The Hot Spot is a sweaty and languid film noir, the kind Body Heat was in that characters foolishly believe that chain-smoking, love-making, and tough-talking will cool them down more effectively than an ice-cold twelve-ouncer of Coca-Cola and a brisk shower ever could. But being consumed by sin is a condition that requires them to think and act sleazily, violently, and selfishly. We’ve seen these characters before: in low-budget, wartime noir, or in cheap pulp magazines that were blasé readings that at least made drinking alone endurable.
In The Hot Spot, we are provided with a morally ambiguous anti-hero (Don Johnson), a sexy blonde floozy à la Double Indemnity-era Barbara Stanwyck (Virginia Madsen), a husband the latter passes off as idiotic (Jerry Hardin), and an ethereal, brunette sweetheart (Jennifer Connelly) with a lot on her mind. These are typical stock characters easy to find anywhere in the subgenre. And yet, such recurring players stay relevant because they are interesting, ageless cutouts reprehensibly entertaining to watch.
In a role that was supposed to go to Robert Mitchum in a 1960s film that was never made, a well-cast Johnson stars as Harry Madox, a tanned loner who uses his looks and quiet appeal to get a job at a used car dealership in a small town he’s passing by, where external workings suggest mundanity and clock-watching. But its appearance is not a manifestation of what lies beneath; drama lurks like a hungry predator. Perhaps we could say that this lurking drama is embodied by Dolly Harshaw (Madsen), the sex-crazed wife of Harry’s boss (Hardin). Undoubtedly cheap and vulgar, she is the kind of femme fatale who lacks the coolness of a Claire Trevor but makes up for little mystique with bawdy sultriness. Using her feminine wiles, she draws Harry into a steaming affair — but more intrigue awaits him.
Conceivably a con man or a criminal before his arrival (his identity is never fully explained), Harry soon decides that his newfound adulterous passion is second to what he really wants, which is to rob a nearby bank. The town, mostly populated by buffoons, does not have much by way of a police force or security team. As it so happens, every person working for the bank is a volunteer fire fighter. So the solution is easy: commit arson and, when no one’s looking, break in. However stupid it may sound, Harry pulls the job off with no outside help. But farce is not behind him, with Dolly turning out to be a possessor of a twisted mind, and with a genuine love for his young, innocent colleague (Connelly) eating at every move he makes.
At 130 minutes, The Hot Spot eventually proves itself to be too long — but as one of actor Dennis Hopper’s too-few projects as a film director, it is a sure-fire, stylishly formulated neo noir with a terrific sense of thoughtful pace and with a cast who handles noir material like a pack of Monogram Pictures professionals. It’s chintzy and ribald and greasy. It is snazzily packaged, too. Hopper maintains tight control that goes further than most throwback thrillers intent on reminiscing. But The Hot Spot is best when it isn’t concerned by its plot — I like watching its characters converse in lurid tongues, the way the camera overlooks its leading actors with the hungry eyes of a photographer waiting for a splendid glamor shot.
So while its propensity to lilt slowly ultimately becomes the source of its undoing, The Hot Spot is, notwithstanding, a modern film noir more under-appreciated than Red Rock West, which currently stands as the genre’s most famously underrated. It’s unfortunate that time can be tough for minor gems of the past: the film is a laudable piece of filmmaking, a mood piece that preoccupies. B