Saturday, January 26, 2008

The Hot Spot (1990)

The Hot Spot: The Drifter Caught Between Two Women

“Yes, indeed. I’ve found my level, and I’m living it.”

Based on the novel, Hell Hath No Fury by Charles Williams, the stylish erotically charged neo noir film The Hot Spot, is directed by Dennis Hopper. This tale of a drifter caught in a web of adultery, blackmail, double cross and murder is quintessential noir updated with more than a dash of sex. The Drifter is an archetypal figure in noir, but The Hot Spot also gives us two fascinating female characters to fill the polar opposite saintly and femme fatale roles. Placing the drifter Madox in between these two women, The Hot Spot is a complex story of a man torn between making good and bad choices through his relationships.

On a blisteringly hot day, with no clues about the drifter’s past, where he came from or where he is headed, laconic Harry Madox (Don Johnson) arrives in a small Texas town. This is the sort of town where the local sheriff patiently watches the newcomer with a predatory glance, the neighbors spy on one another with binoculars, and the entire population turns out to gawk at a fire at the local hamburger shack. Madox is just passing through. He stops for gas, pays with a $100 bill and ambles over to the Yellow Rose bar for a beer. While other customers ogle the topless exotic dancers swinging on poles, Madox seems oblivious to all the perfect female flesh on display. If Madox shows a measurable emotion when glancing at the male customers, it’s boredom with a slight nod to the fact these men are suckers.

But Madox is not impervious to female charm. Stepping out of the bar, he glimpses a willowy brunette walking her dog. Madox stops in his tracks, and then instinctively he follows the brunette and lands on Harshaw Motors, a used car lot. Without skipping a beat, he slickly waylays a customer who’s reluctant to buy a car. Undercutting Gulick (Charles Martin Smith), a salesman who’s too guileless to see that Madox is serious competition, Madox sells a car, padding his sales pitch with blatant lies.

Madox’s performance impresses the used car lot owner, blustery middle-aged cowboy, George Harshaw (Jerry Hardin), and Madox is offered a job as the new salesman. With a job at Harshaw Motors and a room in the town’s motel, things seem to be looking up for Madox—not bad for a drifter’s first day in town….

Camera shots scan the used cars in the lot as the sun beats down mercilessly, and while nothing moves in the heat, there’s a sense that tempers and passions are simmering under the sun’s merciless rays. Some shots show blurry waves of heat rising from the road, and even the scenes shot in the relatively cool lush water spots convey a tranquility that barely masks an underlying sense of heat and illicit passion.

With a tense restlessness held tightly in check, Madox defines his employment at Harshaw Motors, refusing some tasks and preempting his boss’s lunch hour. Harshaw, who proves to be a very bad judge of character, incorrectly interprets Madox’s refusal to obey as a lack of ambition. Madox’s sarcastic reply reveals that he couldn’t care less about the job or Harshaw’s opinion of him:

“Yeah, well I’ve got ambition. See I figure if I stick around selling jalopies for another 30 or 40 years, someone will give me a testimonial and a forty dollar watch.”

Madox’s motto is “in this life, you’ve got to take what you want. Damn sure can’t stand around and wait for someone to give it to you.” So it comes as no surprise when Madox starts scoping out the bank with an eye to making a big score, and with a sophisticated modus operandi it’s clear that Madox is a seasoned pro. Madox concocts a simple plan to rob the bank, and the plan works well, but it’s in Madox’s personal life, where things go horribly wrong.

To Madox, “life’s just been a succession of jams over floozies of one kind or another.” And true to character, he lands in a real mess. The brunette he spotted on his first day in town turns out to be fellow employee Gloria (Jennifer Connelly), a nineteen-year-old shy, sweet virginal beauty who happens to be the target of blackmail from local scumbag, Sutton (William Sadler). When Madox discovers that Gloria is hiding something, his first instinct is to trade that newfound knowledge for sexual favours, and when that doesn’t work, he feels slightly ashamed and backs off. Seeing Gloria as a damsel-in-distress, Madox finds himself trying to protect her from the slimy Sutton.

