July 2023 was the hottest month ever recorded on Earth. All summer, cities around the world have found themselves in the death grip of unremitting, uncharacteristically intense heat waves. In fact, every year more and more communities find themselves impacted by extreme weather, from blazing wildfires, to unexpected hurricanes, to flooding via torrential rainfall and to, yes, uncompromising heat. This is, by all accounts, a byproduct of an ever-warming climate that we seem collectively prepared to ignore, willingly turning a blind eye to all the warning signs trying to tell us that drastic, immediate action is needed if we even want a chance at mitigating the destructive effects that climate change has in store for us. By the looks of it, it seems we may already be too late.
But I suppose if you can’t beat the heat, you might as well embrace it. As of writing this, my current residence of Austin, Texas, has seen 42 consecutive days of 100 degree heat—far surpassing the previous 2011 record of 27 days. You cannot step outside without immediately dripping with sweat and wanting to keel over. It is absolutely brutal and dispiriting, like the very atoms of the air are trying to kill you. But it got me thinking about sweat, more specifically from a cinematic perspective.
The depiction of sweat on screen allowed ‘80s action stars to look like the coolest dudes alive. More grounded interpretations make sweaty characters look like the most miserable people that have ever lived. Both have their virtues, and there’s a certain beauty in the dedication to the minutiae of the environment whenever filmmakers decide that their stars need to be soaked in sweat. It’s evocative—sometimes beautiful, brutal, sexy, disgusting. But it’s almost always tactile and relatable, offering a corporeal connection to a bodily sensation the viewer can immediately sympathize with. Some of the greatest movies are coated in sweat, and it’s time to pay tribute to just a few of them.
Here are 10 of the best sweaty movies:
Body Heat (1981)
It’s in the title, baby! Lawrence Kasdan’s directorial debut indulges in the candid passion of the ‘80s erotic thriller while simultaneously harkening back to the fatalistic sensibilities of ‘40s noir, transferring the broad conceit of Double Indemnity out of gritty Los Angeles and into south Florida during a sweltering heat wave. William Hurt is the hapless womanizing protagonist Ned Racine, a small-time lawyer whose pure horniness pulls him into a web of murder and betrayal as he agrees to kill the husband of his new flame Matty Walker (Kathleen Turner, channeling all of the same dark glamor as the best femme fatales). The sweat factor is off the charts here—you can just feel the sticky humidity of Florida while watching every actor deliver their lines soaking wet. But the heat is more than pure setting detail; it is an influencing force all its own, a catalyst that drives the film’s characters to act on their most unbridled impulses within the story’s woozy, sexy, volatile plot machinations. As J.A. Preston’s character Oscar proclaims: “When it gets this hot, people try to kill each other.”
Die Hard (1988)
“A security guard we missed?” asks one of the lackeys of merciless terrorist Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman), as the two inspect a desecrated corpse sent down the elevator shaft of Nakatomi Plaza, which they currently have seized. “No,” he replies. “They’re usually tired old policemen growing fat on a pension. This is something else.” That something else is Bruce Willis, sporting a tank top and drenched in sweat as John McClane, the everyday cop forced into action when he ends up in the wrong place at the wrong time. This is classic ‘80s super-cop power fantasy fodder, elevated by both a proficient sense of craft and the fact that McClane is hardly portrayed as “super” at all, his improvisational approach to saving the day accentuated by the blood, grime and sweat that coats him by the film’s end.
William Friedkin’s adaptation of Georges Arnaud’s novel Le Salaire de la peur (and, by extension, his remake of the 1953 film Wages of Fear) is one of the last masterpieces of the New Hollywood era, an astonishing film left out to dry upon release by poor marketing, negative reviews and unfortunate release timing (it was forced to go toe-to-toe with Star Wars). Sorcerer has rightfully been widely reclaimed as one of Friedkin’s greatest movies, and it just so happens to be one full of perspiring men. Friedkin’s approach to this story of four guys that must carefully transport crates of nitroglycerin across the hazardous jungles of Latin America is one of pure, concentrated white-knuckle tension, with some of the most staggering, practically assembled set-pieces and explosions you’re likely to ever see in a movie. The characters pour with sweat as they try not to blow themselves up in the humid Colombian heat, as will your palms by the time you get to the closing moments of this insane high-wire act of a movie.
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
Another film involving people getting extremely sweaty driving vehicles over great distances, Mad Max: Fury Road is a modern action triumph, full of this young century’s most bonkers and gonzo setpieces. The journey of Max (Tom Hardy) and Furiosa (Charlize Theron) across an apocalyptic wasteland is an exercise in sustained momentum, with the overblown color grading of the desert accentuating the oppressive heat of the sun, along with the intricate action sequences that emphasize the feverish delirium, particularly from things like the vehicle exhaust emanating from Immortan Joe’s war brigade and the iconic flame-throwing guitar-shredder riding on a truck stacked with oversized amps. Elemental, sweaty bliss.
