The Hot Spot

Director: Dennis Hopper
Don Johnson, Virginia Madsen, Jennifer Connelly

I think that overall, I made the right decision to pick unknown movies as my movies of choice for this movie review web site. As I have said before, it has helped my site to stand out from the hundreds of other movie review web sites on the Internet. That's not to say that I haven't had some problems come from my decision to focus on unknown movies. To some degree, it does quite often limit what I can write about. For starters, there have been a number of movies that I would have just loved to review on this web site, but the problem being that these movies were just too well known. (Well, at least I have the option of writing user comments for them on my own time for the Internet Movie Database. I'll leave you to scan the IMDb to try and find my short but succulent reviews there.) I have been lucky enough thanks to my regular patrols of pawn shops and thrift stores to find a regular supply of unknown movies that intrigue me enough to buy, watch, and review. But I have been frustrated here at times because there are certain genres that I would love to review at least one example of, but I can't seem to find anywhere. For example, I would love to review at least one example of Iron Curtain feature film animation. I would also like to review an example of modern day African filmmaking, such as the Ugandan feature film Who Killed Captain Alex?, whose trailer made me bust my gut  (Note: Just before publishing this review, I found the movie was on YouTube, so I just might watch it soon.) But many times I simply cannot find, at least from normal (and affordable, as well as legal) channels, DVDs of these kinds of movies, as well as other unique film genres.

But with every passing year, I am getting closer to reviewing at least one example of a unique film genre. With the movie I am reviewing here - The Hot Spot - I have managed to cross off my list one particular film genre that I have wanted to review for a long time. And that is the film noir genre. A quick lesson to those who are reading this review who don't know what movies from the film noir genre consist of. They tend to refer to movies (mostly Hollywood productions) made from the late 1940s through the 1950s that involved some sort of criminal activity, but differed from straight crime movies by being downbeat in nature and often involving sexual motivations by the characters. Such famous examples of this genre include Double Indemnity, The Big Heat, and The Big Sleep. If you are even just a little familiar with the genre, you will know that there are a great deal of film noir movies, and it would seem that I would easily find one to pick to review for this web site. But until now, I haven't. Why? Well, there are three reasons. The first of them is the fact that most of these movies have been talked about to death, so one could not consider the bulk of them to be "unknown" in nature. Even the cheap B movie noir Detour has been greatly discussed by film scholars. The second reason is that unlike some other film genres, film noir isn't exactly a genre I am well versed in. Don't get me wrong, I have seen my share of them (like those four black and white efforts I mentioned earlier), but I haven't really studied reviews or other writings about such movies with gusto. I've liked these movies, but I consider them more as entertainment than anything else. A third reason it's taken me so long to review an example of film noir is that to some degree, I find a lot of these movies somewhat tame. I don't want to see a big kiss and then suddenly a jump to sometime after some suggestive activity has taken place. I want to see everything that happened, darn it!

Recently, it occurred to me a possible solution to finding a film noir movie to review on this web site: Why not review a modern example? A modern movie would not only be a lot more explicit, it would be closer to the kind of filmmaking style I am more familiar with. So I began my search. The Hot SpotSome time ago, I thought I had found a modern film noir movie worth a look, the 1988 Ned Beatty movie Shadows In The Storm. But imagine my horror when upon watching the movie, I got to a scene where Beatty had a sex scene. I wanted explicit, but not like that! (Though it could have been worse; Beatty kept his clothes on during that scene.) So my search continued, and recently I found something more promising, the 1990 effort The Hot Spot. With it being directed by bad boy Dennis Hopper and sporting an R rating, it sure seemed to fit my requirements. The events of the movie take place in and around a small Texas town. A drifter by the name of Harry (Johnson, The Magic Garden Of Stanley Sweetheart) gets a job on a used car dealership owned by George (Jerry Hardin, Big Trouble In Little China). Working there, Harry is quickly introduced to two women, George's wife Dolly (Madsen, Dune), and Gloria (Connelly, Seven Minutes In Heaven), a fellow employee on the car lot. It doesn't take long for Harry, Dolly, and Gloria to get entangled in various schemes. Harry, for one, starts to scheme to rob the local bank when he discovers a security flaw. Dolly, on the other hand, wants both her husband George dead and her claws firmly attached to Harry. Actually, Harry has fallen in love with Gloria, but he soon learns that a relationship with her may be difficult because she is being blackmailed by a lout named Frank (William Sadler, The Shawshank Redemption), who has a compromising picture of her with another woman. Will anyone not only get what they want, but get away with it?

