Body Heat: William Hurt’s Lawyerly Seersucker
William Hurt as Ned Racine, unscrupulous attorney
Palm Beach, Florida, Summer 1981
Film: Body Heat
Release Date: August 28, 1981
Director: Lawrence Kasdan
Costume Designer: Renié
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
I couldn’t let the hottest summer of my lifetime end without talking about Body Heat, especially as Lawrence Kasdan’s sweaty directorial debut will celebrate the 40th anniversary of its release in two days.
The term “neo-noir” has often been used—and, indeed, overused—to describe stylish, shadowy, and sexy crime dramas with elements recalling film noir’s golden era in the ’40s and ’50s, though Body Heat struck me as one of the prized handful of movies most deserving of the description, perfectly balancing the spirit of classic noir with contemporary cinematic expectations without falling too far in either direction.
William Hurt excels as our protagonist too weak-willed to prevent the inevitable, but it’s Kathleen Turner who truly shines in her remarkable debut as the seductive femme fatale, bringing a dangerous sensuality to the screen that hadn’t been seen since Lauren Bacall tossed Bogie his pack of matches nearly forty years earlier.
Ned Racine (Hurt) is a small-time south Florida lawyer, liked well enough for his easygoing demeanor that ostensibly makes up for his lack of scruples or talent. Already partially melted by a heat wave flattening the region, Ned quickly becomes putty in the hands of Matty Walker (Turner), a deep-voiced dame who makes no secret of her marriage to domineering land investor Edmund Walker (Richard Crenna)… nor does she make any secret of her discontentment in the union.
Without the spirit of Walter Neff around to warn him, Ned blossoms Matty’s suggestions into a full-blown murder plot, recruiting the help of Teddy Lewis (Mickey Rourke), a bombmaker who Ned once defended in court. Despite Ned being the legal counsel and Teddy being the wild incendiary specialist, the surprisingly loyal Teddy tries to warn Ned off: “Anytime you try a decent crime, you got 50 ways you can fuck up. If you think of 25 of them, then you’re a genius… and you ain’t no genius.”
As Ned and Matty swiftly work through Teddy’s checklist of 50 ways, the net begins closing in on Ned… and not just from the police.
What’d He Wear?
Dressed as the stereotypical Southern lawyer in his seersucker, Ned Racine knows he can at least look the part that he can’t perform; hardly an Atticus Finch or a Matlock, Ned’s reputation for ineptitude indeed turns out to have been the key to his getting entangled with Matty in the first place.
A thin puckered cotton fabric made in a slack-tension weave, seersucker had long been a warm-weather favorite cloth for everything from workwear to bedding and bags. It wasn’t until the early 20th century when seersucker was applied to tailored clothing en masse, when New Orleans haberdasher Joseph Haspel introduced the seersucker suit as a lightweight alternative to businessmen and lawyers, allowing a greater ability to dress professionally yet comfortably in a muggy climate.
The traditional seersucker is the alternating blue and white railroad stripe as Ned wears, so named for its resemblance to the hard-wearing workwear favored by train engineers. Ned’s single-breasted seersucker jacket otherwise resembles most suit jackets or sports coats of the early ’80s, configured with notch lapels and two white plastic sew-through buttons that correspond to two white-threaded buttonholes on the opposing side. The sleeves are finished with three white buttons on each cuff, and the jacket—shaped with front darts—also has a long single vent, welted breast pocket, and flapped patch pockets over the hips.
Blue shirts and navy ties are an oft-favored combination with blue-and-white striped seersucker jackets, as previously featured on screen by the more naive likes of Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate and Richard Benjamin in Goodbye, Columbus as well as cannier types like Robert Duvall as Tom Hagen in The Godfather, Part II, and Darren McGavin as Kolchak: The Night Stalker.
Ned follows his vaunted predecessors by also tying on a navy cotton tie, knotted in a half-Windsor that’s almost perpetually loosened.
In response to the overwhelming heat, Ned peels off his extraneous layers at every opportunity, whether that means sitting shirtless in front of his friends as they gently accuse him of complicity in a murder plot or stripping down to no more than cutoff jorts as he seeks to seduce Maddy during an inopportune visit from his niece.
