The Hot Spot

(USA - 1990)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Don Johnson, Virginia Madsen, Jennifer Connelly, Charles Martin Smith,
William Sadler, Jerry Hardin, Barry Corbin
Genre: Film-Noir
Director: Dennis Hopper
Screenplay: Nona Tyson, Charles Williams, based on the novel "Hell Hath No Fury" by Charles Williams.
Cinematography: Ueli Steiger
Composer: Jack Nitzsche
Runtime: 130 minutes

"It's not the fallin' down honey: it's the climb back up," - Dolly Harshaw

Over the brief period starting with 1941's The Maltese Falcon and ending with 1958's Touch Of Evil, film-noir produced so many of the best movies. It was a low budget genre, but it was the artist's genre, known for its shadows and shades of gray. Largely for that reason, it's the only genre that consistently plays better in black and white and it's entries play as well today as any genre entries from the pre-color era. Almost all the best directors of the time made noir: Hitchcock, Welles, Lang, Wilder, Huston, Kubrick, etc. all had excellent entries into the genre. During the Second World War, filmgoers were more apt to embrace the doom-laden pictures because they were more cynical and depressed than when everything was going well. As people got over the war, Hollywood turned back to Happyville and the genre almost totally vanished. Dennis Hopper is clearly a big fan of the genre, and he has experience in it acting for the great Nicholas Ray and productive Henry Hathaway, but he wasn't going to waste one of his rare directorial efforts simply paying homage. He was determined to take the genre Out Of The Past and into the future.

One way to improve on something is to make a film that couldn't be made before. The genre was always steeped in sex, but with the fearsome censors, it could only be alluded to. That arguably robbed the films of the deep erotic bond that brought home how the man could screw his life up so badly over the fatale. Any search for the film on ebay would quickly bring home the fact that the film is most remembered today for Jennifer Connelly's first and best nude scene that made a film (unlike this scene that doesn't have a chance to be, the Waking The Dead deleted scene I Want to Have a Child is also amazing for her performance). It's understandable in a way because many jaws may never be the same, but as a whole it's a great tragedy. Hopper has not simply made a cheap midnight movie; he's made a well rounded movie that, while not in the class with Double Indemnity, is true to what came before him, and at the same time represents the movie you know some of his predecessors wanted to make.

Hopper calls The Hot Spot his "Last Tango In Texas", but it's closest modern inspiration does not appear to be the Bernardo Bertolucci classic. It appears to be a movie that Hopper gave one of his most fascinating performances in, David Lynch's Blue Velvet. Both are noirish, but also two of the best films about small town America. Neither try to give a thorough explanation of this subject, it's more that they have fun with the way the setting defines the people's lives, gets/makes the people act. The Hot Spot isn't shocking and controversial though, and doesn't have any characters whose existence you question. It doesn't need to because its topic is dishonesty, and although shady characters come in all shapes and sizes, the ones that don't look shady tend to have the edge. The Hot Spot simply takes ideas from Blue Velvet, mixes them with elements from classic noirs and some of Hopper's own ideas on how to improve things to make a new worthy film that observes the conventions of old worthy films.

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The film stars Don Johnson as Harry Maddux, a loner who drifts into a steamy small Texas town. The Hot Spot was filmed in Taylor, but the town is unnamed because it is representative of many small towns. This town is ridiculously hot, which Hopper shows with varying shots that are slightly blurred and wavy due to the heat coming up from the road/ground. Even before Johnson sees Jennifer Connelly, his face is gleaming with perspiration. Although we don't know what messes Maddux has gotten himself into, we quickly get the idea that he's always moving away from a place he needs to leave behind.

Maddux almost immediately finds his way to the nudie bar, an effectively shot scene with the darks associated with noir but also the seductive color gels and the fitting Billy Squier tune, The Stroke. Upon exiting the bar, Johnson starts walking coolly and slowly in search of something and soon we see Connelly walk into the far background. We see her enough to get the idea, the image, but she's kept much too distant for us to get the full effect. She's walking her dog to the car dealership, and as the dog wags its tale, Johnson immediately starts following hers.

In a funny albeit unbelievable scene, Maddux makes himself a car salesman by impersonating a senior rep after the real salesman has failed. He's so smooth that within two minutes, he's sold the guy a car in spite of only deducting a mere $100 off the down payment. Johnson is not extending his range here, but he knows this slick role inside out, and is far more effective than usual playing it because he's working with a strong script and surrounded by quality people.

Maddux is interested in two things, easy money and women. He's a fearless and cocky insubordinate, the kind who gets his way because he knows how to handle all types and won't back down from anyone. His problem is when it comes to women; he thinks too much with the little head and wants whatever it likes as soon as he can get it. His overconfidence combined with his lack of patience results in him jumping head long into dangerous relationships.

