Ned: I need someone to take care of me, someone to rub my tired muscles, smooth out my sheets.
Matty: Get married.
Ned: I just need it for tonight.
–from “Body Heat” starring William Hurt as Ned and Kathleen Turner as Matty
From the sex to the crime to the moody saxophone music to Florida’s hot summer days when small-town lawyer Ned Racine meets the married, but overtly sexual Matty Walker, “Body Heat” was, in 1981, the kind of film everyone talked about. Men wanted to be Ned even though things ended up badly. Women wanted to be Matty because she got everything she wanted.
When I watch this film today on DVD, it still plays well. I do like noir films. I did grow up in Florida in the days before air conditioning when everyone sweated when the temperature outside reached 98.6 degrees or higher. And, John Barry’s music is the kind of music I remember hearing in blues bars on those summer nights when I was hoping to meet somebody like Matty Walker who didn’t want me to kill a husband for her. But it’s more than that, though what is is, is hard to define
Movies have become more permissive since 1981. Skimpy clothing, more innuendos, racier language than Ned Racine ever used, and more body heat than most people experienced in “real life.” Think of it: The near-nudity on “Survivor” is more extravagant, the language on “Hells Kitchen” is more profane, and the urgent sexual encounters on “Grey’s Anatomy” are more frequent than in most of the films we saw thirty-two years ago.
My wife and I saw “Body Heat” in a packed theater with another married couple. Afterwards, all of us commented about the same sexual encounter when the audience was stunned into an overt hush. When Ned throws a porch chair through the front door of Matty Walker’s house while she stands inside at the foot of the stairs waiting, leading to wildly hot sex in the foyer, nobody in the audience moved, chewed popcorn, breathed, looked at anyone else, or even risked allowing a tangible thought to enter their brains.
If you saw this film thirty-two years ago or even last week, that scene may well be hard-wired into your memory of movie moments. Watching the movie now, my experience of the film is partly based on how I reacted to it with five hundred other people that night. I can still feel that stunned hush.
As an author, I look closely at what produces a stunned hush in readers and movie goers. It need not be sex. It may be a car chase, a serene moment in a beautiful setting, or a conversation in a bar while a a bluesy enchantress sings out her troubles. What exactly makes for the perfect combination of setting, action, and words to thoroughly capture (and control) the heart and soul of a reader or a viewer?
Perhaps you remember a film or a novel with a scene that has stayed with you long after you first saw it or read it. Maybe the scene is tied together in your memory with the weather, the daily news, the people you were with, and the kind of day you were having when that fictional moment stopped you in your tracks. We know it when we see it and we know it when we read it…
Ned: Maybe you shouldn’t dress like that.
Matty: This is a blouse and a skirt. I don’t know what you’re talking about.
Ned: You shouldn’t wear that body.
Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of four novels, including the recently released “The Seeker,” a story with a high degree of body heat between the covers.