You could probably read "Hell Hath No Fury," the Charles Williams novel on which Dennis Hopper's "The Hot Spot" is based, faster than the 2-hour-10-minute running time of the film. In fact, Williams probably wrote it faster than that!
To paraphrase a line from "Catch-22," Hopper knows everything about film noir except how to enjoy it -- or how to get us to enjoy it. Thus he's turned the slight, trashy, vivid 100-odd-page novel into a dolorous exercise in lighting, posing, attitudizing and moping whilecompletely ignoring the zip and crackle of the original, and of the genre as a whole.
Hopper doesn't have any gift for drama: He spends too much time on the look of the piece and not enough of the story dynamics.
Don Johnson plays Harry Madox, an itinerant car salesman who hoves into the bleak and dying burg of Landers, Texas, one hot, still day in his 1967 Studebaker Hawk. Landers, by the way, is one of those towns that exists only in movies: All the women are beautiful and starved for sex and all the men are ugly and impotent, chew tobacco or have heart conditions. Harry, no slouch, takes a look around and says, Count me in.
He quickly cons his way into a job selling used jalopies for George Hardin, a weaselly if prosperous local hotshot and in no time flat -- that's no time flat, story time, but about an hour movie time -- finds himself as the linchpin in a triangle between George's horny wife, played by Virginia Madsen, and the innocent but sexy Jennifer Connelly, the car lot's accountant.
Then he robs a bank.
This was just as much a shock to me as it must have been to Williams, during the two hours and 10 minutes he was writing the book. It's a "twist" rather than a plot, because it comes from no source within Harry. It just happens, a moment of aberrance, and when it's over, he's himself, the same old good-bad guy.
He robs the bank -- one of the dumber robberies in the history of the movies -- and it takes the cops about, oh, three minutes to figure out who did it. But Madsen alibies him, as a way to get him to help murder her husband. Meanwhile, just to keep all this lurid and stupid, there's an evil pornographing, blackmailing redneck named Sutton hanging around, waiting to step into the plot in crude ways, and that's what he does.
Johnson isn't bad, but, like Tom Selleck, he's one of those TV stars who isn't able to find a role that can promote him to movie stardom. It doesn't help that his character makes little sense and that even the ironic, if typical, film noir ending feels tacked on arbitrarily.
Clearly, it's Virginia Madsen who's having the most fun. A brazen voluptuary here, she sashays around, throwing her hourglass figure against the camera lens like some sort of new contact sport, inventing a Texas accent as long and muddy as the Rio Grande. She's so campy and vampy they should name her Miss Perdanales County of 1990.
'The Hot Spot'
Starring Don Johnson and Virginia Madsen.
Directed by Dennis Hopper.
Released by Orion.