There is something unique about immersing yourself into the morally ambiguous world of film noir. Your protagonists can be just as reprehensible as a normal villain, and women are often put on a hyper-sexualized pedestal to serve as the downfall to the men who happen to cross their path. You typically deal with some heightened emotions and perhaps even a dead body or two, if you are (un)lucky. The heyday of film noir in Hollywood was long ago, but there are still the occasional features that get made which whisk you away to that emotionally bankrupt time period. An underrated favorite that premiered some thirty years ago in 1990 was The Hot Spot from director Dennis Hopper (Easy Rider). The film might speak to my old Hollywood soul so much due to the fact that Hopper created this film after running across a script from that time based on the 1952 book Hell Hath No Fury by Charles Williams. Hopper updated it to the present, but The Hot Spot has a classic sensibility that is simply transfixing. While audiences rejected it upon release, I and many others have come to herald it as a hidden American gem.
Don Johnson (Knives Out) takes on the role of Harry Madox, the mysterious drifter role that once upon a time would have gone to a steely Robert Mitchum (Crossfire). Harry has just wandered into the small Texas town in the thick of summer, and he will soon learn all about the town’s “hot spots.” You get a sense of what kind of character he is as he confidently walks onto a used car lot, sells someone a car and then asks for a job. He is just a man trying to get by, which might involve scoping out a bank that resides across from the dealership. What may come as a surprise to Harry is that the quiet little town he has just rolled into is filled with more secrets and morally compromised people than he could imagine. The classic femme fatale in this tale is Dolly Harshaw (Virginia Madsen, Swamp Thing), the wife of Harry’s new boss who loves to toy with Harry as their torrid affair commences. If Harry was thinking with his head, he would put his focus on Gloria Harper (Jennifer Connelly, Requiem For A Dream), the young dealership worker to whom he is really drawn. Although, her situation is rife with unforeseen obstacles, as well.
One of the great joys of The Hot Spot is immersing yourself into this town and allowing yourself to get swallowed up by the darkness. This is a story filled with theft, blackmail, infidelity, arson and murder; what more could you really want? Don Johnson plays Harry with an assuredness that allows you to keep cool even in the most intense situations. This is not a character you are necessarily supposed to be rooting for – he creates numerous problems for himself and other people – but Johnson is such a likable presence that you find yourself holding your breath when he is getting into close calls. He is most humanized by being in the presence of Gloria, the least compromised character in the story who you instinctively want to protect right along with Harry. Connelly was still relatively young in her career here, but she has a timeless endearing quality that makes you love her. In a story filled with despicable characters, Madsen leans into the delicious mania of Dolly, this seductress who is holding onto the last gasps of her ability to manipulate those around her with her sexuality.
Dennis Hopper supplements this desperate narrative with a keen eye behind the camera that serves the film really well. Rarely has a film so viscerally captured the oppressive feeling of heat in a film in the way this film does. While totally different from a narrative standpoint, the closest comparison to it would be the brilliant filmmaking on display in Do The Right Thing. It is the palpable heat that makes you tap into the desperation radiating off these characters in a way that is believable. The production design should also be praised for balancing the modern day traits of the feature with elements that almost make it feel like it could be set during any point during the twentieth century. If there were any minor criticisms to lodge against this one, it would be that the feel could probably be tightened up by about ten or fifteen minutes and not lose much in the way of necessary plot. I can personally forgive this, though, as spending time with these characters is so enthralling. You will not leave The Hot Spot feeling morally cleansed, but those who appreciate a dark edge and ruthless characters might enjoy this one as much as I do.
This new Blu-Ray from Kino Classics gives The Hot Spot an AVC encoded 1080p transfer in 1.85:1 derived from a newly-commissioned 2K scan. This film has been available on Blu-Ray before, but never looking as intended until this stunning new presentation. The most dramatic improvement with this new release is the gain in color reproduction. The cinematography from Ueli Steiger is essential to setting the mood of this palpably sweltering modern noir. Colors pop off the screen nicely, especially in the warm desert tones that bookend the film and the various filters applied throughout, not to mention some of the notable costumes and even bright red lipstick that is so iconic to Dolly. Black levels hold up pretty well, but become a bit thick at which point shadow detail suffers a tiny bit.
The film has pretty solid grain structure that preserves the filmic look of the picture, showcasing subtle details in the Texas locale. There are a few instances where the grain field becomes a bit heavier than normal, but these moments are few and far between. This presentation is mostly free of print damage, but there are a few minor nicks along the way worth mentioning. Skin tones look natural, with an excellent amount of facial detail present in close up. Kino Classics has lovingly given this film a new life on Blu-Ray which allows it to look the best it ever has.
This Blu-Ray comes with DTS-HD 5.1 and 2.0 Master Audio tracks that open up this seedy tale in a pretty grand way sonically. The sounds of the small town creep through the surrounds to provide some excellent ambient details. All of the various sounds in the mix seem accurately placed so that nothing ever feels off. The scenes in which Harry and Gloria go to the hidden water enclave offers up a real sense of place with the environmental sounds coming though the mix. The sound of the dialogue itself comes through crystal clear without being crushed by the sound effects or score. The soundtrack offers a pretty down and dirty southern fried experience which sounds quite powerful in this presentation. Kino Classics has provided an audio track that is equal to the excellence of the video quality.
- Audio Commentary: Entertainment journalist and author Bryan Reesman provides an information-packed commentary track that discusses the film’s designation as a film noir, details about the Texas town the story takes place in, the work of director Dennis Hopper, the careers of the performers, differences from the novel and much more. This track is nonstop and very interesting throughout in a way that will keep fans riveted throughout.
- Interview with Co-Star Virginia Madsen: A new seven-minute conversation with Madsen in which she relays the difficulties during production, her introduction to the role, her collaboration with Hopper, characteristics she latched onto for her performance, the reprehensible nature of the character, her feelings on the film and more. This is a lovely addition to the set that is worth checking out.
- Interview with Actor William Sadler: A six-minute conversation in which Sadler discusses how he came to the project, the direction he received from Hopper, the predatory nature of his character, filming the big fight scene in a long take, downing a Coca-Cola on screen and more. There are a lot of good tidbits here from one of our great actors.
- Trailers: The two-minute trailer for The Hot Spot is provided here. There are also trailers provided for Slam Dance, China Moon, This World Then The Fireworks and The Frontier.
The Hot Spot is an endlessly engaging and thoroughly entertaining modern noir filled with reprehensible characters doing morally compromised things. Dennis Hopper does an amazing job of creating an atmosphere that transports you to this environment where you can feel radiating heat off the screen. The performances are simply great all around from the unhinged Virginia Madsen to the endearing Jennifer Connelly. Kino Classics has provided a Blu-Ray that features a wonderful A/V presentation and a pleasing assortment of supplemental features. If you are a fan of any of these performers or just enjoy exploring the dark secrets of a small town, this movie is a true gem of a discovery. Highly Recommended
The Hot Spot is currently available to purchase on Blu-Ray and DVD.
Note: Images presented in this review are not reflective of the image quality of the Blu-Ray.
Disclaimer: Kino Classics has supplied a copy of this disc free of charge for review purposes. All opinions in this review are the honest reactions of the author.
Dillon is most comfortable sitting around in a theatre all day watching both big budget and independent movies.