The Hot Spot (1990) is a neo-noir at odds with itself. Dennis Hopper directs as if he’s making an art house film complete with an all-star band that featured the likes of John Lee Hooker, Miles Davis and Taj Mahal performing the score. He even secured a world premiere at the prestigious Toronto Film Festival. However, this is at odds with the pulpy source material – an adaptation of Hell Hath No Fury by Charles Williams – and the casting of television actor Don Johnson in the lead role. That being said, the film does live up to its title with the casting to its two female leads – Jennifer Connelly and Virginia Madsen – arguably at the apex of their sexual allure. Hopper even admitted at the time that his aim was to make something akin to The Last Tango in Paris (1972) only with the action set in Texas. The Hot Spot is most definitely not on the level of Bernardo Bertolucci’s film, but it is quite faithful to its source material (it helps that the author adapted his own work) and takes a slow burn approach to its pacing with plenty of plots twists as is custom with noirs.
Hopper sets a hot and humid tone right from the get-go as Harry Madox (Don Johnson) arrives from the scorching desert to a small Texas town where he proceeds to impress the owner (Jerry Hardin) of a local car dealership by wandering onto the lot and within minutes sells a car. We’re never quite sure what motivated Harry to do this – maybe he needed some money, maybe he always wanted to sell cars or maybe it was the gorgeous young woman (Jennifer Connelly) he spotted walking into the dealership. Her name is Gloria Harper and Harry accompanies her to collect from a deadbeat by the name of Sutton (played with smug, sleazy hillbilly charm by William Sadler).
Harry senses that there’s something going on between Gloria and Sutton by how uncomfortable she is in his presence. She lies to Harry, but he covers for her back at the dealership. When a nearby fire clears out the local bank (all but one employee are volunteer firefighters), Harry devises a plan to knock it over by staging a fire as a decoy. If this wasn’t enough potential trouble, he starts a hot and heavy affair with Dolly Harshaw (Virginia Madsen), the boss’ wife and a sultry vamp that radiates sexuality with every gesture and look she gives Harry.
Many noir protagonists tend to be a little on the dull side as their sole purpose is to get involved in a complicated plot that ultimately dooms them. Don Johnson plays Harry as something of an intriguing enigma. We’re never quite sure what his motivations are – money? sex? boredom? With his Robert Mitchum-esque physique, Johnson has the look of a classic noir protagonist and plays Harry as a cynical opportunist ambitiously trying to play all the angles. He’s canny enough to plan the bank heist and isn’t afraid to resort to violence as evident in the way he handles Sutton. His weakness, like most noir protagonists, is women and in The Hot Spot he gets involved with two: Dolly and Gloria.
Virginia Madsen gets to sink her teeth into the juicy role of a heartless femme fatale. It was the first time she played such an overtly sexual character that uses her body to manipulate men to do her bidding. Madsen applies a thick Texan accent like her character applies lipstick. The actress gets the flashiest role in the film and makes the most of it, but she falls short of being one of the all-time great femme fatales. It certainly isn’t from a lack of trying. You have to give her an A for effort, but the material isn’t up to her level of performance with, at times, blandly predictable dialogue that her character has to spout or silly moments like when Dolly leaps onto a giant pile of sawdust and proceeds to climb back up it as a form of birth control.
Jennifer Connelly plays the beautiful girl-next-door type that appears to be innocent, but harbors a deep, dark secret of her own. The actress doesn’t really have much to do, but act wholesome and look beautiful, which she does. One wonders if she did The Hot Spot to show that she could make the transition from child actress to more mature roles. She has classic Hollywood looks from a bygone era that were used much more effectively in The Rocketeer (1991).
Hopper rounds out the cast with seasoned character actors like Barry Corbin playing the savvy local sheriff who’s out to nail Harry for the bank job, Jerry Hardin as the perpetually grumpy car dealership owner, Charles Martin Smith playing a useless car salesman, and Jack Nance as, what else, a quirky bank manager with a hankering for strip clubs.
If Dolly reflects the man that Harry is, then Gloria represents the kind of man he aspires to be – nice and respectful, but ultimately he can never have that kind of happiness because he will always remain true to his baser instincts, which is revealed so well at the end of the film. The Hot Spot really comes to life during the scenes between Harry and Dolly as we’re not sure if they are going to devour each other or kill each other.
