July 11, 2010

The sweat list: 10 films that really perspire

Thought this post was quite weather-appropriate !!!

These movies -- from "Do the Right Thing" to "Body Heat" -- turn sticky bodies into glorious spectacle


It's mid-July. Much of the country is reeling (or recovering) from a heat wave. Why on earth would you want to watch sweaty movies filled with sweaty people?

Because there's nothing more cinematic than sweat, that's why. For brazen, unapologetic, just-because-it's-beautiful screen spectacle, nothing else comes close, except cigarette smoke and huge explosions. And in that three-way race, sweat still comes out ahead because there's so much you can do with it -- so many ways to photograph it, so many possible gradations of texture and volume. Characters can shine, they can glisten, or they can sweat like galley slaves; the sheen can make them gorgeous or gross, depending on the actor, the lighting and the situation. The sweaty movie is very nearly a genre unto itself, so let's just go ahead and give it a pretentious French name -- la cinema de la sueur -- and induct 10 representative titles into a makeshift hall of fame: The Sweat List.

The following films are chosen, as always, for highly subjective reasons. I've tried to account not just for quantity of sweat but for quality -- and for the visual imagination with which the filmmakers capture their characters' incremental loss of precious bodily fluids. Readers are encouraged to submit their own nominees -- and chastise me for daring to omit this, that or the other -- in the Letters section.

10. "Dog Day Afternoon" (1975)

Al Pacino plays Sonny Wortzik, a Vietnam vet in a failing marriage who tries to rob a bank to pay for his male lover's sex-change operation. John Cazale plays Sonny's best friend and fellow veteran, Sal Naturale, a silent-but-deadly dimwit who thinks Wyoming is a country. Charles Durning plays Sgt. Eugene Moretti, a police negotiator caught between the hapless crooks, the media, his cranky superiors, the FBI agents that want to usurp his authority, and a growing crowd that treats the event as public theater. But make no mistake: The true star of "Dog Day Afternoon" is Brooklyn in August -- and Jesus H. Christ in a convection oven, is it hot. Director Sidney Lumet and his editor, the late, great Dede Allen, give the sun-baked borough a movie-star entrance in the opening credits sequence, a mini-documentary scored to Elton John's "Amoreena"; the montage's second image -- a shot of a stub-tailed dog rooting through garbage, which pans to reveal a man crouched in a shadowy doorway swatting a fly against his neck -- captures "Dog Day's" grubby ambiance. Pacino's sweat perm, Cazale's gleaming high-domed forehead, Durning's untucked shirt, and the tellers' perspiration-stained blouses all testify to climate's role in human drama. When the story starts at 2:57 p.m., the characters already seem defeated, and they grow more desperate by the second; days like this can make even reasonable people feel as though all hope is lost. (Lumet -- rhymes with "sweat" -- has directed many entries in le cinema de la sueur, including "The Pawnbroker," "Twelve Angry Men" and "The Fugitive Kind").

9. "Crimson Tide" (1995)

"If we launch, and we're wrong, what's left of Russia is gonna launch at us," says Lt. Cmdr. Ron Hunter (Denzel Washington), trying to stop his captain (Gene Hackman) from firing missiles against the former Soviet Union in the submarine thriller "Crimson Tide." "There will be a nuclear holocaust beyond imagination." That scenario would make most people sweat even if they were working in a meat locker at the South Pole. But Hunter and his fellow crewmen are deciding the fate of human civilization inside a huge tin can at the bottom of the sea. And the film's director, Tony Scott, portrays the title vehicle as a literal and figurative pressure-cooker, filling the movie's widescreen frames with densely packed, often disorientingly skewed images: low-ceilinged rooms; hallways festooned with intestinal-looking ducts; buzzing control panels and monitors. It's as if the film itself is trying to squash these guys. "Crimson Tide's" second half, much of which occurs in a cramped control room lit with hellish red emergency lighting, seems to be taking place beneath a heat lamp. On top of that, Scott -- a solid (if flashy) classical filmmaker before he decided to embrace the Attention Deficit Disorder school of cut-cut-cut filmmaking -- specializes in so-straight-they're-gay films, lowest-common-denominator blockbusters that seem to have been marinated in testosterone. Between this movie, "Top Gun," "Days of Thunder," "Revenge," and "The Last Boy Scout," he more than earns the title we're bestowing upon him here: Poet Laureate of Man Sweat.

