The Femme Fatale in Body Heat (1981)

The mystique of the femme fatale has long been a defining characteristic of film noir and 1981’s Body Heat is no exception. Our main character, Ned, has fallen victim to the lust filled trap of our femme fatale, Matty. While we have seen the ruthlessness of femme fatales previously in class, especially with Phyllis Dietrichson, none have been as clever as Matty. What separates Matty from all of the other femme fatales of the 40’s and 50’s is the level of intelligence she uses and the amount of sexuality she exhibits.

To quote Teddy in the movie “Anytime you try a decent crime, there is 50 ways you can fuck up. If you think of 25 of them you’re a genius and you ain’t no genius.” Throughout the movie Matty is able to manipulate and control her plan that makes you believe she thought of just about 25 ways, which elevates her to the level of genius. When first watching, it feels as though the plan to murder Matty’s husband is purely the idea of Ned.  In Double Indemnity, it appears that Neff and Phyllis arrive at the decision to kill her husband together. The part that makes Matty so powerful is that she makes Ned feel as though the murder is entirely his idea, when actually she planted the idea in his head. It feels as though she scouted him out from the very beginning the intent of using him for this murder.

From the first time they meet, we see that Ned is wrapped around Matty’s fingertips. She comes in wearing a white dress, which portrays her in an angelic form. Their conversation is flirty, as she teases him then shooting him down. It is clear that Matty has the upper hand, and in some ways emasculates him.  He follows her to prove his masculinity when it comes under attacked. Part of the initial attraction to Matty is her sexuality. She teases and we are under the impression that she is not faithful. Ned is clearly motivated by lust and by his desire to prove his masculinity, which is exactly what Matty wants. His lust blinds him from seeing the world that is in front him.

The first time we see them really connect, is the scene where Ned throws the chair through the window of the house. This is really the turning point of the film. The window represents several barriers for each character and as it breaks so do those barriers. For Ned this is the moment where his sexual desires express themselves. Interesting enough, the act of sexual passion is combined with the violent act. This combination is exactly what Matty wants. For Matty, it shows that she has chosen the right man to perform her plan. It means that she not only recognizes the violence that Ned is capable of, but also the amount of power she has over him.

Despite the fact that she is portrayed as a femme fatal throughout the film it is not until after the murder that we truly see just how intelligent she really is. We see this when we find out that she altered the original will. Matty intentionally revised it so terribly that it would then become void and the money will go to the widow. This shows that she has a complex understanding of the law and would sacrifice Ned’s professional career for money. In addition, this also puts a great deal of suspicion on both characters.

Towards the end we see her plan in full context. From the best of my understanding, Matty and Mary Anne switched identities. She married her husband with the intent of killing her and taking his money by using Ned to have an affair with. She used Ned because she thought he was weak and unintelligent, and for the most part she was right. The next step in the plan is to kill Ned and Mary Anne, making everyone believe that they had died. The only variable that she overlooked in her incredibly complex plan is just how competent Ned was. Although the only reason Ned really survives is the compassion of a career arsonist, he is eventually able to decipher her plan at the end of the movie. The only problem is that it is too late for him to act.

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