For Body Heat‘s explosive climax, Ned’s down to his shirt sleeves, evidently leaving his jacket and tie in the car as he prowls the Walker estate in an oxford cloth button-down (OCBD) made from blue and white end-on-end cotton, so finely woven to create an overall light blue finish. The OCBD’s tenure as an Ivy favorite dates back nearly to when Brooks Brothers introduced it at the beginning of the 20th century, inspired by English polo players fastening their collars in place during play. In addition to the celebrated button-down collar, Ned’s shirt has a front placket, breast pocket, button cuffs, and box-pleated back.
Ned rotates between several pairs of trousers with his seersucker jacket, first seen wearing a dark pair at his impromptu dinner with the Walkers. For the climactic scenes at the Walker home, he’s wearing a pair of lighter gray flat front slacks with side pockets, a flapped back-right pocket, and turn-ups (cuffs) on the bottom that break over the black leather lace-up shoes which coordinate with his black leather belt.
Ned always keeps handy his sunglasses, a pair of thin black-framed aviator sunglasses, consistent with the style of eyewear that continued to be en vogue from the previous decade.
As Ned counts down the minutes and seconds until Matty’s return, we get a close look at his gold-plated Caravelle automatic watch, secured via expanding band over his left wrist. Bulova introduced the Caravelle line in 1962, intending to balance a sophisticated New York-influenced aesthetic, Bulova’s Swiss-made quality, and a budget-friendly cost.
The plain round white dial with its italicized numeric hour markers, each with a luminous dot, remains protected under a crystal that appears to have taken plenty of abuse over the years. The micro-sized text at the bottom of the dial offers the timepiece’s West German provenance.
Recalling the gun that Edmund Walker had unexpectedly drawn during the murder, Ned rifles through the deceased man’s closet to arm himself for the finale with the same nickel-plated Colt Detective Special before Matty returns.
The Colt Detective Special had been introduced by Colt in 1927 as a powerful, reliable, and easily concealed “belly gun” for plainclothes officers, offering six rounds of .38 Special in a “snub-nosed” revolver with a two-inch barrel. Despite competition from Smith & Wesson with models like the five-shot Model 36 Chiefs Special, the Detective Special remained generally unchanged for nearly a half-century, aside from a few changes introduced in the late ’40s.
In 1973, Colt modernized the weapon’s appearance and functionality with a variation that would be known as the “Third Series” Detective Special, most significantly differentiated by the addition of a full shroud enclosing the ejector rod under the barrel. Other changes included a fuller wooden grip that wrapped around the front of the frame strap and improved lock-work. Despite these changes, demand for an aging revolver couldn’t keep up in the age of “wonder nine” semi-automatic pistols, and Colt ended production of the Detective Special in 1986. (A brief run of “Fourth Series” Detective Specials would also be manufactured in the early ’90s.)
How to Get the Look
Unable to rely on his reputation alone, Ned Racine makes sure to look the part of the genial, accomplished Southern lawyer in his seersucker jacket, accompanied by an Ivy-inspired blue OCBD and navy tie that—as he’s arguably no Cantab, Tiger, or Yalie—was likely influenced by his desire to fit in during the prep renaissance of the early ’80s.
- Blue-and-white railroad stripe puckered cotton seersucker single-breasted 2-button jacket with welted breast pocket, flapped patch hip pockets, 3-button cuffs, and single vent
- Light blue oxford cloth cotton shirt with button-down collar, front placket, breast pocket, button cuffs, and box-pleated back
- Navy cotton tie
- Light gray flat front trousers with belt loops, side pockets, flapped back-right pocket, and turn-ups/cuffs
- Black leather belt with polished steel squared single-prong buckle
- Black leather lace-up dress shoes
- Black thin-framed aviator sunglasses
- Gold-plated Caravelle automatic wristwatch with round white dial on gold expanding bracelet
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie, or stream it on Criterion Channel before it leaves at the end of this month!
Keep talking, Matty. Experience shows I can be convinced of anything.
One of my personal favorites and one of the very first neo-noirs. I remember when this film was released in the summer of 1981 everybody was talking about it. It was followed by a number of knock-offs throughout the eighties, all movies that managed to work the word “heat” into their titles. My favorite part of the film though was Mickey Rourke as Teddy Lewis, the arsonist who helps Ned out with the fire bomb, “What’s the matter counselor, you can’t think with a little music playing?” he says to Ned with Bob Seger’s “Feel Like a Number” blasting in the background. The irony of this movie was that it was actually very unseasonably cold while they were shooting in Florida at the time. A great movie, now a classic. Thanks for a great review of the film and its wardrobe.