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During the Golden Age of Hollywood, blooming writers-turned-directors were ecstatic to find new ways of depicting a character’s thoughts for their audience. Though eager to produce a new wave of storytelling through their work, directors were faced with government restrictions surrounding Blacklisting and Hays Code. With these restrictions held in place with an iron fist, themes of sexuality and violence were seen as suspicious and not openly accepted. Faced with this dilemma and the appetite to bend the politically correct standards held in place, directors were forced to discover new ways to tell their stories and depict their envisionments without being disdained. This continued to be an uphill battle for storytelling until 1966, when the rating system of the Motion Picture Association of America emerged, recoiling the restriction on explicit acts of sex and violence from reaching the big screen. With this new emancipation, the ways in which film noir was depicted forever changed and finally permitted directors to pave their newfound cinematic path that would both entice and frighten the world.
Noir, a term coined by French movie critiques of the 1940s, has seen its heyday long ago, but that did not stop the infamous cynicism, erotica, and hard-boiled dialogue from giving birth to a multitude of films that have been produced in the past century. Double Indemnity, directed by Billy Wilder, is one such film that has seen its plot, themes, and sexual innuendos explored once again in the 1981 film Body Heat. Though both films demonstrate central themes associated with the blended genre of noir, their similarities also introduce key differences that parade the progression of cinematic acceptance. Double Indemnity demonstrates that what was restricted in the realm of contemporary Hollywood films has has always been there, hidden in dialogue and shadows, and waiting for the liberation of permissible storytelling. In comparison, Body Heat is the liberation that took a seemingly carbon copy femme fatal plot and rejuvenated its storytelling through ways that symbolized the birth of a new era.
Double Indemnity is the tale of two lovers who become lost in a sea of infidelity, murder, and betrayal. Within this film, a promiscuous, married woman (Phyllis Dietrichson) meets an insurance salesman (Walter Neff) who has come to her home to discuss automobile insurance with her husband. After the first encounter, both subjects begin a spiralling decent into a lustful chase for wealth and happiness. Unhappy with her cruel husband, Phyllis extends a hand to her new lover and begs for a resolution. Charmed by her good looks and charisma, Walter Neff agrees to help. Though seemingly benign at first encounter, the femme fatal of Phyllis’ character emerges through idenitfying how she desires liberation from her husband: murder.
The plot to kill Phyllis’ husband unfolds, and thus ensues the ultimate demise of our femme fatal. Our two protagonists, Walter and Phyllis, create an elaborate blueprint of how, when, and where they will dispose of her dreadful spouse. Though, because we understand this is a noir film it inevitably ends in the deterioration both character’s morals, like many of the films made during this time, and chaos soon takes hold of the world they inhabit. One of the major themes explored, female sexualty, creates deep tension between the two deranged lovers. Phyllis desperately pleads to Walter that she needs him whenever they are not around one another, but he makes it clear that they must not be seen together in order to pull off a heist of such unparalleled proportions.
As viewers, we would expect this film to include sex and violence to progress its plot; however, due to this film being constrained by the limitations in society’s morale, the themes central to film noir and the femme fatal character were downplayed to become more politically acceptable. These underlying themes are still hinted at through the use of creative dialogue, attributes of female characters, and constructive use of black and white film. It would seem that Phyllis accepts the role of men in her world as powerful people, but she knows they can be manipulated easily through carefully calculated sexual prodding. This sort of control she holds over men is the exact archetype that is used to define many of the femme fatales seen in the Golden Age of Hollywod films. However Phyllis’ sexual nature was just one of the many ways filmmakers were employing different perspectives of women in their films.
German Expressionism is a term relating to the use of light and shadows as a means of conveying a character’s deeper psychological or ulterior motivations, and this idea plays a key role in most noir films during the Golden Age. In Todd Erickson’s text “Kill Me Again: Movement Becomes Genre” he describes this style as “…deep focus photography, extreme camera angles, optical effects, flash-backs, and voice over narration… (these are) cinematic components of the overall film noir movement, a movement that darkened the mood, or tone, in virtually all of the cinematic products of Hollywood from that era.” Deep, hard shadows and low key lighting are noir tropes that have helped to enhance an audience’s understanding of themes being explored in each film. When Neff has his first encounter with Phyllis he narrates to himself about how, “I was thinking about that dame upstairs, and the way she had looked at me, and wanted to see her again, close, without that silly staircase between us.” In that specific scene, we see Phyllis as a spectacle of beauty, having her face lit by high key lighting allows the viewer to be drawn in, like the sirens from Greek mythology. Like any good enchantress, she spins us along her web and as the story develops she becomes exceedingly low key lit, perhaps this was used to express the true devilish intentions that were underlying Phyllis’ character.
Lawrence Kasdan’s 1981 film Body Heat presents a nearly identical story line that reflects all of the great themes, cinematography, and dangerous female characteristics found in Double Indemnity but turns those ideas on its head. Body Heat tells the story of Ned Racine, an incompetent lawyer who finds himself ensnared by the beautiful Matty walker. Within the first 30 minutes of the film, it is quite evident that Body Heat has taken great liberty to pull it’s plot from Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity. Featuring a similarly shady vixen, sexual tension, and a dubious plot to take out Matty’s husband, the film would appear to be identical to its parent. While Double Indemnity cannot cross into overt sexually explicit territory, Body Heat leaves nothing to the audience’s imagination.
