In Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, a summer heat wave descends on Brooklyn, pushing neighbours into the streets and stirring up boiling resentments. The heat is less of an environmental setting and more of a character unto itself.
In real life, just like in the films listed here, heat is often an invisible force with wide-reaching and unexpected consequences. It’s not all popsicles and swimming pools: Extreme heat, which is becoming more common and more intense under climate change, frequently disrupts normal life and can easily turn deadly. Here are some of my favourite movies in which sweltering temperatures drive the plot forward.
Some spoilers here, if you haven’t seen these movies.
Rear Window (1954)
This Alfred Hitchcock classic starts off during a hot summer, when news photographer L.B. Jeffries has hurt his leg. While he’s stuck at home recovering, he gazes into the rear windows of his neighbours’ apartments. He’s seen sweating in his wheelchair, while people in the other units have their windows flung wide open in hopes of staying comfortable in the awful heat. Through his observations, Jeff realises that he may be witnessing a crime in progress.
At one point in the film, a couple is seen waking up on their mattress on the fire escape. For years, NYC residents used to set up makeshift beds outside on their roofs or fire escapes to avoid roasting inside of their apartments in the summer.
Do The Right Thing (1989)
Spike Lee’s NYC cult classic Do the Right Thing is set during a pre-gentrification Bed-Stuy. A radio host declares that the daily forecast is “hot!” and tells listeners that the temperature is going to peak at over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. People sweat it out on the streets, some splash in streams from fire hydrants, while others cool off with ice cubes. The heat seems to fuel class and racial tensions in the community. When police kill a young black man, the neighbourhood erupts.
In the Heights (2021)
In this musical about Washington Heights, an upper Manhattan neighbourhood home to many immigrant Latin American/Caribbean communities (especially Dominicans), a heatwave turns deadly for a beloved character, Abuela Claudia. With the power out and everyone struggling to stay cool, Abuela Claudia forgets to take her medication and dies in her bed. It’s a fictional story, but it happens far too often in real life. Vulnerable people, including the elderly and those with health conditions, are most likely to succumb to heat injury.
Summer of Sam (1999)
It’s the late 1970s, it’s a super-hot summer in NYC, and a trigger-happy serial killer who calls himself Son of Sam is on the loose. Two childhood friends from a predominantly Italian-American part of the Bronx are trying to figure out the killer’s real identity. When the city loses power, residents are urged to stay inside and lock their doors.
This movie is an underrated Spike Lee classic, and it’s based on the chaotic summer of 1977 in NYC. It was a dangerous time, and crime was skyrocketing. The Bronx was burning, and one of the longest lasting heat waves in the city’s history at the time lasted for about nine days. The dangerously high temperatures choked the five boroughs in mid-July, with several days above 100 degrees. A city-wide power outage led to widespread looting, arson, and overall unrest.
In the Heat of the Night (1967)
This cop mystery film follows Black city detective Virgil Tibbs, who ends up in Mississippi during an especially fraught time for racial tensions across the American South. He becomes the unlikely detective working on a murder investigation, having to put up with discrimination and side-eye from other cops and locals. The characters are visibly sweating in the film, and the heat is as palpable as the scrutiny Tibbs has to endure.
The year the film was released, the U.S. experienced over 100 riots. It eventually became known as the “long, hot summer” full of anger at injustice and poverty for communities of colour — but especially for Black Americans. Cities like Detroit and Newark saw some of the worst of the violence.
Body Heat (1981)
This crime noir remake sizzles on a muggy Florida heat wave. When a lawyer named Ned falls in love with the wife of a wealthy businessman, the two plot how to kill her husband. The scheming paramours are often seen sweating, and at one point, there’s a discussion about how people act differently on very hot days — a phenomenon that does seem to be true in the real world.
Falling Down (1993)
Middle-aged divorcée William hits a breaking point after his car breaks down in Los Angeles traffic during an especially sweltering day. He sets out on foot, determined to make it to his daughter’s birthday party. Along the way, an annoyed William finally begins to express his anger at the world. He destroys a construction site and even shoots up a phone booth after he’s hassled to get off a call.
Sure, this film is an exaggeration of how angry someone can become after a frustrating and overheated day, but real-life research has found that mental health crises surge during extreme heat.