Cinematary Canon #12: Sweaty Movies
By Zach Dennis, Diana Rogers, Ash Baker, Andrew Swafford and Reid Ramsey.
Note: These films are not ranked by quality, but rather in chronological order.
The Seven Year Itch (1955) by Billy Wilder
It’s far too hot in New York City. Too hot to work. Too hot to stay at home. Too hot to have anything but a cold drink in your hand. Too hot to remain faithful. Richard experiences this blisteringly hot summer just as his wife of seven years and child go away from the city to vacation for the summer. Richard would go too, but he must work. The city that never sleeps may fall apart if Richard and men like him actually stopped working. And so, with the family away, he falls into a routine: go to work, go eat dinner, come home, try not to smoke, call his wife, have a drink, and go to bed. His mind wanders and fantasizes but nothing extraordinary happens until his new neighbor played by Marilyn Monroe moves in upstairs.
Monroe, wearing white dresses and often even less than that, is the girl of Richard’s dreams. He works hard, he provides for his family, he cares deeply for his family. He just really needs to scratch that itch. It would just be a lot easier for him if Monroe was also interested in him in that way. Pacing throughout his apartment and fantasizing about the woman upstairs, it’s unclear whether he’s sweating due to the heat of his apartment, the heat of his situation, or the heat of his indecision. — Reid Ramsey
The Beguiled (1971) by Don Siegel
The heat in the South doesn’t just burn — it melts on you. It sticks like glue and slowly peels away at not only your comfort but your sanity as well.
This concept of suffocating heat helps to elevate the tension of Don Siegel’s 1971 film, The Beguiled, which places an injured and displaced Civil War soldier (played by Clint Eastwood) in the hands of a group of women all living in a home removed from the violence of the fight.
Eastwood drips with molasses-infused sweat throughout the film, adding not only that hint of fear but the twinge of sexuality as he is bathed and taken care of by the various women of the household. This aid from his wound adds to the sexual tension of the film, but his reliance on their care to keep him cool and away from the heat is not far behind.
It becomes something primal as the household sees Eastwood’s John McBurney through the lens of this sweaty haze — as if the mist has parted from the Spanish moss-laden trail and this lone figure is waiting for them. This sexual allure between the bestial appeal of McBurney and the proper delicacy of the ladies makes the eventual undressing and vengeance of the film’s narrative all the more satisfying.
It may be sweaty in the South, but it also takes awhile for the first trickle to drop from your brow. — Zach Dennis
Dog Day Afternoon (1975) by Sidney Lumet
It’s Pride Month. This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, one of the most pivotal events leading to the LGBTQ liberation movements.
Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon was released in 1975, six years after Stonewall, and on the tail end of the American Film Renaissance.
Throughout the early years of the American Film Renaissance, many films depicted rebel protagonists like the Barrow Gang in Bonnie and Clyde, or alienated protagonists like Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate, or Robert Dupea in Five Easy Pieces. In Dog Day Afternoon, Lumet uses a real-life story to create another hero along these lines. The protagonist, Sonny Wortzik (played by Al Pacino), who is based on the real-life figure John Wojtowicz, becomes a hero that the general public at the time may not have expected.
Lumet does something a little unexpected in his telling of Dog Day Afternoon. He tells the story of Sonny Wortzik with tension higher than most thrillers, and with the tone and seriousness of a rebel film like Bonnie and Clyde. However, the movie reveals itself slowly, and Lumet allows us to get to know Sonny layer by layer.
It isn’t until around halfway through the movie that Sonny’s queer identity is revealed, along with his motive for robbing the bank. In this tense moment, a viewer realizes the true gravity of the situation. Not only are Sonny and the police set against each other practically—cop versus criminal—but within the socio-political structure of the society that was in place, especially after Stonewall.
It’s no secret that Hollywood has alienated queer people from its beginning. At the time that Dog Day Afternoon was released, audiences were accustomed to Hollywood films that ignored, victimized, or villainized queer people. There’s no doubt that in 1975, there would be a potential for members of general audiences to respond to Sonny’s character more like the police do in the film, and it’s clear that Lumet was aware of this.
After watching a news report on himself inside the bank, Sonny says, “It’s just a freakshow to them anyway.” But Lumet makes sure it’s not a freakshow to the audience. In the commentary track of the film, he says, “The freaks are not the freaks that we think they are… We have much more in common with everybody than we’d like to admit, than we know about. The humanity overrides everything. That’s what the movie is about.”
Lumet presents the narrative so that, to the viewer, Sonny isn’t a freak at all. He’s a fully developed, apologetic queer character. He’s a desperate man doing a desperate thing for the person he loves. — Ash Baker
Alien (1979) by Ridley Scott
Despite being one of the greatest movies of all time, Alien has yet to be nominated for one of these Cinematary Canons, so I’ll take “Sweaty Movies” as an opportunity to remind the world of all the precious bodily fluids that are excreted in Ridley Scott’s sci-fi/horror masterpiece. There’s the yellow blood of the facehugger crab, which burns through everything it touches like battery acid; there’s the blood and viscera that burst from the chest of the crew member who is implanted with the alien fetus, there’s the goopy white liquid that is disseminated from the ship’s decapitated android, and, of course, there’s the sweat. Even before the film reaches its final form as a panic-inducing creature feature, Alien is a sweaty movie. As many have pointed out before me, Alien isn’t about astronauts gliding through sterile, futurist chambers a la 2001; it’s about space truckers working steamy, dripping industrial machinery. These characters are hard laborers who spend most of the first act negotiating their much-needed bonuses, and the sweat of their brow really works to ground the movie in a fleshy, visceral reality before its terrifying predator is introduced to send Ripley and company running for their lives in a different kind of sweat. – Andrew Swafford
Dirty Dancing (1987) by Emile Ardolino
It would be easy to dismiss 1987 sleeper hit Dirty Dancing as a guilty pleasure flick; It’s the kind of movie that fills theaters no matter how many times Fathom resurrects it, playing to crowds largely comprised of women of various ages, many of whom whoop and holler with glee during the movie’s steamier scenes, or applaud enthusiastically when Patrick Swayze’s Johnny Castle delivers the movie’s signature quip: “Nobody puts Baby in a corner.” The thing is, even though my personal impression is colored by the warm glow of nostalgia, Dirty Dancing has aged quite well. It’s soapy and melodramatic at times, and the soundtrack sacrifices period authenticity so that 80s pop hits can be shoehorned into the mix, but every time I revisit it I’m struck by how thoughtful, progressive, and socially conscious it manages to be, despite the fact that it is, at its core, a fizzy summer romance.
