Cinema Station

Picture of the Week: The Hot Spot | April 25, 2012

This is a new series that we are inaugurating on a continuing basis here at Cinema Station… Now there are other movie blogs that already feature a recommended Movie of the Week so what makes us different?  Or are we just imitating something that has already been done? Hopefully not. We’re going to be different because the titles we select will not be from the generally accepted canon of worthwhile or critically acclaimed films. In other words our selections will not have any discernible pedigree of any kind. They are the runts of the litter, the orphans, the rude children that just won’t behave or conform, the mavericks and the outlaws.   So they will mostly be small, offbeat and often low budget works that caught our fancy or captivated our attention for one reason or another.  A different way of putting it is to say that these are films that got made, released but somehow slipped through the cracks somewhere along the way and now reside in the dark abyss of obscurity. But it doesn’t have to be that way forever. At least not here in the universe of Cinema Station. So hang with us, maybe you’ll find a gem or two among them.

The Hot Spot (1990)

In the old Hollywood Studio System stars were typecast based on the kind of roles they played best and how the audience responded to them at the box office.  Directors and writers were too.  Today things are considerably different and some might even say improved. Maybe they are. But sometimes, just every once in a while I find myself wishing that some of the practices of yesteryear were still being enforced…Take the case of Dennis Hopper (1936-2010), not as an actor but as a director. He was good but I wouldn’t say great, quirky but one wouldn’t say uniquely so. At least in the way of a Godard, Greenaway or Altman. As a director I would sum his abilities as “professional” and “intelligent” in a somewhat traditional manner.

In his directing career Hopper was only able to make seven features starting with the phenomenal cult favorite Easy Rider (1969). As a commercially successful director he was never able to reach those heights again. Many consider Easy Rider his best film. But I would argue that his overall best work is the seldom seen pulp thriller The Hot Spot (1990), a film that due to its genre was virtually ignored by the so called “prestige” critics at the time of its release. I remember when I first saw it; it was in a little out-of-the-way theatre in Greenwich Village with perhaps 15 other patrons. And this was on a Friday night at nine o’clock. But the picture is/was a doozy if you like pulp type stories about larcenous individuals for whom blackmail and murder are the answer to many of life’s thornier problems.  The screenplay was written by Nona Tyson and Charles Williams from Williams’ paperback novel Hell Hath No Fury. Charles Williams was one of the masters of the 1950s paperback pulp novels and many of his books have been adapted into well known films including Truffaut’s Confidentially Yours (1983) from The Long Saturday Night and Dead Calm (1989) from his novel of the same name. But good as those films are I still feel that The Hot Spot is the best adaptation of Williams’ work. And one of the best adaptations of a paperback novel that I have seen. Primarily because it retains the book’s cheap, low rent tone and doesn’t apologize for the genre by elevating its characters via the use of big stars or high end production values. It allows everyone to be who they are (as written in the novel) in their full tawdry glory.

The story has to do with a guy named Madox, a used car salesman who wanders into a small Texas town. And after spending a short time looking things over wrangles a job at a car dealership. In short order he is engaged in an adulterous affair with his boss’ wife (played by Virginia Madsen) and seduces a troubled but somewhat innocent young woman (played by future Oscar winner, Jennifer Connelly) and then pulls off a slick bank robbery simply because he’s bored and the opportunity as he sees it is too much to resist…Part of the fun is that the inhabitants of the town aren’t your Thornton Wilder’s Our Town type of poetic common folk.  No, not at all. In fact just the opposite. They are characters full of dark secrets that include incest, suicide, embezzlement and sexual bullying. In other words, all the ingredients that gave those pulp novels their spice and tang.

 

Cinematically the story is beautifully realized by Hopper with the help of his screenwriters, his cinematographer Ueil Steiger and a stinging score by Jack Nitzsche. The cast represents many of Hollywood’s best but under recognized and I suspect underpaid talents all of whom weigh in with sharp dimensional performances. The four standouts because of the size of their roles are: Virginia Madsen, William Sadler, Barry Corbin and Charles Martin Smith.  The role of Madox is played by Don Johnson who for my money gives one of the best performances of his career. It is my opinion that Johnson is a highly underrated actor who has never gotten his due in terms of good roles. But here he has the opportunity to demonstrate the potency of his abilities…Still I give most of the credit for this well realized film to Hopper for bringing it off so well. I only wish that more contemporary directors had his proficiency and modesty… And this brings me back to my comment about studio typecasting of directors. If I was a studio head (and this is something I often fantasize about) I would’ve assigned Hopper only to crime oriented pulp genre type films with B level budgets, the way they did with Phil Karlson and Don Siegel for most of their careers because I’m willing to bet that under those circumstances Hopper would’ve had more near masterpieces like The Hot Spot on his resume.

 

-GE.

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