Don Johnson in The Hot Spot
This neo-noir film directed by Dennis Hopper is like a trashy pulp novel that you might read and enjoy at the beach. It's a stylish and tawdry little film that tries to evoke, with some success, the noir films of the 1940s where a stranger wanders into a small town and meets a femme fatale or two over the course of one hot summer.
The stranger in this case is Harry Madox played by Don Johnson. Madox is a man without a past, who breezes into a small Texas town and lands a job as a car salesman by virtue of his charm and looks. Fairly quickly he's involved with Gloria, the good girl played by the gorgeous Jennifer Connelly, and Dolly, his bosses' wife played by a scene-stealing Virginia Madsen who does her best to channel Barbara Stanwyck and Lana Turner.
Hopper directs with a stylish eye. The pacing of the film is pretty slow, but seems to suit the story. It's as if the plot doesn't want to move too quickly in the heat that permeates it. The clothes and the cars also give the setting a bit of a timeless feel. When the movie opens it's actually difficult to tell when the story is set. Madox's car and Dolly's car are both vintage and often the clothes seem old-fashioned. The sex and nudity in the movie is more of a surprise because of this seeming old-fashioned vibe.
Seeing this movie from the distance of a few decades seems to help it. If I had seen it in 1990 I'm quite certain that I would have looked at Don Johnson differently. He was so linked to Miami Vice at that time that it might have been difficult to separate him from that part, which would be a shame because he actually does a pretty good job here. His looks and likable smile work in his favor and yet there seems to be something darker lurking under the surface. I don't mean to heap too much praise upon him, but you should definitely put aside any preconceived notions before watching him here.
At nineteen, this was Connelly's first grown-up role. Her's is the smallest of the main parts and doesn't require the greatest range, but she performs it well enough and looks damn good while doing it. This is also the first time she appears nude in a movie, in a scene that makes watching this movie worth it by itself.
It is Madsen though who is the brightest light in the movie. From the moment she drives up in her giant pink car, she holds your attention. This is certainly the best she's looked in any movie that I've seen and like Connelly she appears naked a few times. However, it's not the nudity that makes her part stand out, it's her blatant sexuality and willingness to go after whatever she wants. She gets some good lines, such as "There's only two things to do in this town. One of them's watching TV...." and when asked about her husband, she replies, "He got what he paid for." Following sex she states, "That was more fun than eating cotton-candy barefoot." (a line that sounds better with her Texan accent) The title of the book this is based upon was "Hell Hath No Fury", and Dolly is the woman who gets scorned.
One of the great joys of reviewing movies is when you see one for which you had zero expectations but end up enjoying anyway. This isn't high art, but it is entertainment, which will be enjoyed even more by fans of film noir.
Photos © Copyright Orion Pictures (1990)