As befits the title, the 1990 film, The Hot Spot, is all about heat.
There’s the figurative heat that comes from a cast of characters who are obsessed with sex, lies, and murder. There’s the literal heat that comes from a fire that the film’s “hero” sets in order to distract everyone long enough so that he can get away with robbing a bank. And, of course, there’s the fact that the film is set in a small Texas town that appears to be the hottest place on Earth. Every scene in the film appears to be drenched by the sun and, if the characters often seem to take their time from getting from one point to another, that’s because everyone knows better than to rush around when it’s over a hundred degrees in the shade. As someone who has spent most of her life in Texas, I can tell you that, if nothing else, The Hot Spot captures the feel of what summer is usually like down here. I’ve often felt that stepping outside during a Texas summer is like stepping into a wall of pure heat. The Hot Spot takes place on the other side of that wall.
The Hot Spot is a heavily stylized film noir, one in which the the traditional fog and shadows have been replaced by clouds of dust and blinding sunlight. Harry (Don Johnson) is a drifter who has just rolled into a small Texas town. Harry’s not too bright but he’s handsome and cocky and who needs to be smart when you’ve got charm? Harry gets a job selling used cars, though he actually aspires to be a bank robber. Harry finds himself falling in love with Gloria (Jennifer Connelly), a seemingly innocent accountant who is being blackmailed by the brutish Frank Sutton (William Sadler). Meanwhile, Harry is also being pursued by his boss’s wife, Dolly (Virginia Madsen), an over-the-top femme fatale who is just as amoral as Harry but who might be a little bit smarter. Complicating matters is that, while Harry’s trying to rob a bank, he also ends up saving a man’s life. Only Dolly knows that Harry isn’t the hero that the rest of the town thinks he is. She tells him that she’ll keep his secret if he does her just one little favor….
The Hot Spot was directed by Dennis Hopper (yes, that Dennis Hopper) and, from the start, it quickly becomes apparent that he’s not really that interested in the film’s story. Instead, he’s more interested in exploring the increasingly surreal world in which Harry has found himself. The Hot Spot plays out at a languid pace, which allows Hopper to focus on his cast of small-town eccentrics. (My particular favorite was Jack Nance as the alcoholic bank president who also doubles as the town’s volunteer fire marshal.) The film is so hyper stylized that it’s hard not to suspect that every character — with the possible exception of Harry — understands that they’re only characters in a film noir. For instance, is Dolly really the over-the-top femme fatale that she presents herself as being or is she just a frustrated housewife playing a role? Is Gloria really an innocent caught up in a blackmail scheme or is she just smart enough to realize that the rules of noir requires her to appear to be Dolly’s opposite? And is Harry being manipulated or is he allowing himself to be manipulated because, deep down, he understands that’s his destiny as a handsome but dumb drifter in a small town? Do any of the characters really have any control over their choices and their actions or has everyone’s fate been predetermined by virtue of them being characters in a film noir? In the end, The Hot Spot is more than just a traditional noir. It’s also a study of why the genre has endured.
It’s a long and, at times, slow movie, one that plays out at its own peculiar pace. As a result, some people will be bored out of their mind. But if you can tap into the film surreal worldview and adjust to the languid style, The Hot Spot is a frequently entertaining and, at times, rather sardonic slice of Texas noir.