1981? Really? Damn.
It's hard to do better than the poster copy to describe this film.
"It's a hot summer. Ned Racine is waiting for something special to happen. And when it does ... he won't be ready for the consequences."
The "something special" is Kathleen Turner. Now, what's amazing here is that although Kathleen Turner is quite lovely, she's not the most gorgeous creature on earth -- until the film convinces you she is. Screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan -- hey, wait a minute, I bet this is online:
EXT. THE BAND SHELL - NIGHT
The Miranda Beach High School Orchestra is playing to a
full, sweating house; the audience is a sea of orange
programs fluttering away as fans. People come and go
The atmosphere is as innocent and informal as the music
the band is playing now.
Racine leans against the back rail, smoking, his eyes
playing over the scene with no expectations.
Then, down near the center aisle, a WOMAN rises. As the
band plays on, this extraordinary, beautiful woman, in a
simple white dress, moves down the aisle. She moves
wonderfully. The dress clings to her body in the heat.
Racine watches, mesmerized, as she walks directly toward
him. She passes within a few inches of him, her eyes
lowered. Racine's body sways a moment as she goes by, as
though buffeted by some force. But they do not touch.
She goes out onto the Beachfront walkway.
"sways as she goes by", that's a beautiful, dense bit of writing there. Never mind how Kasdan establishes in just four pages -- four minutes of screentime -- that Racine is a lout who's lived in the same shitty Florida town for his whole life, sleeps around, and is a shitty lawyer to boot. Four. Effortless. Pages.
(Oh, and if you're going to watch the movie, don't read the script first.)
The main appeal of the movie for me is that it's a master class in terse, expressive dialogue. There's not a line that isn't doing five jobs at once. When you go back and watch this, you have to watch it twice -- because the first time, you spend the whole movie going "Oh, that's where that famous line is from." I can watch the scene where Racine meets Maddy a hundred times and never get bored. Oh, it makes me want to quit writing, but I'm never bored.
When you talk about Noir, you're talking roughly from The Maltese Falcon to Touch of Evil, give or take. Talking about Neo-Noir, one could argue the "wave" begins at Blood Simple -- but this is such a perfect example, it's hard to consider it an outlier.
Because the primary difference -- and yes, this is pretty early and rough, stay with me -- is that in Noir, the characters are trapped in a corrupt world. Corruption is their operating system. Eventually the rot destroys (most) of them. Sometimes their own quest for virtue detroys them, sometimes merely being virtuous destroys them, because we are all sinners in the hand of an angry God.
In Neo-noir, people make choices to fuck up what is usually a pretty innocuous status quo (and there's very rarely a quest for virtue). In Noir, the question is "who's clean and who's dirty?" In Neo-noir, the question is "Are these people as smart as they think they are?" And the answer, of course, is "no."
Neo-noir is about hubris. To steal from the role-playing game Fiasco, which I state unapologetically is the finest bit of writing on neo-noir I've encountered in years, neo-noir is about "powerful ambition and poor impulse control." The perfect neo-noir quote is in this film, spoken by the criminal Mickey Roarke: "Anytime you try a decent crime, there is fifty ways to fuck up. If you think of twenty-five of them you're a genius. And you're no genius."
Make a drink with some tequila in it, and watch Body Heat. It's your Netflix Instant Streaming recommendation for this weekend. And in the comments, your favorite cinematic fiasco.
(NOTE: If you're curious about Fiasco the game, there's a great two-part writeup here and here.)