News & Views

My Favorite Crime Movie: Body Heat

This is the first in our member-written series: My Favorite Crime Movie.

I graduated from the University of Florida law school at the end of 1977 and stayed in Gainesville for almost another year, trying to figure out what to do – a process I've since learned may pause but never quite ends. North Central Florida was rough and rural, but charmingly so for someone with northern sensibilities. It wasn’t just the palm trees. There were blackwater rivers, live oaks hung with Spanish moss, and sluggish ponds where gators lazed with only their eyes breaking the surface.

When Body Heat was released in 1981, I was three years back in New York and working as an editor for a legal publishing company. My Florida memories had faded among life decisions, career concerns, and sputtering attempts at writing fiction. Body Heat revived them. I was a runner in law school, and when Ned Racine (William Hurt) jogged on the docks I could feel the searing heat of the Florida sun through his sweat-heavy FSU tee shirt. When Peter Lowenstein (Ted Danson) lifted his customary two glasses of iced tea off the coffee shop counter, I could taste that chilled sweetness at the back of my throat. And when Ned described his law practice as allowing him to send his shirts out and eat in a nice restaurant once a month if he didn't order an appetizer, I remembered several classmates who struggled to build law practices in the sawgrass and palmetto.

But the movie did more than just conjure up memories. It told a great story. You see Ned embark on an affair with the married Matty Walker (Kathleen Turner), who stands to inherit a fortune if her husband had the common decency to die. Can Ned trust her? Should he trust her? You suspect not, but you cannot say why other than the fact that these types of affairs, and the murder plots they spawn, never turn out well.

Ultimately, the framing of Ned Racine is less surprising than the reason Matty Walker picked him as her mark. She doesn’t settle on him because he’s horny or because he’s barely scraping by in his backwater law practice. She targets him because his sloppy lawyering once landed him in a serious malpractice suit involving the bane of all law students: the Rule Against Perpetuities. With memories of both the Florida and New York bar exams still fresh in my mind, this was a harrowing thought.

Oh, yes. The clown.

As part of the murder plot, Ned travels to South Florida to establish an alibi. As he stands on a street corner, a convertible approaches, driven by a clown. If the clown simply passed in the background of the frame, it would have been an obvious symbol that Ned is a fool. But the scene subtly shifts into Ned's perspective, and the camera becomes Ned’s eyes, following the clown as he passes. We sense that he notices the clown because he already suspects, subconsciously, that he is being played for a fool.

You probably have had the experience of seeing something that appears to be an omen. It’s a subjective experience — you have something important on your mind and you interpret some random sight in terms of that thing. Life is messy, but art shouldn’t be, which makes it difficult to transpose that sense of foreboding onto the page or the screen without it seeming trite or contrived.

The clown scene in Body Heat nails it.

—Kevin Egan

Kevin Egan is the author of eight novels, including his latest, A Shattered Circle, and Midnight, a Kirkus Best Book of 2013. He works in the iconic New York County Courthouse, which serves as the setting and inspiration for most of his recent fiction. Several of his courthouse mystery stories have appeared in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. His short fiction also has been published in Thuglit, Rosebud, and the Westchester Review.

4 Responses

  1. Brad Connolly says:

    “You aren’t too smart, are you? I like that in a man.”

  2. Jace says:

    A great read, Kevin. The clown in the convertible is perfect. That movie is fraught with symbolism.
    When Ned jumps at the sound of a jail door — foreshadowing!
    When Matty is at Ned’s office when they decide to murder her husband — we see the floor is patterned like a chess board — Ned is being played!
    When Ted Danson and the cop go by Ned’s place, and the cop picks up a toy duck — symbolizing that Ned is now a sitting duck.
    It’s a great movie. Thanks for writing about it. Now I need to see it again.

  3. Triss Stein says:

    I haven’t seen it since it was a brand new movie. You have inspired me to take another look with a mystery-writer’s eyes.

  4. Joe Guglielmelli says:

    And a star-making performance from Mickey Rourke. His great line from a film filled with great lines “any time you try a decent crime, you got fifty ways you’re gonna fuck up. If you think of twenty-five of them, then you’re a genius… and you ain’t no genius.”

    Great movie. Feels fresh & new; never feels like a retread of Double Indemnity or the other great femme fatale movies