Body Heat, as discussed in class, is one of the first “Postmodern Neo-Noirs”–that is, one of the first movies to be self aware of its noir qualities. It’s plot is a light tracing of Double Indemnity, with sex added in bulk to remind viewers that we are, in fact, in the 1980’s. Ned is a double for Neff, amoral, gullible, and masculine. Matty Walker is a post-1970’s Phyllis, more diabolical, more intoxicating. Ted Danson and J.A. Preston act as Keyes split in two, the friend and the unbending law enforcer. The connections run through the entire movie, giving it definition. The problem with the film, though, is that it is not clear what this homage is trying to say. I know this blog isn’t meant to “review” films, but bear with me—thinking this through will help me in understanding the next films we watch.
In Body Heat, many of the references to early noirs just sit there, winks with nothing behind them. Take for example, Matty Walker. She is supposed to be the Femme Fatale character, and she succeeds in filling out the role. She manipulates every man in the story, uses her looks and femininity for her own ends, is appropriately cold in the beginning and then warms up to our weak male protagonist as the movie proceeds; there is not much in the movie that makes her stand out from the stock description. And that would be fine, if the reference had a point. But it is only descriptive; there is no criticism or re-imagining of the character type. She is shown to be the victor in the final shot of the film—the opposite of Phyllis’s fate– but it’s not for any real purpose. I don’t feel like I should hate Matty, or should be happy that she out-thought the police. I don’t feel anything for her really. The same thing goes for Ned; I acknowledge that he is gullible and inept, but I don’t pity or hate him. He just felt like a type.
The reason I’m writing about this is because I’m starting to think context affects the way I watch films, and that context is one of the reasons I disliked Body Heat. We’ve been talking about these character types and narrative strategies so much that Body Heat‘s straight forward presentation of them made me feel like I was reading a text book, or that I was watching a film made by someone who was in our class and wanted to show off what he/she had learned.
That being said, if I had seen Body Heat in 1981, with a decent but not precise knowledge of film up until that point, I might have loved it. It would have felt fresh to bring back the strategies of 40’s cinema. I would have recognized that the film was playing with types I knew existed, but had never really thought about. But when I watch it now I want the film to play with and challenge my knowledge, not just reference it.