While Madox gently courts Gloria through a series of chaste trysts, he simultaneously dives into a sexually explosive relationship with Harshaw’s insatiable luscious, blonde wife, Dolly (Virginia Madsen). Madox, who’s alternately repelled and amused by Dolly, acknowledges “my batting average for staying out of trouble when it’s baited with this much tramp. An even zero.”

In some ways, The Hot Spot’s formula may seem all too familiar—something we’ve seen before. But the moral complexities and the intricacies of character in this neo noir create a vastly superior film that could so easily be overlooked, and in some ways The Hot Spot craftily encourages the viewer to miss its subtle, buried moral ambiguities. A great deal of the film rests on Don Johnson, and he’s surprisingly effective as the drifter Madox—a man who’s given a fresh start, but who goes right back to the same old behaviors. Perhaps best known for Miami Vice, the role of the opportunistic Madox fits Johnson well. Fate leads him to Harshaw Motors, and then character takes over, creating an explosive—for want of a better word—‘ love’ triangle between Madox, Gloria and Dolly.

The most fascinating aspect of The Hot Spot is Madox’s relationship with these two very different women. The film emphasizes the physical differences between the two female characters, and there are certainly plenty of contrasts between Gloria’s ephemeral beauty and Dolly’s red-hot nympho act. Gloria dresses in light colours and delicate fabrics, and her scenes are cool, clear and full of light. Dolly, on the other hand, is placed in steamy situations, dressing in hot pinks and reds, writhing on her silver satin sheets in her bordello-inspired bedroom, or laying on her back in the rear seat of a car. While the film emphasizes these physical differences, fascinating behaviours and decisions trail through this tawdry tale. Gloria represents the ‘good woman’ and the lure of domesticity, but as the story develops, it’s possible that Gloria has a few wiles of her own. Whether or not these wiles are based in naiveté or simple lack-of-practice, well that’s a decision I leave to the viewer. While we should not be too shocked when Dolly swings her legs open for Madox’s view, Gloria also tries that trick too. Dolly’s conversations with Madox are pumped with landmines of sexual innuendo, but then again Gloria also drops sexual hints to Madox. Whereas Dolly’s sexual antics are up front, transparent, and all too obvious, Gloria isn’t above teasing either. Sutton, a man who uses women to get what he wants, realizes that Gloria, who has some dirty secrets of her own, has Madox “all stirred up,” an idea he finds hilarious.

Madox idolizes Gloria and envisions an idealistic future that he longs for on some level, but it’s built on an old cliché that man can be redeemed by the love of a ‘good woman.’ Many men would see Dolly as a fantasy woman—the scarlet temptress who promises and delivers a roller coaster ride of wild sexual variation. But Madox’s fantasy woman is the virginal, serene Gloria, and symbolic scenes frequently place Gloria protectively, and unattainably behind glass while Madox is on the outside looking in.

A frequent theme in noir is the idea of the man corrupted by a femme fatale into committing egregious acts that are unimaginable in normal circumstances. Consider Cora Smith in The Postman Always Rings Twice or Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity. Murder rears its head in The Hot Spot, and it’s expected that Dolly would suggest murder to Madox. Does Madox draw a line at murder? The answer to that question is a resounding no. Madox is perfectly capable of murder, but the prize must be worth it. While to Madox, Dolly isn’t worth killing for, Gloria is. Ironically, the bitter truth is that it’s the ‘good’ woman who provokes Madox to murder—not the hot-blooded hussy who uses every trick in the book to manipulate Madox into her murderous schemes. But in spite of the film’s emphasis on the manipulation of men by sexuality, in the end it’s Dolly’s wily intelligence and not her rampant sexual appetite that allows her to shape her own destiny. Sex is one of Dolly’s weapons, but she knows and understands Madox better than he knows himself, and this, ultimately is what makes The Hot Spot a fascinating, steamy neo noir that resonates long after the credits roll.

Written by Guy Savage


waldog2006 said...

First thing I thought when hearing of Dennis Hopper's death today was that he was overlooked as the director of possibly the best 'tumbleweed' noir of all. It's great to read an appreciation of this movie; perhaps someone will show it at a Hopper retrospective.

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