Pain & Gain (2013)
You could probably put just about any Michael Bay movie on this list. Most of his characters seem perpetually grimy and wet, seemingly at their wit’s end from sprinting through the haphazard, juvenile and cruel playground of their auteur. Pain & Gain makes the list for the exceptional nature in which that grotesquerie has aged, particularly well-suited to an endlessly mean-spirited, misanthropic story about the vapid, malformed, violent nature of American masculinity and exceptionalism. It’s Bay at his most incessantly hideous and it’s kind of beautiful to witness, with setting and situational detail that allow it to careen from being his own 2000s-type torture porn movie to being his version of a Coen-esque tale of bumbling dipshit criminals. This is another film where the Florida heat hugely contributes to the lunacy of the story, with special sweat points going to both Tony Shalhoub (who spends most of the movie blindfolded, tied up and tortured in a grotty warehouse) and Dwayne Johnson (who is just endlessly moist playing a God-fearing, homicidal coke addict in the last film he ever had an entertaining role in).
Stray Dog (1949)
One of Akira Kurosawa’s more modestly-scoped productions, Stray Dog is a sweat-stained procedural that lands at the crossroads between vivid sunshine noir and buddy cop movie. Led by a couple of the director’s regular collaborators, Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura, the film depicts the societal temper in the wake of WWII, heightened by a deliriously sweltering heat wave covering Tokyo. Mifune, as rookie cop Murakami, has his gun stolen off his person, resulting in a city-wide trek in search of his property as a string of muggings and killings lead back to his weapon. He eventually partners up with Shimura’s Sato, as the two brave both crime rings and the suffocating heat to catch their man. Mifune practically glistens throughout this whole movie, and one extended sequence that omits any dialogue in favor of watching his character desperately prowl the blistering streets of the city in search of a lead spotlights how he’s driven to the brink by both his own conscience and the gradual madness brought on by the climate.
Predator 2 (1990)
If you watched Predator and thought “there’s no way for any movie to epitomize the cinematic quality of a sweaty character than with the ripped, dripping-wet body of Arnold Schwarzenegger blasting away his alien foe in the jungles of South America,” then I’ve got a movie that’s going to blow your mind. Predator 2 may not offer the same distilled blast of perfectly executed, brilliant action filmmaking as its predecessor, but it sure does give the sweat factor a run for its money. It trades in jungle humidity for the sun-baked pavement of a dystopian Los Angeles beset by the chaos of gang wars that regularly result in citywide turmoil—and that’s before the new Predator shows up. Schwarzenegger is replaced with the likes of Danny Glover and Gary Busey, both turning in over-the-top performances that are complimented by a truly ludicrous amount of sweat as they practically glow under the glaring sunlight.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
Tobe Hooper’s infamous, surreal, DIY proto-slasher was shot in the midst of a Texas heat wave where temperatures regularly spiked up to 100 degrees or more. It was, by all accounts, an utterly grueling shoot, wherein the constraints of a limited budget were compounded by the fatigue from the heat. The hellish production is reflected in the film itself: An absolutely nightmarish onslaught of abrasive backcountry horror, where the freakish, savage nature of the chainsaw-wielding Leatherface and his cannibalistic family are imbued with an even greater sense of barbarity from the overwhelming daze of the heat. As the sweat drips off of the five unfortunate young friends who find themselves the victims of such macabre horror, the inescapable nature of the temperature feels inextricably tied to their grisly fates.
Do The Right Thing (1989)
One of the all-time greatest movies depicting the tensions that can be ignited by a hot day, Spike Lee’s day-in-the-life film about the residents of a Black Bed-Stuy neighborhood is another story whose actions are predicated on the byproduct of exasperation that comes with a heat wave. The wide-ranging collection of colorful characters seem to be all thrown into a pot set to boil and as temperatures continue to rise, so does the strain on the relationships between the Black community and the casually racist Italian Americans that run the local pizzeria. The slice-of-life storytelling leads to what feels like an inevitable act of violence, the heat of the day bringing out the damaged dynamics of a neighborhood that has had hatred festering deep within. Every performer gets their chance to remark on how hot it is outside, and Lee’s framing of every sweaty face on the piercing blacktop streets or in the stuffy tenements with no AC make the feelings permeating the emotional heart of this film all the more tangible.
12 Angry Men (1957)
For my money, this is the ultimate sweaty movie—both by virtue of the palpable heat of the situation and the actual, literal amount of sweat that is shown pouring off the performers. 12 Angry Men sticks 12 jurors into a hot, airless room to evidently bake alive as they argue the verdict over a murder case wherein, if found guilty, the young defendant will be immediately put to death. The jurors all seem to be in consensus, save for Henry Fonda’s character, whose doubt regarding an easy answer to the case puts into motion a long deliberation process where this group of sweaty old white men have to face their own presumptions and biases. You’ve already heard this, but it is one of the greatest movies ever made—a wondrous showcase for the actors at its center, as well as a marvel of narrative economy in the script and spatial economy in the blocking and direction of Sidney Lumet. But it is also a marvel of dudes just being an unreal amount of sweaty, as you see it pouring through their clothes and on their faces while emotions rise and preconceived notions are fiercely tested. There are a lot of movies where heat and sweat are used to send characters to a breaking point, but there may be no more concerted interpretation of that than 12 Angry Men.
Trace Sauveur is a writer based in Austin, TX, where he primarily contributes to The Austin Chronicle. He loves David Lynch, John Carpenter, the Fast & Furious movies, and all the same bands he listened to in high school. He is @tracesauveur on Twitter where you can allow his thoughts to contaminate your feed.