It's not the heat, it's the intensity: 13 memorable films set during heat waves
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1. Rear Window (1954)
Alfred Hitchcock's suspense masterpiece (adapted by John Michael Hayes from a Cornell Woolrich short story) is a study in narrative construction, starting with the ingenious idea of making the protagonist practically immobile. Jimmy Stewart plays a photographer with a busted leg; he spends his days in a wheelchair, staring at the building across the alley with his telephoto lenses, soaking up the human drama in a dozen apartments. The crowning touch to this premise? It's hot as blazes outside and no one has air conditioning, so all the windows and curtains are open, and everyone's just a little on edge. Now… action!
2. 12 Angry Men (1957)
Can the boiling tempers of 12 sweaty men thwart the cool, objective justice of a jury trial? Sidney Lumet's 12 Angry Men brings together the titular jury of typical Americans—the broker, the working man, the coot, and the architect, played by Henry Fonda, who is the sole dissenter as his colleagues find an 18-year-old kid guilty of first-degree murder. As Fonda deliberates with the others, he reviews the evidence more carefully than the defendant's own lawyer, and the other men have little patience for it. The script repeatedly reminds viewers of the summer heat trapped in the court building, with a fan that won't work and windows that won't open far enough. Sweat pours down Fonda's diligent brow, soaks Jack Warden's shirt, and moistens every close-up until finally the jury is split six to six—and a storm breaks, cooling off all but the last enraged holdouts.
3. Body Heat (1981)
One of the problems with classic film noir is that, since most of it was made during the repressive Hays Code days, viewers have to take it on faith that the femme fatales were hot enough to murder for. "Huh," you might think while watching Double Indemnity, "that guy must really like anklets." Body Heat, the 1981 quasi-remake of Double Indemnity, requires no such leap of faith. The first time Kathleen Turner appears, in a white dress that makes it look as if she's about to burst into flames, it's obviously worth committing vehicular manslaughter for her, and by the time she's naked, sweating through William Hurt's sheets and stroking herself with ice in the bathtub, most of the audience will be asking "How many people and with what weapon?"
4. Summer Of Sam (1999)
As anyone who's lived through August in New York can verify, heat prompts crazy thoughts. And it doesn't help if someone's tooling around the neighborhood blowing people's brains out with a .44. Heat waves like the one the Bronx suffered in 1977 are enough to dull the razor-keen analytical minds of even the most level-headed mook; that's why, when Adrien Brody starts walking around with an inexplicable set of liberty spikes and a tendency to dance spastically to The Who with a tailor's dummy in a gay bar, the characters in Summer Of Sam naturally assume he's been putting drafts in people's domes at night. So they beat him up with bike chains. It's just a natural progression when things get that hot, especially if the only other plausible suspect is Reggie Jackson, and you need him for the playoffs.
5. Southland Tales (2006)
Set during a three-day heat wave leading up to a far-off, futuristic alternate history's massive July 4, 2008 celebration, Southland Tales forces its sprawling, schizophrenic cast to contend with more than an absurdly coy plot. They soldier on through devastating heat in countless fever-dream-like scenes, as amnesiac Republican action star Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson is confronted by sinister spy agency US-IDENT's Michele Durrett at a sweltering beach. While ignoring the humidity, she tells him where to find the answers to his questions, then offers him oral sex while holding a gun to her head. Then a sniper obliterates her. Worse still: The only ice-cream truck in town is a decoy for an arms dealer who has more bazookas than Bomb Pops.
6. Do The Right Thing (1989)
In Spike Lee's masterpiece Do The Right Thing, an unbearable heat wave acts as a catalyst for racial and class tension, pushing long-simmering resentments well past their boiling points. Meanwhile, in a romantic interlude, Spike Lee's frustrated pizza-delivery man uses ice cubes to heat up and cool down feisty girlfriend Rosie Perez. Ernest Dickerson's cinematography captures the sweaty, uncomfortable intensity of summer heat so vividly that the film stock itself seems to be sweating. When resentment gives way to outright conflict, and a riot breaks out, the sweltering sun proves, at the very least, an accessory to crime.
7. In The Heat Of The Night (1967)
The summer heat of the '60s sparked many race-based flare-ups. In Norman Jewison's In The Heat Of The Night, the Southern swelter underscores the tension between black city detective Sidney Poitier and the Mississippi town where he's stuck, first as a suspect and then as an unlikely detective in a murder investigation. But the heat also draws out every seedy corner of the town: policemen cruise the streets, peering through open windows; a counterman at a diner makes cheating a cop out of a pie seem like a disturbing, wicked act. In this context, Poitier and Rod Steiger, the white local sheriff, reach an unlikely equality. Both men are real sons of bitches in a town too hot to hide any secrets for long.
