Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Body Heat: Which Film Noir antihero are you?

The emotional basis of the standard detective story was and always has been that murder will out and justice will be done. Its technical basis was the relative insignificance of everything except the final denouement. What led up to that was more or less passagework. The denouement would justify everything. The technical basis of the Black Mask type of story was that the scene outranked the plot, in the sense that a good plot was one which made good scenes.
Introduction to Trouble is My Business by Raymond Chandler

Chandler goes on to say that this is a perspective Black Mask writers shared with film makers. That's true, although we should recognize that what makes a good scene in a book and what makes a good scene in a movie are often not the same thing. The point is a good one, though, and we can see it well exemplified in Body Heat. If the video file were damaged such that you couldn't see the ending, you could still enjoy it. If aliens brainwashed everyone who had seen the movie and destroyed every existing copy so the end was unavailable, you could still enjoy it.

That's largely because it is a movie about the past. Ned's past, he tells us, "is burning up out there". He's surrounded by it, not as Jameson thinks, because he is unable to face the present, but because he is unable to face the past and it, like a ghost in a movie, will continue to haunt him until he listens.

We are all surrounded by the past. We aren't surrounded by history because history is a story about someone else. The past is something we own and the past is something that owns us.

A key moment in the opening stages of the movie is when Ned first sees Matty. He's wandering along the shore front on a very hot summer's night. It's a resort town and it's full of past. He comes to a bandstand and listens to the band. They are a shade too good to be honest, sounding a lot more like Count Basie's band than any actual community band ever could. And the song they are playing is "That Old Feeling"!

It's a tune that everyone knows so we hear the lyrics in our head:
I saw you last night and got that old feeling
When you came in sight, I got that old feeling
And, just at that moment he sees Matty. For the first time. The song is not about seeing someone for the first time. It's about seeing an old lover and realizing that you are still in love with them. That doesn't matter because we, and Ned, think we know what the old feeling is. He is in love with this new woman and must have her.

It's erotic love in the Greek sense. It unbidden and it hits him like a sickness and seems to drive him to his fate.

But what old feeling is it really? And who is it for? Because who is Matty? She isn't who he/we thinks she is.

Initially, she reminds us of Lana Turner playing Cora Smith in The Postman Always Rings Twice because of the white dress she is wearing. Soon, however, she will seem more like Phyllis Dietrichson from Double Indemnity. (Both these are based on James M. Cain novels and there is probably something worth noting about that but I don't know much about Cain.)

Originally, the script called for two murder attempts just as happens in Postman but they scrubbed one when reviewing the dailies. It slowed down the action too much. My point in mentioning it is to show that the confusion was intentional. Contrary to what is often said of it, Body Heat is not a remake of anything. The movie, like Matty Walker, is deliberately hiding what it is really up to by pretending to be something it isn't; the movie deliberately trades on mistaken identity. We see it, we get "that old feeling", meaning we think we know this story already, and so we think we know how it has to go.

The effect is a little like those quizzes that we see all over the Internet that invite us to find out which character from a show or movie you are. The trick is that anyone who sat down to do a Which character from a particular film noir are you? quiz already knows who these characters are and the temptation is to fill out the answers so you get to be Sam Spade rather than Miles Archer. Who, after all, wants to be the chump? But the trick the movie is playing on us is that it keeps shifting ground so we don't know which film noir we're in and, consequently, we don't know how to play our part; what Matty does to Ned Racine, the movie does to us.

Only one of the classic film noir is called Out of the Past but that title would work on many others in the genre. A recurring theme in film noir is the guy who is trying to shake off, forget or hide his past and that past gets him every time. But what is Ned's past? What is it that's "burning up out there"?

Well, it's his sense of being not good enough. That's the thing that keeps haunting him—he can't admit he has needs because he thinks that will lead others to abandon him. When Ned reveals his needs to Matty early on he immediately has to undercut himself:
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.
Actually admitting he wants love is too dangerous.

