Double Indemnity vs. Body Heat: A Sexy Showdown

Double Indemnity vs. Body Heat: A Sexy Showdown

I originally posted this on April 16, 2010, after screening Body Heat (Lawrence Kasdan, 1981) for my film noir students at the University of Toledo. I’m posting it again to help with the “For the Love of Film (Noir) Film Preservation Blogathon.” You may donate to the Film Noir Foundation by clicking on the image at the right. Thanks!

Tuesday night, while my Film Noir students and I screened Body Heat (Lawrence Kasdan, 1981), I tweeted twice. First, while watching the opening credits, I wondered whether my students would recognize Mickey Rourke. As expected, they didn’t. Second, after the three major sex scenes had passed, I tweeted that Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944), the classical film noir that Body Heat attempts to revive, is still sexier. After the film, I informed my students that I sent out these thoughts into the Twittersphere and subsequently asked them if they agreed at all with my second tweet: “Do you find that Double Indemnity is sexier than Body Heat, or can you at least understand why someone might come to that conclusion?”

At first, there were some confused looks and mostly silence. Then, some began to shake their heads side to side; no, they didn’t see it. Finally, one student spoke up, “But Body Heat is so smooth, and Double Indemnity is so rough.” I asked for clarification, “Smooth and rough, what do you mean?” My student referenced the slow, seductive storyline and the silky, sensuous curves that appear during Body Heat‘s opening credits. “Everything’s so smooth and flowing unlike Double Indemnity, which is so fast-paced, choppy, and clear-cut.” Now I understood what he meant, and I even agree with his assessment…to a point.

Indeed, Kasdan’s Body Heat is slow and drowsy. It reinforces this, our textbook points out, via its “slow, gliding tracking shots and lap dissolves” as well as its “low-lit, mutedly chiaroscuro interiors” (Spicer 151). These stylistic elements along with the slow jazz underscoring and all of that heat and fog — good lord, the fog! — nicely emphasize the narrative’s sleepy (or smooth) pace. Furthermore, William Hurt’s lethargic-sounding voice perfectly complements this mood. Conversely, Double Indemnity is active, urgent, snappy, bustling; it has bite from the start. Its first three shots, for goodness sake, feature insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) speeding recklessly down the street, running stop lights, and weaving frantically around other vehicles. And where is he headed? The Pacific All Risk insurance company. Right, Neff will risk it all, quickly, and we know this from the beginning.

So, yes, I agree with my student’s comment that Body Heat is “smooth” and Double Indemnity is “rough.” But does smooth = sexy in this case? Other students chimed in eventually, responding to my question with, “But the passion is so clear in Body Heat. I mean, Ned (Hurt) completely shattered Matty’s (Turner) window to get to her.” Yes, he did. Yes. He. Did. That scene as well as the other three or four sex scenes is memorable and, sure, sexy. But at what cost to the narrative, characters, and overall aim of the revivalist postmodern noir, or that which attempts to recreate the mood and atmosphere of classical noir? Where’s the feisty banter, the innuendo? Where’s the foreplay? Much of this, I would argue, is virtually absent from Body Heat, or at least it’s relegated to lewd jokes, bad puns, and too-straightforward dialogue. But, it’s all there in Double Indemnity. And, man, is it sexy.

Take for example, Ned and Matty’s initial encounter at the outdoor concert (depicted above). After Matty establishes for Ned and the audience that she’s “a married woman” but not necessarily a “happily married woman,” the flirting begins:

Matty: [to Ned] You aren’t too smart, are you? I like that in a man.
Ned: What else do you like? Lazy? Ugly? Horny? I got ‘em all.
Matty: You don’t look lazy.

We get it: Ned looks horny (and perhaps smart). And Matty, with all of her hair-flipping, cigarette-smoking, and tight white clothing is horny too. It’s inevitable; they’ll get it on. The two continue, with Ned offering to buy Matty a drink:

Matty: I told you. I’ve got a husband.
Ned: I’ll buy him one too.
Matty: He’s out of town.
Ned: My favorite kind. We’ll drink to him.
Matty: Only comes up on weekends.
Ned: I’m liking him better all the time.

Of course you do, Ned, of course you do. Like so much of Body Heat (as well as postmodern noir in general), this conversation attempts to recreate the feel and tone of a classical noir. In this case, it’s Walter’s and Phyllis’s well-known conversation about “speeding” from Double Indemnity, which I’ll discuss below. The references to the threatening/absent husband and Ned’s/Neff’s arrogance are there, but they lack the panache of the original; everything’s so straightforward (e.g., “He’s out of town / I’m liking him better all the time”). Still, the two continue. Matty says Ned may buy her a cherry snow-cone, which she ultimately spills on herself (below):

Matty: Would you get me a paper towel or something? Dip it in some cold water.
Ned: Right away. I’ll even wipe if off for you.
Matty: You don’t want to lick it?

Wow, Matty, wow.

