1981, Lawrence Kasdan
The 1980s were a bit of a dead time for popular American cinema. Sure, several established names like Woody Allen hit creative peaks and delivered some genuine knockout pictures but in terms of emerging directors there just wasn’t the kind of excitement that came from the decades surrounding it. The ’70s are perhaps the finest decade the country has ever seen, as major directors brought an edge and grittiness that produced an abundance of intelligent, visceral and resonating works. American cinema was revolutionized in the ’70s and until the ’00s I don’t think they had been nearly as exciting since. Then the ’90s of course brought the independent movement which saw massively influential names like Steven Soderbergh, Jim Jarmusch and Quentin Tarantino once again redefine the game with their unique visions and distinctive voices.
Stuck in the middle, the ’80s took a step back from that dark edge of the ’70s and certainly didn’t come close to the creative energy of the ’90s. Instead we were given directors like Rob Reiner and James L. Brooks, who somehow got massive amounts of critical and audience adoration despite their insistence on delivering one hopelessly flat, vanilla picture after another. Thankfully, the boom of creative and much more interesting voices in the ’90s resulted in these kind of directors being quietly dismissed to the point where now they’re left turning out flops that are barely seen and even less liked such as How Do You Know and The Magic of Belle Isle; but for that unfortunate decade it was these kind of films that dominated in terms of ticket purchases and critical accolades.
Among those uninspired voices that took the main stage in the ’80s was Lawrence Kasdan, who after meeting great success writing The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark decided to turn his eye towards directing. These days you’re likely either dismissing or disliking his films like Dreamcatcher or his latest Darling Companion, but he was a major player in his first decade on the scene with popular works such as The Big Chill and The Accidental Tourist leading him to multiple Oscar nominations, including two for Best Picture for each of those. While these easily digestible pieces of fluff fit in line with the works of people like Reiner and Brooks, Kasdan’s debut feature actually showed off a talent with much more of a dark shade to him and someone who had so much more promise that he was never able to come near again.
It’s always exciting when a director comes right out of the gate with a remarkably impressive picture that demonstrates great potential for someone who will produce memorable works for years to come, and always a major disappointment when that debut ends up being by far the best thing they’ve ever done. Such is the case with Kasdan though, and his first effort Body Heat, a scorching neo-noir that set the screen ablaze. Written and directed solely by Kasdan himself, Body Heat takes the basic framework of Billy Wilder’s classic Double Indemnity and imbues its own unique voice, primarily in the form of the Florida setting during the midst of a brutal heatwave. Each character is glistening with sweat in practically every scene, and when leading stars William Hurt and Kathleen Turner (in her debut performance) join forces in the bedroom it almost feels as if the heat will melt right off the frame. You can feel that sweat pouring off the actors as they play out the noir thrills of schemes, betrayals and sexual power games.
When it comes to male actors I don’t think anyone dominated the ’80s the way that Hurt did, giving one astonishing performance after another that constantly rose above the material that he was given and this was an early demonstration of the kind of waves he was about to make for the rest of the decade. Playing a somewhat inept, sleazy lawyer who falls under the spell of Turner’s femme fatale, Hurt gets you to root for a character who at his core isn’t particularly worth rooting for. Part of that is due to his inherent skills as an actor (which were relatively untested at the time), and part of it comes from Turner’s turn as the dame who drives her seductive claws into him and refuses to let go.
Body Heat plays out a relatively standard narrative of the noir genre, but being credited as one of, if not the first true “neo-noir”, Kasdan is able to pull out the kind of sex-soaked drama that frankly wasn’t allowed to be seen on screen during the genre’s golden age decades prior. He brings noir into a new age here with a debut picture that thrills, intoxicates and delivers on every drop of promise it opens up with. Along with Hurt and Turner there is room made for several memorable supporting characters, the best of them being a low-level con played by Mickey Rourke in a performance that isn’t given much screentime but seers itself into your memory for long after the picture is over. Rourke was another actor who really dominated this decade (I’d say him and Hurt were the two finest of the era), and here we get an early dose of the kind of incomparable screen presence he was born with.
While I can admit to having a slight affection for the vanilla mixing of comedy and drama in Kasdan’s follow-up, The Big Chill, there’s no denying that he never again came near the kind of skill he demonstrated in his first feature. Taking the best of a forgotten genre and updating it for the new age, Body Heat oozes raw sexuality and the actors deliver on the heated emotions of the filmmaker’s ace script. The ’80s were a sad time for popular American cinema, but this stands strong as one of the finest American debuts of all-time and the only disappointment in it is the fact that Kasdan never lived up to the potential he was bursting with here.