Robert Glover, in a brilliant book, says that nice guys are guys who don't think it's okay to be just as they are. They believe they have to hide their failings because they believe they are bad. They assume that anyone who really gets to know them will reach the same conclusion. You may think Ned isn't terribly good at hiding his inner shame above but he's seeking approval through self deprecation. Lots of people do this.

Glover identifies two strategies nice guys use to hide their inner shame. One, obviously, is to suppress it. Another is to exaggerate how bad we are and essentially defy others to prove us wrong. That's Ned.

Poor Ned, he has to live with constant reminders that he isn't good enough and he hides it with a lot of acting out bad-boy behaviour. The point of all this behaviour is to get approval from women and the most important kind of approval is sex.

One of the most revealing moments is the anal sex scene. We see Matt's face in pain and her hands gripping the satin sheets (a lovely touch that) as she just barely endures what she is going through and it is very clear to us that she isn't enjoying it. Ned senses this too but, when he asks if she is okay, he mixes up the message: she says, "Don't" and "stop" and these are two separate statements but Ned hears them as a single sentence and starts driving harder. Why can't he see it? Because what really matters to him is the approval; what matters to him is that a woman has granted her approval by agreeing not just to sex but to anal sex. This external agreement "confirms" that he is the nice guy that his internal sense of self perpetually denies him.

Glover reminds us that nice guys aren't really very nice at all and Ned confirms this over and over again in the movie.

The scene that separates Body Heat from all the pale imitations that it inspired is the restaurant scene where Edmund unwittingly talks Ned into murdering him. Edmund accomplishes this by tapping into Ned's weakness. He does so because he has seen Matty playing with Ned's lighter and Edmund's possessiveness obliges him to drive it home that Ned can never have Matty. Edmund thinks he is winning because Ned confesses that he is just the sort of weakling that Edmund took Matty away from in the first place. But those of us who know the nice guy modus operandi, know that this confession is really just a way of hiding inner shame; Ned's joking about himself masks a violent rage at his not being able to get what he wants. And then they both laugh and we are chilled to the bone.

Ned is so firm in his conviction that he is a nice guy that he insists that he and Matty not "pretend" that Edmund deserves to be killed. That's a beautiful example of the lengths we can go to when doing really monstrous things but needing to believe we are nice guys. The odd thing is that it is sort of true: it is self-hatred that drives Ned to kill Edmund.

Okay, I could just keep going but I have to stop somewhere. If we go back to Raymond Chandler, we see that he has a solution to the problem he describes most crime fiction suffers from.
As to the emotional basis of the hard-boiled story, obviously it does not believe that murder will out and justice will be done—unless some very determined individual makes it his business to see that justice is done. The stories were about the men who made it happen. They were apt to be hard men, and what they did, whether they were called police officers, private detectives or newspaper men, was hard, dangerous work.
Well, that's a nice little fantasy but it hardly matches what actually happens in a typical Raymond Chandler story where, more often than not, the detective is more concerned with a distorted personal standards that had little to do with, as Chandler himself put it, with any scruples or ethics.

When Ned digs the truth out about Mary Ann, he isn't pursuing justice. He isn't likely to get it as, best case scenario, the only way to prove he wasn't responsibly for one murder would be to implicate himself more deeply for the other. The very most he can hope for in digging out the truth about Mary Ann is a little self knowledge. That, however, is something.


  1. This is a very good analysis, I want to read it again. I wish it--or something like it--had been available when the movie first came out, the reviews I read missed all of this, I guess I'm not surprised. Makes me want to go to Blockbuster rent it and see it--yet again. I could never quite figure out why I found Body Heat so compelling, I'm beginning to understand, its much deeper than it looks at first glance.

  2. When I first saw the movie I picked up immediately on Edmund's telling Ned that men have to "do what is necessary" ostensibly to accomplish their goals. At the time, I saw that more in a global context, that this is how our world was becoming and that all that mattered was achieving one's objective regardless of any moral or ethical considerations. It didn't dawn on me then that it was also--and more to the point--about them! I have to watch this movie again!