An author at Film Noir of the Week writes that one of the most captivating aspects of film noir is its sexual tension — a tension “that is achieved by very small means” like a look or a snippet of dialogue. I think, for example, of the first time the Swede (Burt Lancaster) meets Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner) at the piano in The Killers (1946) or when “Slim” (Lauren Bacall) asks Steve (Humphrey Bogart) if he “knows how to whistle” in To Have and Have Not (1945). But this tension seems absent from most of today’s noirs and thrillers; there’s often “only sexuality, no tension,” the Noir of the Week author posits. I agree, and would point you to Blue Velvet (1986), Fatal Attraction (1989), Basic Instinct (1991), and Body Heat as examples, postmodern noirs that interpret sexual tension as dirty-talk, bad puns, (disturbed) sexuality, and gratuitous nudity. Here are a couple more Ned/Matty conversations before I move forward with Double Indemnity:

Matty: My temperature runs a couple of degrees high, around a hundred. I don’t mind. It’s the engine or something.
Ned: Maybe you need a tune up.
Matty: Don’t tell me. You have just the right tool.

And one more:

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.

Maybe you need a tune up? You shouldn’t wear that body? Sheesh.

Double Indemnity, on the other hand, handles sexual tension classily but with spice. Much of this, of course, stems from The Hays Code, which mandated that sex/sexuality be inferred not displayed (e.g., “Excessive and lustful kissing, lustful embraces, suggestive postures and gestures, are not to be shown; passion should so be treated that these scenes do not stimulate the lower and baser element; indecent or undue exposure is forbidden”). But ironically, these stipulations, although trite by today’s standards, are precisely what produce this sexier form of tension.

Take, for example, Walter and Phyllis’s initial meeting in Double Indemnity, he peddling insurance and she returning from a sunbath, wearing only a towel. Walter gazes upward at Phyllis and is immediately smitten (even with Stanwyck’s hideous blond wig). Then the puns, the tension, the dance, the foreplay begin.

Walter [to the towel-wrapped Phyllis]: The insurance ran out on the 15th. I’d hate to think of your having a smashed fender or something while you’re not, uh, fully covered.

One pun, the blocking, and Walter’s giddy smile exude more sexual tension than any of Ned’s risqué lines to Matty in Body Heat, which come off again as, well, horny. First, Walter’s pun, fully covered, suggests that (a) he’s quick on his feet (making puns, I mean), (b) he notices Phyllis in a sexual way, and (c) he’s a bit of a cad. The blocking here — Phyllis above, Walter below — also informs us who’ll have the upper hand in this relationship. Moreover, unlike Ned’s and Matty’s initial meeting in Body Heat in which there is no barrier dividing the two (the shattered window comes later), Phyllis’s iron railing, which physically separates the characters, indicates tension exists and one of them will have to penetrate it.

But perhaps the sexiest scene in Double Indemnity comes a few minutes later, after Phyllis and Walter have discussed the insurance, Phyllis’s husband, and Phyllis’s anklet, the latter of which Walter can’t take his eyes off. Walter is about to leave the house, when Phyllis suggests he return the following day to talk to Mr. Dietrichson:

Honestly, there’s little reason for me to explain why this exchange is sexy, right? But for the sake of argument, I will. These reckless driving metaphors not only recall Double Indemnity‘s opening (i.e., Walter speeding erratically down the street), but they also illustrate that the couple is accelerating into a relationship based almost solely on lust, power, and potential sadomasochism.[i]

Specifically, Peter William Evans notes that this feisty banter comes to us in a “three round verbal contest with a knockout victory for Phyllis” (The Book of Film Noir 169). In other words, sexual tension grows here because the two vie for power through wit and hypersexual innunedo. As Evans points out, Walter tries to gain control via his dialogue (“How fast was I going, officer? / Suppose you get down off your motorcycle and give me a ticket”). Moreover, unlike earlier at the bottom of the staircase, Walter positions himself above Phyllis here, “his face squarely in medium shot in front of the viewer” so he appears to be in control (169). Yet Phyllis takes over (Round 2), responding violently, rather sadomasochistically as she threatens to “whack him over the knuckles.” Walter likes this and dives in for one more round, but Phyllis delivers the final punchline (“Suppose you try putting [your head] on my husband’s shoulders”), thereby securing her power in this affair. It is a line that also suggests she will play the part of a dominatrix and he a needy cry-baby (169).

I could say more about how Double Indemnity is sexier than Body Heat, but this post is already 500 words more than I thought it would be. My next point would have been about the film’s post-coital shot (featured below) with Walter smoking a cigarette, reclining on his couch, legs spread apart, and Phyllis reapplying her lipstick; but I’ll refrain. You get the point, right? Instead, I’ll conclude by saying that for all of my criticism of Body Heat‘s lewd dialogue and bad puns, I like the film overall. I like its hazy feel. I like Hurt’s portrayal of the duped noir victim. I like its ambiguous ending, with Matty in her sunglasses resting comfortably (or is she?) on the beach. And mostly, I like that Body Heat, as my students learned this week, initiated postmodern film noir (or neo-noir) — a genre/mood/cycle/style/movement (yeah, noir is a highly contested construction) that, like classical noir, continues to explore “the underside of the American dream” (Spicer 149).

[i] A similar metaphor takes place a few minutes earlier when Neff says he likes Phyllis’s name but he’ll “have to drive it around the block a couple of times” before he decides for sure.