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If All-American girl were in the dictionary, Connelly's picture should be there. Her Gloria Harper is pure, sweet, innocent, virginal, good-hearted, and obviously remarkably beautiful. You fall in love with her, immediately. As usual, Connelly doesn't have an overabundance of lines, but she never needs them because everything she does is defined by the feeling she gives her characters. That's where you really see how much she's grown as an actress because she's quite good here with her soft-spoken sweetness and already uses her eyes better than the vast majority of performers (particularly in the early scenes surrounding Sutton making the payments he owes), but we don't see the deep level of emotional honesty associated with some of her later characters. Her accent seems to hinder her a bit and she's just not as natural and comfortable as she is in all her later roles except perhaps The Rocketeer. It's partly because she hasn't come into her own as a performer yet, but also I don't think she sees herself as the dream girl. That's alright for this role because it doesn't require as much as her better subsequent roles and she's already got enough realness to be as credible as anyone with her looks can be when she claims she's "ordinary." I can't picture anyone more suitable for the role: she has that persona where you desperately want her but at the same time respect her. She carries herself very well here, and does some excellent understated facial acting. However, there are still a few points, like the scene where she breaks down talking about why her best friend is dead, where I feel like I'm watching Jennifer Connelly playing Gloria Harper rather than totally her more recent work where you "totally believe" Jennifer Connelly is Sarah Williams. That said, both Connelly and Virginia Madsen are far more convincing than the vaunted and far more experienced Jodie Foster was in the previous Hopper film, the greatly inferior Backtrack.

Maddux is one of those employees who only look out for himself. He gets paid if he can sell a car, so selling cars is the only task he plans to take on at work. He quickly changes his tune about driving the bookkeeper Gloria to repossess a car from Frank Sutton (William Sadler) when he realizes Gloria is the woman he followed to the dealership.

Maddux just walks into Sutton's house and starts looking around, checking out the pictures of naked women that are clothes pinned up, when Sutton doesn't answer. That sums up his character, he's the kind of person that does what he wants even though he knows it's wrong. Gloria goes off on her own for a few seconds to see if Sutton is at the spring, long enough to find him and have him pay her, which Maddux finds out is bullshit a few seconds later when the slimy trapper pulls in on his dirt mobile.

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One thing Connelly does really well is show that Gloria is a lousy liar because that kind of thing isn't in Gloria's nature. She has a deep dark secret that involves Sutton, but we understand that she's a good person bruised by someone in this bad world. Maddux quickly realizes that too when he tries to take advantage of her by kissing her while they are driving back to work. She doesn't go along with it so it's "about as much fun as kissing a passed out drunk." It gets him to realize she's not like the floozies his life has been a succession of jams over. Bruises can be covered and they should eventually heal. She tries to hers because it should not be a part of her, and no one should look at her differently due to it, but they will if they know it's there. This realization makes Maddux want to change, to get away with her and some money and live a good, clean life. Pulling this off will be really tough though because he'll have to be the person he wants to be around her, not the person he is. At work, Gloria is almost always shown through a window. This marks both a barrier separating the two, and the fact that she's always looking on so Maddux has to watch himself.

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The underrated Virginia Madsen steals the show as the Lana Turner inspired femme fatale. She plays the manipulative sultry seductress Dolly Harshaw, wife of Maddux's boss George (Jerry Hardin). We first see drive up when Maddux & the other salesman, Lon Gulick (Charles Martin Smith) are washing cars while the boss is on his lunch break. Maddux is having a little fun, spraying the window the Gloria is watching them from, but Lon has Maddux give him the hose because he wants nothing to do with Dolly. Lon knows that managing Little League might not be the most exciting pastime, but it's a lot wiser and safer than having anything to do with Dolly. Unfortunately, sometimes looking out for yourself means throwing your friend to the wolf. Hopper likes to throw in these little effects. For instance, when Lon hears that Maddux is going to go and help Dolly, suddenly we get a squeaky sound from the hood of the car Lon's drying like breaks that don't stop well.

Dolly is a naughty little wise cracker that talks in double entendres and always gets what she wants. What she wants certainly isn't her husband, who "got everything he paid for." What she wants certainly isn't to be a lonely, bored, and frustrated housewife. She is very clever and likes to play mind games. Early on she says to Maddux, "there are only two things to do around here. You got a TV?" When Maddux answers "no," she says, "well, now you are down to one. Lots of luck."

Maddux & Dolly are a lot alike. They both believe they'll play everyone and do everything right, resulting in them "winning." That's how Maddux winds up spending his nights having sex with Dolly. Choosing Connelly over Madsen would be easy. However, all Maddux was doing at night was sitting around and sweating in his rented room and he realizes it could be months before days and nights are spent with Gloria. The movie is a mental battle between the two players, Maddux & Dolly. If everything works out for Maddux, he'll leave this boring little down with Gloria and a bag of money that he stole from the bank. If everything works out for Dolly, she'll leave the town with Maddux and whatever money her husband left her in his will.