In his mid-thirties when he played Johnny, Patrick Swayze may look just a hair too old for the part, especially when the other characters constantly refer to him as the “dance kid.” But I wouldn’t want anybody but Swayze in the role, and I can’t think of anyone else with the same winning combination of dance skills and earthy charm. Swayze is marvelous here, as is Cynthia Rhodes, who plays his dance partner, Penny. The movie belongs to Jennifer Grey, though – the “Baby” who will not be put in a corner – and her earnest, awkward performance is warm, relatable, and endearing.
Surprisingly the one thing Dirty Dancing isn’t is all that dirty. There are some sexy bits, sure, but they’re fairly mild by today’s standards (honestly, they’re mild by 1987 standards, too), with the emphasis on romance affection more than lust. Those hoping to see a raunchy sexcapade might be disappointed but those who are in it for the dancing will find a lot to appreciate. The numerous rehearsal scenes and performances during the film, which culminate in the big dance number at the close of the movie, where literally everyone gets in on the action, solidify this flick’s enduring reputation as an enjoyable summer staple that’s both sweaty and sweet. — Diana Rogers
Do the Right Thing (1989) by Spike Lee
Another contender for the greatest movie of all time, heat is obviously of central importance in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. Taking place on the hottest day of the summer, Do the Right Thing puts America in a pressure cooker: over the course of 24 hours on 1 city block, 5 different ethnic communities mingle, cherish, bicker, and brawl with one another through a haze of humidity and sweat. Spike never lets you forget the tension in the air, cranking the temperature up with every flourish, such as dropping the needle on the reggae track “Can’t Stand the Heat” or painting the side of a building emergency red. And cinematographer Ernest Dickerson never quite lets you forget it, either – whether he’s shooting a sunny city sidewalk or a dark, stuffy bedroom, every frame of the film is given a subtle orange tinting to make the heat wave feel just that much more palpable. Until this year the only Blu-ray that was available for this film erased this crucial color grading in the name of “dynamic range,” but fortunately, Criterion is honoring the film’s 40th anniversary by re-releasing the version that was meant to be seen. Whether you’re watching it for the first time or catching up on an overdue re-watch, Do the Right Thing – in all its angry, sweaty glory – is sure to have you reaching for the ice cubes. – Andrew Swafford
White Men Can’t Jump (1992) by Ron Shelton
Basketball carries a different meaning in terms of the heat of the game when compared to other sports. The sound is different.
The skid of shoes on the asphalt, the ring of the chain hoops and the drops of sweat hitting the pavement have a bit more artistry than the clashing of bodies on grass. This symphony of sweat is best exemplified in White Men Can’t Jump — an ode to the pervoyers of the pavement.
Inherently, there will be sweat when you’re playing basketball in the California heat on the asphalt pavement of a basketball court but there is something about the movement of the bodies and how it infuses with the haze of the heat in basketball that speaks to the sweltering weather.
The way Billy (Woody Harrelson) and Sidney (Wesley Snipes) glide around the court, you would think they were heat waves of their own — barely seen and definitely felt. The pick-up games the two partake in are consumed in trickery, much like the sun plays tricks on the brain after too much exposure to its rays.
The force is also exerted in a much different way. Where football features gladiatorial charges into the other body and baseball carries the grace of a dancer, basketball combines them both into an euphorium of tact and grit.
As sweat pours down as quickly as their challengers, there is something so perfect about the battle between heat and ground, baller and baller. — Zach Dennis
Y Tu Mama También (2001) by Alfonso Cuaron
I don’t remember how much sweat you actually see in Y Tu Mama También, but you feel an awful lot, be it from sunshine, arousal, nervousness, or exhaustion. The film – Alfonso Cuaron’s best by some margin – follows the inane horny exploits of two teenage boys whose bond of friendship is based almost entirely on how inanely horny they both are. Much of the first act takes place poolside, as they indulge themselves and whip each other with wet towels until the narrative settles into a long summer roadtrip through the Mexican countryside with an older woman both boys are practically salivating for. The camera is wholly non-judgmental in its treatment of the boys, who are going through a perhaps unavoidable phase of complete obnoxiousness, but the film’s sound design often cuts through the hormonal fog to offer sober narration about pretty dire and otherwise unacknowledged state of the world around them. Y Tu Mama También is a rare kind of sex comedy – one in which its characters’ lust is presented as a genuinely intoxicating state of mind, the immaturity of which is examined from both within and without. Emmanuel Lubezki’s trademark floating camerawork and long takes walk a delicate tightrope here, too, sometimes letting scenes feel fluid and beautiful but also lingering on stifling tension and unspoken sadness in others. – Andrew Swafford