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May 04, 2021

The Hot Spot

the hot spot.jpg

Dennis Hopper - 1990
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

There was a time in the early to mid 1960s that Dennis Hopper developed himself as a serious photographer. His eye for composition is strongly evident in The Hot Spot throughout that film. Added to that is the use of colored gels and filters, the work of cinematographer Ueli Steiger. The opening shots of of the Texas landscape, brush and desert, filmed with a red filter, could well be Mars until we see a black 1957 Studebaker rolling down the highway. When not using colored filters, the daytime shots have the richness of color found in a vintage Kodachrome. The nighttime shots often use red or blue filtered lighting. Significantly at the end, when the three main characters no longer have secrets from each other that the light appears natural.

Many of the shots involve people seen behind windows or bars, as well as reflections of windows. The car lot where much of the film takes place has two small offices that have floor to ceiling glass. Hopper places his characters so that they are unified within the space of the camera frame, but separated by glass or metal barriers. Hopper could well have been influenced by Nicholas Ray's Rebel without a Cause, in particular the shot in which the characters of Jim, Judy and Plato are seen through windows of three different offices, all within the CinemaScope frame. The restriction of space is echoed by having several key scenes taking place within walking distance of the car lot. (While Hopper is not in the scene described in Rebel, his relationship with Ray extended long after the 19 year old actor's film debut.)

The film is based on the 1960 pulp novel by Charles Williams, Hell Hath No Fury. Williams wrote the screenplay with Nona Tyson in 1961 with the intention of having Robert Mitchum in the starring role. The film was made fifteen years after Williams' death. The novel is out of print in English, but a good vintage copy of the original paperback costs about $1000. That original title gives some vague idea of the story. Harry Madox shows up in a small Texas town, the kind where the main business area is a single street that spans a few blocks. Catching a failed sale at a used car lot, Madox steps in and makes the sale before the customer walks away. Hired on the spot, Madox has his eye on Gloria, the car lot's bookkeeper. Not too long after, Dolly, the wife of the car lot owner, George Harshaw, has her eye on Madox. What follows includes robbery, adultery, blackmail and murder.

Even though the film takes place at the then present time of 1990, the character of Dolly is a throwback to vintage film noir. Virginia Madsen's Dolly is a combination of curly blonde hair, form fitting outfits, and stretched out legs. In the supplementary interview, Madsen mentions that she wore an ankle bracelet as homage to Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity. While the only information about Dolly's past is that she was from another small town, that her bedroom resembles a well-appointed bordello might be all we need to know. Madsen as Dolly is first seen driving into the frame, not quite a close-up, red lips and red dress, and a classic pink Cadillac with fins - sex on wheels.

Madsen, with Don Johnson as Madox and a toothy young Jennifer Connelly as Gloria, make for a very photogenic trio. Even more so now, The Hot Spot seems like an outlier as a mainstream Hollywood film in its depiction of sex. There are a few moments when body doubles are used, but otherwise there is the kind of nudity that was more common during the first decade when the old production code went down. Hopper employees at least a couple of visual signifiers as in the use of a gun in Dolly's hand, a a shot of a knife in an open watermelon. One could almost call this film, "Last Tango in Texas".

The Harshaw home is filled with stuffed animals, hunted by George. In the film, the roles of hunter and prey shift, almost everyone is a predator. There is also a marlin on display in George's office. Along with the fin tailed cars of Dolly and Madox, the fishing symbolism is hard to miss.

Not as pretty as the stars, but still fun to watch are the assorted character actors in the supporting cast. Charles Martin Smith is the other used car salesman, not quite big enough for his ever present cowboy hat. Jack Nance is the guileless bank manager who inadvertently helps set up a future robbery. William Sadler's good old boy persona is his disguise as a blackmailer, living in a remote shack. In the blu-ray's other supplement, Sadler tells of how the shack was an existing abandoned home that was changed slightly for the film.

Bryan Reesman's commentary is generally informative, but could benefit from not being so rushed. What is best was the comparison between the novel and the film, as well as how Hopper got hold of the script by Williams and Tyson, rather than shooting an updated script as originally planned. Hopper did some uncredited tinkering that mark some updating, such as scenes in a strip club, as well as the aforementioned scenes that could not have been filmed in 1961. While Don Johnson does not have the same kind of screen presence as Robert Mitchum, as a film noir character he might be more aptly comparable to Tyrone Power in Nightmare Alley, whose handsome exterior hides his amorality.

The tag line for The Hot Spot claims, "Film noir like you've never seen." Back in 1962, you could see Robert Mitchum beat up Polly Bergen, but not go down on her, even implied. It is an interesting reference in that the term film noir had traveled from something known primarily to cinephiles and scholars to being part of the more general lexicon. But The Hot Spot as noir or neo-noir strikes me as an updated version of the kind of films historian Sara Imogen Smith analyzes in her book, Lonely Places: Film Noir Beyond the City. And the town where The Hot Spot takes place is strangely depopulated throughout most of the film. And while Ms. Smith was not specifically referring to Hopper's film, what she has written could well apply to how it ends -
Noir consistently undermines the American love affair with the road and the belief that travel equals freedom - that you can always get a new start in a different place. In noir, no place is pure, and there's no refuge to be found in unspoiled wilderness or small-town innocence. The notion that you can never get away from yourself runs through many of these films, so the final location I discuss is the mind.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at May 4, 2021 07:33 AM