One of the most important things about a film noir is the ending. It has to be perfect. It doesn’t matter what comes before, the ending just has to be right. The Hot Spot is a film noir. It’s not a neo-noir. There’s an important distinction. Hopper seems very aware of that distinction; everything he does in the film engages it. But The Hot Spot‘s in color and the frame isn’t academy ratio–when it comes down to it, these differences are showier than the more obvious ones. What Hopper does is present a hard-boiled film noir with everything explicit–it’s not just the sex, it’s the violence. Neither are implied or hinted at–Hopper shows them both in detail. By the first violent scene, that angle completely overshadows the graphic sex. It’s so violent, it’s like he’s going too far (but it’s only fair, given how far he took the sex).
Oh, the ending. I kind of forgot about it (I wish I could).
The Hot Spot‘s ending is a dismal failure. The film’s shockingly good until the end. I never thought I’d be comparing Don Johnson to Robert Mitchum (before I even read the script was written, in 1962, for Mitchum), but he’s like Robert Mitchum here. His delivery of the dialogue is perfect. He’s got a real lack of affect–his eyes don’t emote–and it plays perfectly here. Watching his seemingly soulless character fill with hopes and dreams… it’s wonderful. Too bad about the end.
What happens at the end–and The Hot Spot takes a hit with its final pseudo-scene. A real big hit. Before, it’s already impaired, but the last shot is just rubbish. Anyway, what happens is simple. Dennis Hopper seems to think Virginia Madsen is giving a good performance and she should have more material. Madsen’s performance–and her Texan accent–is laughable. If it weren’t for Jennifer Connelly’s laughable performance (and Texan accent), it’d be stunning. It’s like Hopper casted both women based on their willingness to do nude scenes. Connelly’s character spends a lot of time being quiet and demure, so that awful accent isn’t popping up all the time. Madsen can’t shut up. Yap, yap, yap. It’s embarrassing to both Johnson and the film.
The end falls apart because Hopper relies on Madsen. I have no idea how it would have played with a good actor in her role–because, by the third act, it’s impossible to imagine anything but the horror of Madsen’s performance. It’s excruciating.
Hopper’s direction is excellent. Ueli Steiger’s photography is good (Wende Phifer Mate’s editing is lacking). The supporting cast–Charles Martin Smith especially–is great… Barry Corbin, Jerry Hardin. Only William Sadler (mostly because of his bad accent) is weak.
Until the last fifteen minutes, The Hot Spot was a veritable joy to watch. The ending’s such a misfire, it’s hard to believe no one said anything about it while they were filming. Like a rigger looked up from plugging in some lights and said, “This is terrible.”
Directed by Dennis Hopper; screenplay by Nona Tyson and Charles Wiliams, based on a novel by Williams; director of photography, Ueli Steiger; edited by Wende Phifer Mate; music by Jack Nitzsche; production designer, Cary White; produced by Paul Lewis; released by Orion Pictures.
Starring Don Johnson (Harry Madox), Virginia Madsen (Dolly Harshaw), Jennifer Connelly (Gloria Harper), Charles Martin Smith (Lon Gulick), William Sadler (Frank Sutton), Jerry Hardin (George Harshaw), Barry Corbin (Sheriff), Leon Rippy (Deputy Tate), Jack Nance (Julian Ward), Virgil Frye (Deputy Buck) and John Hawker (Uncle Mort).