You may have heard that what passes for flirtation these politically correct days – days in which, as it were, promiscuity is unprecedentedly tolerated – was once considered very good manners. That is because graces in a male-dominated society will naturally revolve around how to handle the fairer sex. Women, those soft and dainty purveyors of carnal gratification and hot meals, should merit the attention of any man in regular need of such services. And so an unspoken contract, one of billions on this earth, is underwritten; in return, a man will keep a woman plied with clothes, a nice home, and the freedom to consecrate her days to either vapid errands or, far more gloriously, absolutely nothing at all. Nothing at all? While we have often euphemized lazy, Philistine lords into "men of leisure" (men of profligate waste is more like it), our cautious contemporaries cannot abide such denomination for a certain ambitious sort of female. Women who, otherwise capable of forging their own paths, possess the monomaniacal aim of easy living and the steely will to obtain it – by means, we should add, of the right man. A hint at the stratagems afoot in this classic film.
Our plot is so simple we may wonder why its simplicity does not occur to its participants; or perhaps it does and is summarily dismissed as unexciting. As we begin, Ned Racine (William Hurt), a suggestible and very single attorney, is contemplating an inferno against the clear black night. In slow incineration is the Seawater Inn, an establishment where his "family used to eat ... twenty-five years ago," a sentimental sidelight that does nothing to persuade the flavor of the week that Racine could possibly be interested in a less casual arrangement. While we will spend most of Body Heat watching him entangle himself in double-dealings beyond his myopic vista, this first scene, featuring an airport employee called in no small coincidence Angela, reveals Racine's basic dilemma: he has not managed to escape the pastures of his forefathers ("My history's burning up out here"). Perhaps owing to financial restraints, his legal education was also in Florida, a fact he will rue when confronted with a character who not only attended an Ivy League law school, but who also scarcely made use of his degree. Why was Racine – whose name is French for "root" – then articled to a local practice? Because parochialization comprises the fate of most of us, even those supremely talented or supremely well-educated. For all his good looks and sexual energy, Ned Racine is average at most everything else, including his chosen profession, and we will come to suspect he suffers from that kiss of death for lawyers: a distinct inattention to detail. Which may explain why he muffles all whistles and bells that should go off upon immediate sight of the woman known as Matty Walker (Kathleen Turner).
Matty exudes an insouciant air which to some people smells like money and to others like sex, but which may be more properly termed ruthless ambition ("There are some men, once they get a whiff of you, they'll trail you like a hound"). Racine's pickup routine, one of the more celebrated in recent cinematic history, is never fended off by Matty, who does something a clever woman always does to an admirer: she mocks his strengths and praises his shortcomings. The method behind such an approach is brilliant, as men cannot expect compliments, especially about things they question of themselves. That is why of the four faults imputed to Racine – mental dullness, ugliness, laziness, and insatiable sexual appetite – Matty says that he doesn't look lazy, when a tendency to cut corners, both at work and at play, is precisely his tragic flaw. Whether Racine consciously cares about such a ploy, however, may be of secondary importance since, in her youth, Turner was inarguably one of the world's most voluptuous actresses, endued with a husky confidence rarely seen before or since. But Racine is also attracted to Matty Walker because he senses she, too, is someone new to the world of affluence, a person who succeeded in quitting her forefathers' pastures, if only to become the prize trophy of multimillionaire Edmund Walker (the late Richard Crenna). Many critics have alluded to Matty's odd description of Walker ("he's small and mean ... and weak") as indicative of her own deceptiveness, as Crenna was a tall, athletic man; but Matty is talking about the inner person, not the armored exterior, and in that regard Edmund Walker seems every bit the snake. A local prosecutor will later confirm Walker's unscrupulous business dealings, adding that he was a "bad guy" and that his death was "a positive thing for the world." His death? It gives nothing away to disclose that Racine and Matty embark upon the textbook definition of a 'torrid affair,' abetted in no small part by the unremitting heat. The same heat, another character comments, which makes people kill each other, with the rich, sixtyish husband of a dishy twenty-six-year-old a prime candidate for a very unfortunate accident.
Around this love triangle hover other interested parties: the aforementioned prosecutor (Ted Danson); a righteous police detective (J. A. Preston); an explosives expert (Mickey Rourke); Walker's scowling sister (Lanna Saunders); and a high school classmate of Matty's (Kim Zimmer) whose ego Racine unintentionally strokes. For differing reasons, none of these characters sees any sense in trusting Matty Walker; for other, somewhat related reasons, they think much the same of Ned Racine. Do Racine and Matty deserve one another? We ponder this destiny, and still ballot in Racine's favor: even if he is far from a perfect moral actor, some aspect of him induces pity; somehow we intuit that under different circumstances, Ned Racine would not be so liable to depravity. Yet when Matty relates, somewhat unconvincingly, all the troubles she had to overcome to find her way in life ("Whatever's the evilest thing you can think of me now, I did worse things then"), we remain unpersuaded of her redemption. There is also the unsubtle contrast of sound associated with each character: Matty's precious porch chimes, which we come to understand as a sort of alarm; and Racine's thumping, heavy-breathed runs along the sandy beaches that have always delimited his dreams. So when Matty so alluringly strolls from a concert band shell to the boardwalk, we know Racine will not be able to resist such temptation, and yet already realize that nothing good could come of such indulgence. This is why, in one scene, Ned Racine looks so out of place amidst an elevator full of lawyers: he has nothing of their drive, enthusiasm, or interest in their profession. As he says truthfully at several points, he doesn't even care about the money. All he wants is as great a distance as possible from his life hitherto, the "quick score" the prosecutor claims Racine has always sought, the chance to flee the sunny swamp that has been his entire existence. And all that Matty Walker wants is written beneath her yearbook photo.