Based on his own novel, Hell Hath No Fury, Charles Williams wrote a screenplay version with Nona Tyson in 1962 with Robert Mitchum in mind to play Harry Madox. Nothing came of this idea and many years later, Dennis Hopper found the script and updated it. He would go on to describe his version as “Last Tango in Texas. Real hot, steamy stuff.” Don Johnson claimed that he was originally attached to the project based on a heist movie script by Mike Figgis. The actor said, "Three days before we started shooting, Dennis Hopper came to all of us, he called a meeting on a Sunday, and he said, “Okay, we’re not making that script. We’re making this one." That script was the Williams/Tyson version.
The production was rife with tension. Despite a bedroom scene that originally called for her to be naked, Virginia Madsen decided to wear a negligee instead because “Not only was the nudity weak storywise, but it didn’t let the audience undress her.” Later on, Hopper admitted that she was right. There were also reports that Hopper and his leading man, Don Johnson, did not get along. According to the director, “He has a lot of people with him. He came on to this film with two bodyguards, a cook, a trainer, ah let’s see, a helicopter pilot, he comes to and from the set in a helicopter, very glamorous, let’s see, two drivers, a secretary, and, oh yes, his own hair person, his own make-up person, his own wardrobe person. So when he walks to the set he has five people with him.” Johnson felt that the film was “too long and I felt that it was self-indulgent on some levels, which I told Dennis and which the studio told Dennis. The cast was perfect and the script was challenging. But, as a filmmaker, Dennis should have been more responsible.” Madsen had nothing but good things to say about Hopper: “He was very kind and he was respectful of me at a time when a lot of men in the industry were not.”
By the end of principal photography, Hopper and Johnson were no longer speaking to each other with the actor refusing to promote The Hot Spot. Hopper said, “He says he’s not going to do anything for this picture until he reads the reviews.” Johnson claimed that he was unable to because of his commitment to filming Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man (1991) with Mickey Rourke. Madsen remembers that at the time, “I was very upset when I saw the film because I was such a sexual being in that movie. He had given me the freedom to play that part without repercussions.”
The Hot Spot received mixed to favorable reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars and praised Madsen’s performance: “It’s the kind of work that used to be done by Lana Turner or Barbara Stanwyck – the tough woman with the healthy sexual interest, who sizes a guy up and makes sure he knows what she likes in a man.” In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “Mr. Hopper’s direction is tough and stylish, in effective contrast with the sunny look of Ueli Steiger’s cinematography.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “B” rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “The film might have been a camp hoot if it weren’t for the fact that Hopper still believes in all this stuff – he likes his women molten, duplicitous, and in kinky high heels.” Los Angeles Times’ Peter Rainer said of Johnson’s performance: “As long as Johnson is playing above the action he’s effective, but his lightweight style doesn’t work in his big scenes with Dolly.” Finally, in his review for the Washington Post, Desson Howe wrote, “Hot Spot will never go down as timeless, neoclassic noir. But, with its Hopperlike moments, over-the-top performances and infectious music, it carries you along for a spell.”
With its sun-baked Texas setting and pretensions to art house cinema, The Hot Spot, at times, feels like a tamer version of David Lynch’s Wild at Heart (1990), but Hopper lacks Lynch’s knack for the absurd and how he can go from oddball humor to nightmarish horror in a heartbeat all wrapped up in Americana iconography. Hopper has the look down cold, but is missing that crucial ingredient that makes Lynch’s films so unique. A few years later, Red Rock West (1993) was more successful at approximating a neo-noir with Lynchian affectations. As a result, The Hot Spot more closely resembles the Jack Nicholson/Jessica Lange remake of The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981), which also brought the sex and violence to the foreground as opposed to classic film noirs where so much had to be implied. Out of the class of 1990 neo-noirs, The Hot Spot ranks below After Dark, My Sweet and The Grifters, hampered by a weak script. Hopper tries to give the pulpy material a classy look when he should have embraced it completely. The end result is a flawed film that has its moments.
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