8. The Hot Spot
In The Hot Spot, Dennis Hopper's sultry adaptation of Charles Williams' Hell Hath No Fury, the heat is literal as well as metaphorical, as rugged drifter Don Johnson saunters into a small town, secures a go-nowhere job selling used cars, plots a bank robbery, and becomes involved with two very different women: rapacious, venal femme fatale Virginia Madsen and wholesome accountant Jennifer Connelly. A real-life heat wave during filming gave the film's long, hot summer a sizzling verisimilitude and provided a convenient excuse for the cast to strip down to their bare essentials, though thankfully, Charles Martin Smith kept his clothes on.
9. Barton Fink (1991)
For any serious artist, being creatively blocked is hell, and the Coen brothers' Barton Fink—allegedly written while they were themselves blocked trying to finish Miller's Crossing—gives it the capital H. The Hotel Earle, where the titular playwright (played by John Turturro) is sequestered while working on a wrestling picture, is Hollywood as Dante's Inferno, with a pathetically sagging strip of wallpaper perfectly demonstrating the run-down environment and the crippling heat. Once insurance salesman/serial killer John Goodman shows up, things get even hotter, and in the movie's apocalyptic final scenes, Goodman gasps feebly, mopping the sweat from his huge face and chit-chatting about the heat as if it's elevator small talk, while the hotel burns around him and the fresh bodies he's made.
10. Inherit The Wind (1960)
"Has it been duly noted by historians," asked H.L. Mencken in his memorable obituary, "that William Jennings Bryan's last secular act on this globe of sin was to catch flies?" There was a lot of fly-catching going on at the Scopes trial over which Bryan presided a week before his death: Tennessee in late July isn't a very comfortable place to be even now, and it was far less so in the days before air conditioning. Inherit The Wind, the famed dramatization of the trial, makes the heat a palpable thing: As Fredric March and Spencer Tracy debate theology and intellectual freedom on the stand, the crowd of onlookers fan themselves with advertising placards and swill down Coca-Cola. The heat even finds its way into the court proceedings, as Tracy asks permission to conduct his inquiries in his shirtsleeves—a scene which turns to a nicely turned set of veiled barbs between him and his opposition.
11. It Came From Outer Space (1953)
One of the earliest movies to play with the "body snatcher" science-fiction concept, It Came From Outer Space follows a small desert community as it reacts to a stealth alien invasion. Director Jack Arnold and screenwriter Harry Essex (working from a story by Ray Bradbury) make good use of the desert heat, implying that the blistering sun may be causing hallucinations, or at the least making everyone's odd behavior explicable. It Came From Outer Space also features one of the best lines in movie history, regarding the effects of heat: "Did you know that more people are murdered at 92 degrees Fahrenheit than any other temperature? I read an article once. Lower temperatures, people are easy-going, over 92 and it's too hot to move, but just 92, people get irritable."
12. Falling Down (1993)
A lot of things cause Michael Douglas to lose his shit in Joel Schumacher's Falling Down, but his car's air conditioning breaking during a miserable heat wave in Los Angeles is the final straw. (Of course, SoCal rush-hour traffic isn't an ideal place to be stuck in a heat wave, either.) It's clear that Douglas' character, William "D-Fens" Foster, isn't a fan of the heat: The initial point of his vigilante walking tour of the city is to give his daughter a snow globe, and none-too-good things happen to the neo-Nazi who smashes it. After rampaging across town, Douglas finally does get a chance to cool off, after getting plugged by a cop and falling into the ocean. Heat used as a metaphor for simmering rage is nothing new, but few films execute sweaty psychosis as well.
13. Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
The clusterfuck of Sidney Lumet's Dog Day Afternoon—based on true events—builds as the temperature rises. To fund his boyfriend's sex-change operation, Al Pacino holds up a bank, but the police trap him and partner John Cazale inside before they can escape. The heat must be getting to the whole city, because soon crowds gather outside to cheer the hostage-takers while the sticky situation slowly unravels. The blazing sun must be having some effect on the onlookers, at least: Why else would they respond so favorably to Pacino's yelling "Attica! Attica! Put your fucking guns down!"