The Czech seem to have a way of making understated human dramas from genre tropes. Jerzy Kawalerowicz's Night Train was about the search for a murderer hidden somewhere on a packed train. Jiri Weiss' 90 Degrees... is a petty crime noir. In both cases, the suspense element is tamped down in favor of being a stark character study.
Weiss' film begins with a documentary coverage of people spending their afternoon break. One of them is Alena (Anne Heywood), who we see sunbathing. She is stared at by a fruit-eating youth and later a chubby middle-aged bespectacled man who seems out of place in the sunny outdoors in his buttoned up suit. We see this man again later - he is Kurka (Rudolf Hrusínský, famous as Juraj Herz's The Cremator), a supplies auditor come to take inventory at the shop where Alena works as an assistant. Kurka is an archetype bureaucrat, a stickler for rules, devoid of humor or affability; he has an almost slug-like persona. Kurka leads a suppressed life, estranged from wife and son. Flustered by even casual personal connect, his interaction with the world seems to be primarily a form of stock-taking, be it people or goods.
Alena on the other hand is a bundle of emotions. She is a good worker but has been involved in a serious affair with the store manager Vorel (James Booth), and in consequence shielded his pilfering of a dozen liquor bottles from the store, which could come to light during Kurka's inventory. In the film's most forthright noir sequence, she and Vorel hurriedly work to replace the missing bottles during off-hours, borrowing money to buy the liquor and making their way through a hidden back entrance (this is tellingly juxtaposed with the scene of Kurka lying sleepless in bed, reflecting on the sterility of his existence).In their scenes together, Alena and Kurka are an excellent study in contrasts. He is embarrassed by her attractiveness and she is inhibited by his dour nature. Early on they are placed in the cubbyhole storeroom, checking stock as they stifle in the titular heat. There is an atmosphere of sexual tension, especially when Alena accidentally spills coffee over Kurka's trousers and insists on wiping off the stains, kneeling by Kurka as he stands abashed in the closed silence.
Vorel is the third pivot of the script. He is seeing Alena but he is also married with children (in artfully inserted flashbacks of their private moments, he repeatedly talks of divorcing his wife, but seems unable to actually do it, and Alena is also unwilling for the arrangement). In an accident during the inventory, it is revealed that his sleight-of-hand is not restricted to the surreptitiously replaced bottles; he has been playing a more systematic swindle game. When suspicion falls on Alena for the theft, he is happy to let her take the blame, arguing that his punishment would be more severe and would affect his family. When she later meets an unhappy fate it is suggested that he has discarded her like an old doll. But he must now contend with Kurka who suffers the guilt of having indicted her for another's crime. While some of the symbolism is on-the-nose, 90 Degrees... does not descend into soapy melodrama, remaining an incisive observational play.
The film was made, unusually, as a British-Czech co-production with actors from both countries. Separate versions were made for each language (the final edit of the Czech version was supervised by Weiss himself and is about 10 min shorter than the British cut). Unlike most native Czech films, this one was shot in 2:35:1 cinemascope, although I didn't find its use of widescreen particularly justified.