8. "The Element of Crime" (1984)

This debut feature by Lars von Trier ("Dogville," "Antichrist") is a gloss on Fritz Lang's "M," about a burned-out detective trying to catch a serial child murderer. It unfolds in a universe whose exact geographic and temporal location is tough to fix. It's set in a ruined past-present that evokes the post-World War II sci-fi dystopia first seen in George Orwell's "1984"; it's probably European, but there are signifiers drawn from other parts of the globe (faintly North African music cues, fall-of-Saigon-type sequences set in a brothel populated by Asians). In the end, though, such distinctions are unimportant, because "The Element of Crime" is a subjective film, distorted by the psychic distress of its hero, whose ruminative narration suggests an endless answering machine message left by a film noir detective with a head injury. One thing's for sure: It's hot. Everybody's damp, sometimes drenched, mostly by sweat but also by mist from sudden rain showers, water spilling from leaky pipes. The whole film is sepia-toned save for the occasional TV monitor, which registers as a weirdly sad pale blue. It's meandering, grotesque, at times nearly incomprehensible, but gorgeous. It feels like a very specific type of dream: the kind you might have on a fearsomely hot summer afternoon when the air conditioner's just not up to snuff, so you draw the curtains, aim the fan at your face, and escape into the dark recesses of your imagination.

7. "In the Heat of the Night" (1967)

The title sets the stage, and director Norman Jewison and screenwriter Stirling Silliphant fill it with heat-exhausted, damp-browed Southerners whose clothes are permanently plastered to their skin. "In the Heat of the Night" is about a redneck small-town sheriff (Oscar-winner Rod Steiger) trying to solve a murder with help from an imperious -- but, the sheriff eventually admits, super-capable -- black Yankee detective in town from Philadelphia (Sidney Poitier, the rare screen star who makes rationality sexy). Between a byzantine small-town mystery and race-based mutual dislike (Poitier's detective Virgil Tibbs is initially assumed to be a suspect, and arrested), the two lawmen already have plenty to contend with. The climate makes everything worse. But as miserable as it must be to endure, the sweltering humidity is a treat to look at. The sweat is mostly subtle, at times curiously elegant -- a visual accent. Everybody glows.

6. "Body Heat" (1981)

When writer-director Lawrence Kasdan's debut feature came out almost 30 years ago, one of the minor raps against it had to do with the film's ostentatious old-movie posturing. "Body Heat" was set in present-day Florida, and filled with matter-of-fact sex, yet the characters still spoke in knowing euphemisms, as if trying to get naughty thoughts past a nonexistent board of censors -- and on top of all that, for some reason nobody in town seemed to own an air conditioner. Why? Because the movie's not set in reality, but in movie-land. The purplish dialogue, the nonstop banter about the punishing heat, and all the shots of a stripped-down William Hurt showing off his tennis body and costar Kathleen Turner giving him the eye while suggestively rattling ice cubes around in a glass and tugging her wet blouse away from her skin are all of a piece. "Body Heat" is a dirty fantasy about good-looking people doing very bad things and loving it. They're going to hell in style.

5. "Cool Hand Luke" (1967)

The New Yorker's Pauline Kael called it in her original review of this jailhouse S/M fantasy by director Stuart Rosenberg ("The Pope of Greenwich Village"), noting that a great deal of the film's action was blatantly aestheticized: felons on a rock-busting chain gang staggering their movements as if rehearsing a Broadway number; Paul Newman's title character sacrificing himself in an endless array of Christ-like predicaments; a long sequence in which the inmates ogle a buxom blonde suggestively washing a car (which in retrospect seems like heterosexuality insurance for an otherwise deeply homoerotic movie). Is "Cool Hand Luke" a deep and complex work of art? Nope. But it's one of the most beautifully lit and composed Hollywood productions of the late 1960s, often more a visceral experience than a story and rarely pretending to be otherwise. And the sheer variety of perspiration is stunning. There's sexy-lady sweat, handsome-leading-man sweat, skinny and fat supporting-character sweat, redneck-prison-guard sweat. Hell, in some of those shimmering wide shots of dusty roads -- photographed by the legendary cinematographer Conrad Hall -- Mother Earth herself seems damn near ready to pass out.

