“Drifter comes to town” is a classic noir opener. When Dennis Hopper’s steamy 1990 film The Hot Spot opens with a lone man in a car crossing a dusty, vacant Texas landscape, on a collision course with a middle-of-nowhere town, you know you’re in good hands.
The opportunistic stranger is Harry Maddox (Don Johnson), who instantly walks into a job at a used car lot. Almost as quickly, he rolls into bed with his boss’s wife, amoral sexpot Dolly (Virginia Madsen), and starts a gentler courtship with coworker Gloria (Jennifer Connelly), a sweet and doe-eyed young woman with a complicated secret. He also–as one does–sets up a smooth, relatively low-risk bank robbery. But note that “relatively.”
The Hot Spot relishes the tropes it’s employing, but it never turns into a paint-by-numbers job. The exact direction the plot goes in and the dark, exuberant fatalism of its final moments both have the potential to surprise. The movie also lets its character kick the tires of a few other standard noir plots, and sometimes they even know that they’re doing it–not that that’s always enough to save them. Yes, Harry’s too savvy to kill Gloria’s husband for her, but despite that he is, crucially, not as on top of things as he thinks.
The story is simple, with blissfully few inciting incidents–Gloria’s secret is unnecessarily elaborate, but that’s about it–yet the 130 minute runtime doesn’t feel too long. The movie likes to luxuriate, and it draws you into this pitcher plant of a hot, dangerous summer; with enough time to simmer, Harry’s Madonna-whore complex can steadily turn his straightforward heist into a recipe for damnation. It’s overheated in the best way, a noir film with weird Southwestern Gothic elements creeping in like kudzu. And it’s fun, especially when it comes to Virginia Madsen, whose deliciously, knowingly sexed-up work as Dolly (does this woman ever make a phone call when she’s not in the middle of shaving her legs in her bordello-lite Venus-on-the-half-shell tub? I hope not) is a real highlight. Add in some striking scenery, and you’ve got a more-than-solid afternoon of sultry sleaze, complete with an indelible ending.
The Hot Spot is streaming on Tubi and Pluto TV.