Jul 12, 2021
By Ed McMenamin
Dennis Hopper’s 1990 neo-noir, The Hot Spot, stays true to the genre’s conventions more than it inverts them – it’s homage, but with a sleazy id and a lascivious heart that runs free without the limits faced by midcentury filmmakers.
The film’s nudity and violence doesn’t obliterate the requisite double entendres and winking come-ons. Hopper knows that watching beautiful and clever people flirt is more entertaining than witnessing the deed itself.
In time-honored noir tradition, the sap, Harry Madox (Don Johnson), is clueless to his role as he drives a 1957 Studebaker Golden Hawk into a small Texas town.
The car is one of several anachronisms in a contemporary setting – a nod to the 1952 source novel written by Charles Williams – that blend the past into the present. The Hot Spot is also a notable entry in the lineage of films that look and feel stiflingly hot – melted asphalt, mirage in the desert, boiling radiator hot. Like fellow neo-noir Body Heat, or Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, the sun beats down, and the characters look absolutely exhausted by the mere idea of summer, as a drawling blues soundtrack underscores the carnal temperature.
Madox enters this, ahem, hot spot from parts unknown. He could be on the run, or he might be a drifter. He has style, as evidenced by the collector car, and a suspicious confidence – horizontal gray stripes on his collared shirt recall a prisoner’s uniform. He’s not an honest joe roped into crime like the gullible insurance agent in Double Indemnity, or the hapless piano player in Detour who has a dead body fall into his lap. Instead Madox is a magnet for trouble like one of Dashiell Hammett’s Pinkerton agents gone bad, his presence inspires conflict. We can imagine there is a woman holding the bag in whatever town he last escaped, or a sheriff scratching his head as he stares into an empty bank vault.
And yet we root for him. Within minutes of arriving, Madox takes a job selling used cars where he instinctively blurs the line between conman and salesman. He works alongside the cranky owner, a fellow salesman and a young clerk, Gloria Harper, played by Jennifer Connelly. Madox falls for Gloria, makes a crude pass that fails, apologizes, and begins an earnest attempt at courtship. His pursuit of Gloria is complicated by a host of unsavory characters, including a gleefully malicious blackmail artist, played by William Sadler, who has dirt on Gloria. A bigger threat emerges when Madox beds the dealership owner’s bored and calculating wife, Dolly Harshaw, played with southern menace by Virginia Madsen. Madsen described Dolly as a ripe peach on the edge of rotting, an apt metaphor for her sweet seduction and bitter coercion.
Madox, almost as an after-thought, also has his eye on a poorly secured bank.
One of The Hot Spot’s greatest pleasures is the careful way Hopper as director allows the audience to see the bank’s vulnerability at the same time Madox does. When a deli catches fire down the street, we learn that the bank’s employees are volunteer firefighters, save for the drunk and clueless owner who is usually in the bathroom or at a strip club.
The following day, as Madox helps Dolly move boxes from an abandoned building across the street, he takes a second look at the bank’s façade through the empty building’s dirty windows. We know a plot is hatching without a spoken word.
Dolly’s claws clench tighter around Madox following the heist, when she supplies a phony alibi for his whereabouts during the robbery, binding his fate to her word, easily revoked.
As Madox attempts to free himself from Dolly and win Gloria’s trust by freeing her from blackmail, we see a man convince himself that he is fighting to step out from the dark represented by Dolly and into the light represented by Gloria. In truth his motivation is lust, and Johnson’s brand of handsome charm – slightly smarmy and less noble than selfish – effectively undermines any hope for true moral redemption. The ingenue is his idea of salvation, but prior sins are not so easily forgiven and always require penance.
The soft final third of the film drags the inevitable conflict to a messier conclusion than necessary; and the total runtime stretches to 2 hours and 10 minutes. Classics in the genre rarely approached 90 minutes, and Hopper would have been wise to follow the shorter length favored by the films he so richly emulates here in style and fatalistic tone.
The new Blu-ray edition from Kino Lorber features a brand new 2K master, new interviews with Virginia Madsen and William Sadler, along with audio commentary from writer Bryan Reesman, and a handful of trailers.
Follow Ed McMenamin on twitter at @edmcmenamin