4. "Angel Heart" (1986)

You could improvise all sorts of drinking games from Alan Parker's "Angel Heart," a demented glossy blockbuster set in 1950s Manhattan and New Orleans that might be described as "Oedipus Rex" rewritten by Raymond Chandler. Every time the movie's hero, sleazy private eye Harry Angel (Mickey Rourke), squints in smug bemusement and purses his lips, drink. Every time he comes on to a sexy woman, drink. Every time he or one of the other characters wipes away sweat, drink. Just don't drink each time Parker cuts to a close-up of a rotating fan blade or foreshadows the film's twist ending in dialogue, because if you do, you'll be plastered inside of 20 minutes. Harry's sex scene with a lovely but unnerving young woman (Lisa Bonet, annihilating her girl-next-door image from "The Cosby Show") is one of the sweatiest trysts in the history of Hollywood movies. These characters aren't making love; they're fucking. Why? Because it's what the audience paid to see -- and because they've got to do something to take their minds off the heat.

3. "Touch of Evil" (1958)

Orson Welles' thriller pits a straight-arrow Mexican cop named Vargas (Charlton Heston in "swarthy" makeup) against corrupt small-town sheriff Hank Quinlan (an already-large Welles padded to Macy's-float dimensions), in a convoluted murder investigation set in and around a town that's supposedly located on the Texas border. But the way Welles photographs "Touch of Evil" -- using the most extreme lenses and exaggerated angles imaginable, filling the frame with crumbling, paint-peeling buildings and debris blown about by a persistent wind -- it's purgatory, a place where strong-willed, often deluded individuals are pushed to the limits of endurance. And whether the action occurs on sun-baked plains at noon, or on depopulated small-town streets in the wee hours, many of the characters are gleaming with sweat, often pouring sweat -- some beautifully (Heston's at the peak of his brawny beauty here), some repulsively (Welles oozes buckets from start to finish, and Akim Tamiroff, who plays one of Quinlan's slimiest toadies, matches him bead for bead). Only Janet Leigh as Vargas' new bride, Susie, manages to get through the film without drowning in perspiration -- but considering the horror she endures in a motel room at the hands of smack-pushing hooligans, that can hardly be considered a victory.

2. "Do the Right Thing" (1989)

"The forecast for today?" local DJ Mr. Senor Love Daddy (Samuel L. Jackson) tells his listeners. "Hhhhhot!" Spike Lee's incendiary urban version of Thornton Wilder's "Our Town" is set on a single Brooklyn, N.Y., block, on a day so hot that no matter what the characters do (taking showers, dipping their faces in sinks full of cold water, playing in sprinklers, chugging cold beer), there's no hope of relief. Talk of the punishing weather is built into almost every scene. And the movie's climactic eruption of violence is exacerbated, maybe even sparked, by the characters' inability to escape it -- except, however fleetingly, by shutting the blinds, stripping down and getting busy.

1. "Apocalypse Now" (1979)

The opening shot of Francis Coppola's 1979 Vietnam riff on Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" looks more than hot enough: a static shot of a jungle landscape over which blurry helicopters pass like enormous black birds. "This is the end," the Doors' Jim Morrison croons on the soundtrack, "beautiful friend." And then the napalm hits. From the opening montage of Army assassin Capt. Willard (Martin Sheen) spiraling into drunken despair in a Saigon hotel room through to the druggy finale set in a corpse-and-fly-strewn compound lorded over by Willard's target, unhinged Green Beret Col. Walt Kurtz (Marlon Brando), the movie is the single greatest study of sweat every committed to celluloid. Coppola and his cinematographer, Vittorio Storaro, photograph Willard's journey upriver in rich, at times voluptuous images that emphasize the heat, the humidity, the merciless sun. When night falls, or when the characters retreat into dimly lit rooms, the film shifts into a chiaroscuro mode that finds a visual equivalent of Conrad's prose, which applied the writer's appreciation for the extremes of darkness and light in every soul to ornate descriptions of boats, buildings, hills, trees and bodies. Kurtz's bald head emerging from brownish-orange half-light is as lovely as it is menacing; when he cools off by squeezing a waterlogged sponge over his dome, the rivulets of water are distinct, tactile, as if etched onto the frame with a razor blade.