What makes the movie more than your typical con movie is the big difference between Maddux & Dolly. Maddux wants to change, and that has little to do with him being tired of the crime. He wants to change because one way or another women have always screwed things up for him. In Gloria, he thinks he's finally found one who won't, someone who he can trust. Connelly's desperation is rightfully understated; it's there enough for Maddux to understand he can save her and himself without making her character seem the least bit weak or helpless. Unfortunately, Maddux's nature just won't let him be patient enough to try to see their relationship through the right way. He does great when she's around, but the rest of the time he's not exactly honorable. Dolly, on the other hand, is proud of her debauchery. She can be because she knows exactly what she is, and is proud of her "accomplishments" even though they haven't exactly brought her happiness. That she has so much fun bragging and flaunting makes us want to see her get her comeuppance that much more. In noir the man almost always loses, so we don't know how likely that is, but it makes for an interesting movie.

The writing is really good. The characters might not be the deepest, but they work and all the performers really bring them to life. All the secondary characters are interesting and believable, but also humorous and/or colorful in their own way. William Sadler is particularly good as the greasy dirtbag Sutton, a man whose appearance you look down upon but you don't want to underestimate. Jerry Hardin is also impressive as George Harshaw, the husband who thinks so much of himself, but has no idea how far out of his depth he is both physically and mentally.

There's nothing wordy or elegant to the script, but it's really clever and well structured. Essentially every sentence advances the plot in some way, is designed to get a response even if not the one the words would normally imply, or both. It's largely a battle of wills with Johnson battling his boss, Sutton, Dolly, & the police and Madsen battling Johnson. The movie keeps you guessing with several twists and turns that are believable enough. Obviously noir isn't the foremost genre for believability, but this is a lot more believable than say the famous neo-noir Body Heat, and I believe a slightly better overall movie.

The Hot Spot is fairly humorous. A building is burning down and Johnson hopes it's not the dive he's staying at simply because he forgot to insure his suit.  Johnson is consistently a wise ass to his boss. My favorite example is when George points out that he hasn't set the world on fire, Johnson says if he has ambition, if he sticks around selling jalopies for another 30-40 years, someone will give him a testimonial and a $40 watch. The movie is theoretically "long," running almost 2hr 10minutes, but it's grippingly interesting and entertaining throughout.

Like everything else, the movie has a few flaws. The biggest is a clever idea that goes awry. When we first realize Dolly is jealous of Gloria and isn't going to lose to a kid, we see Maddux admiring Gloria's shoes. Dolly says, "I have a pair of shoes like those. I oughta wear them more often. They seem to be more effective than I remember." Later on, Maddux barges in on Sutton while he's having sex. Sutton immediately shoots and the woman flees. We know it's either Gloria or Dolly because she doesn't have time to put those shoes on. The problem is, Connelly and Madsen don't look or sound alike. When we hear one of them moaning and see their unclothed body running out of the room, even though it's dark and they are out of their quickly, it's obvious which one of them it is. The movie would have worked a lot better if we only heard Sutton and saw someone with a sheet over them dash out.

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For the most part, The Hot Spot is a really interestingly and effective production. I'm not a blues fan, but one can't deny the moody goodness of this soundtrack. Hopper has gotten some big names like John Lee Hooker and the late Miles Davis and to back him up. Jack Nitzsche's work and all the songs are so fitting to the setting and mood.

The contrast between Connelly's scenes and Madsen's scenes is the kind you couldn't get in the old noirs. Connelly scenes are filmed in bright daylight on nice days with as much scenery and foliage as possible. She is the brightness in Maddux's life, possibly his last chance to escape the life of corruption and excess he's hidden from her, so she's made to glow. The only time we see her in the dark is when Maddux is arrested right after bringing her home. This leads to one of the best shots of the film, Maddux sitting on the bed in his prison cell. Through the bars over the window, we can see a nice scene with grass and what looks like some kind of cliff, but the light that comes in through this window doesn't shine on his face so we couldn't even tell it was him if we didn't know.

Madsen is the bad girl, so she's always in the dark and shadows. This is nothing new, but we get reds, neons, a lighting scheme that's associated with sex and trouble. She's something Maddux should fear, as noted by her door creaking and the wind suddenly blowing when she opens it. There are even a few Halloween decorations that apparently stay up year round to add to the atmosphere of the "lousy little witch('s)" house.

The Hot Spot is not the kind of movie that's going to win awards. That it flopped at the box office almost insures that, but these days when you enter genres that aren't popular like westerns and noirs, unless you have a lot of star power the film probably won't be that successful even if it's excellent. If you want to take The Hot Spot at it's most basic level, which the average moviegoer might be tempted to do, it's a sex and crime movie with an old cliched storyline, but if you've made it this far than obviously you don't want to. What makes an entry into any genre good is understanding the cliches and knowing how to work them, manipulate them. The Hot Spot really succeeds here, and it's got the technique, performances, writing, and pacing to take it to the next level.



* Copyright 2001 - Raging Bull Movie Reviews *