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Hot Spot, The
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by Jack Sommersby

"Lukewarm Small-Town Crime Tale"
2 stars

Released to both lackluster reviews and box office, it didn't generate much heat for a late-summer theatrical release.

The Dennis Hopper-directed The Hot Spot works overtime to wow us as the ultimate in neo-noir, which in itself isn't the worst thing in the cinematic world, but it's fatally self-indulgent and crushingly overlong at eleven minutes over the two-hour mark. Too padded out to function as a thriller and luridly imprecise to work up much in the way of erotica, it's best appreciated as an honorable nice-try -- it's not bad, just negligible in areas that really count. Which is a shame because its starts out well, as Don Johnson's drifter Harry Madox arrives in his black Studebaker in a small dustbowl of a Texas town; with a low cash reserve but a good deal of understated charm, he lands a job as a car salesman on a small lot, checks into a seedy hotel, and tries settling into a meager existence that he knows isn't going to sate him for very long. Just under forty-years old with limited prospects, Harry knows he hasn't set the world on fire (as his cranky boss reminds him when he balks at doing non-commissioned duties in his full-commission position), but he's very attractive and confident, and it's not his first day on the job when the boss' much-younger, unsatisfied, leggy blonde wife Dolly (Virginia Madsen) is already putting the moves on him outside her wealthy husband's sight. (Conveniently, he goes out of town a lot.) Pretty soon they're involved in a torrid affair, but Madox isn't particularly stuck on her, which she resents; and when he sets his sights on a less-uncouth alternative, the twenty-year-old Gloria (Jennifer Connelly) who works in the car lot's office, her chagrin is irked even more. As if Madox doesn't have enough on his plate, he plans a robbery of the sparsely-staffed bank, which, thanks to the dim-witted manager letting slip that the surveilliance equipment isn't working, is easy pickings. And though their relationship is still platonic, Harry takes it upon himself to intercede on Gloria's behalf in dealing with a local sleazebag, Sutton (William Sadler), who's been blackmailing her for some time with incriminating photographs. Naturally, double crosses and murder figure into the equation; and if they fail to take much hold, it's that they're not rooted in anything genuine -- because of the ill-defined characters and hackneyed plot components, we have very little invested in the proceedings. Just about everything in The Hot Spot comes off as second-rate, as if the moviemakers were doing a trial run before putting the real stuff on the screen, and nondescript-noir is the result.

It's an adaptation of a fine Jim Thompson-like 1950s pulp-crime novel Hell Hath No Fury by Charles Williams, who co-wrote the screenplay, and is fairly faithful to it. But what it had and the movie doesn't, and desperately needs, is compression. The beginning passages have some snap, with Hopper's directorial control in full evidence in the establishment of character and place: Madox is initially a commanding figure, the car lot seems like a real place of business, and the town has a well-etched milieu. But after a while the pacing goes slack and the scenes lack definition. Madox spends an eternity driving up to or walking toward a setting where the dialogue is to occur; and when the talking does start there are so many pregnant pauses in a dire attempt to be "moody" that we're made aware of the strained effort behind it. (A good fifteen minutes alone could've been pruned from the running time just by eliminating these.) Working with the capable cinematographer Ueli Steiger, Hopper gives us garishly-lit nighttime sets with lots of primary-color gels and neon signs, but the camera lingers on them for so long they're self-consciously fruity rather than evocatively expressive. Hopper's trying for the same lurid/vivid atmospherics David Lynch masterfully brought off in Blue Velvet four years prior, but he doesn't have Lynch's phenomenal control and narrative assuredness, and the ability to convey a sense of danger permeating the dark underside of small-town Americana. Hopper's too obvious about the effects he's after, and we're left with a sluggishly-paced, creaky plot garnished with gargantuan arty touches that emasculate the characters. Johnson is his usual reliable self, but it would've helped had his anti-hero been allowed some interesting psychological levels in the vein of, say, Jason Patric's in the far-superior After Dark, My Sweet. As the femme fatale, Madsen's too broad from the onset and stays that way, and Connelly is so reticent she's practically a cipher; detrimentally, neither exudes so much as an iota of sensuality even though they both shed their clothes. Jerry Hardin, though, is amusingly pathetic as the short-tempered boss (watch the way he angrily fidgets with a Coke bottle on his desk), and Sadler injects reserves of variety into his villainous interpretation. At a brisk ninety minutes and shorn of its indulgences, The Hot Spot could've been a real kick, but it lacks judgment, acuteness. Not to mention a halfway-decent title.

The DVD is strictly average: a non-anamorphic widescreen transfer with no special features.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=23891&reviewer=327
originally posted: 06/05/12 18:12:03
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  12-Oct-1990 (R)
  DVD: 13-Jun-2000



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