The aforementioned staircase scene in Double Indemnity that served as the focal point for drawing Walter Neff into Phyllis’ web of sexual desire also found its place in Body Heat. Male protagonist Ned Racine throws a chair through the front door of Matty Walker’s house after she asked him to leave, then the two have an explicit sex scene that takes place on her staircase. This scene, with it’s dramatic shift in lighting, sweaty bodies, and violent love making presents a sort of new age outlook on what it means to be a woman with sexual desire. The sight of Phyllis Dietrichson in only a towel in Double Indemnity would have caused enough scandal at the time of its release. Body Heat pushes this further. Nudity is a significant aspect of Body Heat and is used as not only a respective “kiss my ass” to the old Hollywood status quo, but is also used as way to express the individuality and freedom women experienced during the feminist movement of the sixties and seventies.
Todd Erickson’s “Kill Me Again: Movement Becomes Genre” explores the idea of female liberation when he quoted Good Housekeeping publisher Alan Waxenberg, “…a cycle began in the early fifties with the infancy boom created a societal pressure that forced women to be nothing more than homemakers. ‘The sixties and seventies were years of experimentation, taking women away from the home.” Though not much had changed in terms of dialogue between the years of Double Indemnity’s creation and that of Body Heat, this fierce recognition of the female body was a critical theme that Lawrence Kasdan explored. Where filmmakers of the noir Golden Years tip-toe around sexual activity, Body Heat embraces the limitless potential the nude form offers. Body Heat also takes place during an agonizing heat wave in Florida, which the film uses to promote sexual themes even more so with the added emphasis on sweaty bodies.
The 1960’s to the 1970’s saw the use of color film stock as it begun to pick up in popularity, and as it did, so too ended the “classic” noir narrative style found in films of the forties and fifties and their use of black and white film (save for very select few films that experimented with color). Todd Erickson astutely noted this change of style when he wrote: “American filmmakers were unable and unwilling to spontaneously translate the cinematic vocabulary of the film noir to the widescreen , color format that was becoming the norm in American cinema’s competition with television for the viewing audience.
“Television, with its demand for full lighting and close-ups, gradually undercut the German influence,” stresses Paul Schrader in ‘Notes on Film Noir,’ “and color cinematography was, of course, the final blow to the ‘noir’ look.” (p. 195) Incorporating the use of color film stock also meant a filmmaker was giving a film more freedom of expression, and as a filmmaker it makes sense that the color palette you choose reflects the choices and lives of the characters inhabiting your movie. The overarching color red always signifies the underlying themes of desire and lust prevalent in Body Heat.
The color red is representative of love, strength and danger which perfectly complements the female lead in Body Heat. Though an audience could view Matty Walker as a replacement to the older femme fatale archetype, what if she is not? Though the term “noir” was coined by French critics of the mid-fifties, “neo-Noir” exists within the universe of noir itself but with an updated spin on the classic style that was seen in forties and fifties. Matty Walker is one such neo-noir dame that has also been updated, and requires new terminology to define her. According to film critic James Lilek, femme fatales are, “…the kind of dames who can wear floor-length gowns and look completely naked. The kind with hair piled up on their head like compliant serpents, or falling down in smooth lustrous waves. Dames with hard faces and mocking smiles and eyes that sized you up and found you wanting… but you’d do, for now.’
These female leads are sexually viable women who understand their sensuality and use it to seduce men. Though they are sexually attractive and are created mainly for the fixation of the male gaze, there exists within this noir universe the “vamp” as well. A vamp is liken to that of the femme fatale but with a raunchier twist. Vamps do not just seduce, they are sexually driven women found within the realm of neo-noir films who are considered “rotten to the core.”
In this context, I would argue the lead for Body Heat is actually a vamp, a striking difference from the femme fatale portrayed in Double Indemnity. Matty uses her sexual advances constantly and in a very straight-forward way, but her ulterior motives dig much deeper. The audience eventually finds out about Matty killing another woman and using her identity to escape punishment for her crimes. She is ruthless and will do anything to appease her insatiable appetite for power. This allows for her to distract and titillate the male protagonist in ways that were never ventured in movies like Double Indemnity. A vamp asks you to believe she will ruin your life and fuck your brains out, but a femme fatale only alludes to the damage she can cause. A femme fatale, like Phyllis, might threaten but she never attacks in plain sight. Where Phyllis Dietrichson allows the male audience to gaze upon her beauty and fall into her entrapment, Matty Walker’s characterization is backed with aggressive sexual advances and total control of the male lead. She doesn’t allude, she exudes primal sexuality and danger. These two differences are the core of where the two movies diverge, but they also reflect how the films have changed over time.
Film noirs gave women permission to be as dangerous or as bad as the men they shared the screens with. As the playing field leveled, women found their roles in films become varied and diverse. Both films end on two completely different notes and both films reflect changing attitudes towards women and their identities. Body Heat’s Matty Walker is seen lounging on a beach, enjoying the fruits of her vicious labor. Double Indemnity’s Phyllis Dietrichson is shot in the stomach and killed. Despite how layered women in film noir seem, it would appear that every film is filled with its own version of sexism.
The films seem to all end the same: a woman gets what she deserves for owning her autonomy. Though Matty’s manipulation of her male lead, Ned, ends with him in prison, Walter Neff confesses his crimes and passes away next to a dear friend. Two very contradicting ends lead us to our own devices and what to make of the conclusion. Perhaps that is the closest thing we have to a noir-esque ending that allows both the man and the woman to reflect on their actions. If it were any happier, it would not be a noir at all.
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