I did some research on The Hot Spot before watching it, getting that basic plot I wrote in the previous paragraph. When I got that plot, I first thought, "Oh boy, a movie filled with unlikable characters." But then I realized that many noir movies are filled with unlikable characters. I also remembered that unlikable does not automatically mean uninteresting; seeing amoral people freely doing sordid things can be fascinating. That's certainly the case with the characters in this movie. Take the case of Harry, for instance. He is someone who always wants to do things his way and for his benefit only. He makes an unorthodox play to land himself that used car salesman position, and once he gets it, he does the bare minimum, refusing at one point to clean the cars with the simple statement, "I'm a car salesman". Though when he gets his eye on fellow employee Gloria, he all of a sudden is willing to put in a lot more effort at his job to win her over. Interestingly, though he has his eye on Gloria, when Dolly makes an entrance, he subsequently makes various plays towards her when they are in private - though it seems Harry rationalizes this by treating this particular relationship as just sexual and with no serious commitment. Dolly, on the other hand, has a different perspective on this relationship. Though at first she rejects Harry's advances, she almost immediately afterwards calls him a "bad boy". Later on in the movie, she proclaims, "I take my opportunities when I find them." Even before she says that, it's made clear that she is not a typical dumb blonde, but one that puts on that facade to hide a devious mind. It's not just devious, but dangerous, like the fact that during her first tryst with Harry she brings along a gun. At the same time, her facade hides a fear of not being in a position of power and acceptance. Later in the movie, when Harry rejects her advances, she momentarily panics, blurting out, "I can't be left alone!"

From these two examples, I hope you can see that the characters in The Hot Spot are interesting enough to make up for their often repulsive actions. But that's not to say that the screenplay manages to successfully portray them with every angle. The screenplay ultimately takes on a lot more than it can chew. If you read my description of the plot two paragraphs ago, you will see that there is enough plot for three noir movies. There is Harry's plan to rob the local bank, there is Dolly trying to get her claws into Harry in order for him to do her bidding, and there is the relationship Harry has with Gloria. The screenplay doesn't manage to successfully go from one of these plots to another on a regular basis, and the result of this is that some of the main characters (and the drama that they bring) are off the screen for really significant amounts of time. Also, another problem is that with so much plot to deal with, the movie ends up running one hundred and thirty minutes in length. It would have been far better had one (or two) of those three plots been eliminated so the movie would have had a stronger and more efficient core. Despite The Hot Spot's overlength, I will admit that I was never bored while watching it. The actors, for one thing, give the movie some spark and sizzle even while the stories are taking their sweet time. Don Johnson gives Harry a little aloofness and a slight smartass attitude, just enough so that we in the audience are intrigued by this character's brazen confidence while not being extremely repulsed. Virginia Madsen seems born to play a femme fatale, though showing occasional signs of vulnerability so she comes across as a human bad girl. Speaking of humanity, Jennifer Connelly gives that quality very well, making you really believe that she is a nice girl (or is she really? I won't say.)

While the performances by the three headline stars of The Hot Spot are certainly professional enough to aid the movie to be a fairly compelling exercise despite the uneven scripting, many viewers will be especially pleased by the fact that director Dennis Hopper convinced all three of them to take off their clothes at various points. The various sex scenes in the movie do have some definite sizzle, but there are other things about Hopper's direction that's worthy of discussion. One of the most interesting touches Hopper puts into the movie is the look of the movie. Certainly, the movie is well lit and photographed even during the night sequences, but what I want to really talk about is how Hopper makes the majority of the movie almost a throwback to those '40s and '50s noir movies. He more often than not chooses locations, props, and clothing that are right out of those black and white noir movies, only occasionally (and very quickly) throwing in something modern, such as the interior of a strip club. This may sound strange, but it oddly works as both a tip of the hat and for this particular world we are seeing. Hopper also more often than not uses a low key approach to scenes (such as one scene involving a character entering a burning building) that doesn't sensationalize things and break the mood of this hot and sleepy Texas town. However, I will admit that Hopper goes somewhat too far in this direction, failing to build the amount of tension and suspense that classic noir movies often have. Things don't start to get really tense and troubled for the characters until more than three-quarters of the movie has passed, and when the screws do start to be tightened, they aren't tightened as much as I would have liked. This problem and the others previously mentioned prevent The Hot Spot from joining the well-known classics in the noir genre. But fans of the genre will probably find it interesting and offbeat enough to satisfy their cravings, provided they are in a patient mood at the time they sit down to watch it.

(Posted July 23, 2020)

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See also: Felon, The Magic Garden Of Stanley Sweetheart, Tycus