting choice, though the photography never
again achieves the power of that opening image. Composer John Barry’s score works best when it is
confined to jazz themes, but becomes overblown when the orchestrations try to empower images.
How well does Body Heat fare on DVD? Kasdan and cinematographer
Richard Kline chose a heavily filtered style of shooting Body Heat. The result is a
difficult film transfer, to say the least. The dark, moody photography cries out for the range that
DVD offers. The source material is fine, and while the film is very dark, light output is
good. Several daylight scenes are a bit washed out, perhaps because of overall compensation for the
many night sequences. Images are comfortably sharp, with no resultant artifacts. The Dolby Digital
5:1 sound is clear, with good dynamic range and dialog is easily understood. The laserdisc
finishes with a theatrical trailer.
Kasdan is not the only director lured by the mystique of film noir. In
1982, Ridley Scott married noir to science fiction in the brilliant, dark Blade Runner. With Harrison Ford as Deckard, official
hunter of Replicants (human androids turned enemy -- but are they?) and Sean Young as a vacuous
Replicant femme fatale, Blade Runner is perhaps the most successful film in redefining noir.
Most recent examples include an excellent B flick, Bulletproof Heart (director: Mark
Malone), in which Anthony LaPaglia plays a hit man with little taste for one nighttime job and Mimi
Rogers relishes the opportunity to mix sex and dialog with abandon. Stephen Frears’ The Grifters, starring John Cusack, Angelica Huston and
Annette Bening, goes so far as to redefine the darkness of classic noir, adding a side dish of
incest to the main course. Along with The Grifters, the most effective of the recent
neo-noirs is John Dahl’s The Last Seduction. It features many stellar noir plot
conventions, but Linda Fiorentino breaks the noir mold in the role of Bridget Gregory, a
dark-souled lady who absconds with her husband’s hard-earned drug money and uses every feminine
wile to scratch her way to survival. Dahl gives Fiorentino an arsenal of double-edged dialog to
create a memorable femme fatale. Dahl is a director* who takes his noir seriously, having also
directed Red Rock West and Kill Me Again, dark tales of contraband and betrayal.
Some classic film noir titles have found their way into Hollywood’s
retread list, most recently Kiss Of Death, with an unappealing David Caruso trying to
conjure noir ghosts, and Night And The City, a flat remake, with Robert De Niro, of the
Jules Dassin classic black and white film starring Richard Widmark. The Postman Always Rings
Twice with Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange, yet another remake, failed to generate the sexual
sparks of the original with John Garfield and Lana Turner. Against All Odds, Taylor Hackford’s
film with Jeff Bridges in the Robert
Mitchum role, was a decent updating of Out Of The Past and D.O.A., a lackluster,
by-the-numbers remake. Often, in these neo-noirs, the use of color photography is restrictive
rather than freeing. The directors and cinematographers of the original noir films used the
simplicity of black and white photography to full advantage, often using hot key lights for
dramatic emphasis. The classic noir harks back to that simpler time when we could understand themes
told in very simple moral terms. Contemporary noir stories often fail to measure up, lost in the
complexities of modern society, ending as no more than jazzed-up, overdressed noirs. However, the
best of the neo-noirs, like Body Heat or The Grifters or The Last Seduction,
find their way back to the roots of classic noir.
*Reader Leonard Thurman pointed
out that we had implied The Last Seduction writing credit to Dahl, while Steve Barancik in fact did the screenplay. Thanks Leonard.
Turner Turns on the Heat
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