Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Certain Kinds Of Reality

We all knew that we were going to lose Dennis Hopper soon. We knew that. But it still came as, if not a surprise, a crushing event, a sad reminder that even those who seem immortal are eventually going to leave us. You don’t need me to go over his long career but with everything that he did in his life you certainly know that the guy was lucky to make it as far as APOCALYPSE NOW and even that was over twenty years into his career. We were very fortunate to get so many other performances from him after he cleaned up, especially starting in that 1986-87 period where we got work that forever marked his legacy—RIVER’S EDGE, HOOSIERS and BLUE VELVET, oh yes, BLUE VELVET. Once Frank Booth invades your consciousness you can never fully shake him. That period kicked off a minor comeback in his directing career with the hit cop drama COLORS which was followed several years later in 1990 by the sex-drenched film noir THE HOT SPOT. I actually saw it in the theater and remember liking it, but even then I thought it’s intentionally languid pace was maybe a touch too languid but it was hard not to appreciate the film for the reasons that anyone has seen it would know. The Ain’t It Cool News obit on Hopper refers to the film having a ‘hormonally-charged following on cable’, which definitely got a smile out of me. Yeah, I’ll bet it does. I still can’t quite get the vision of the fresh Jennifer Connelly in this movie out of my head. As the sun set on the day we all learned of Hopper’s passing I sat down (with a cold Pabst Blue Ribbon, of course, definitely not a Heineken) to watch this movie again and now that glimpse of the young Connelly has been planted in my head again. Virginia Madsen’s not so bad either and has quite a few nasty charms of her own. It certainly isn’t a great film and goes on way too long but for a while its lazy sexual oomph goes a long way.

Drifter Harry Maddox (Don Johnson), coming from nowhere and going nowhere in particular in his Studebaker, wanders into a small Texas town and talks his way into a salesman job at the local used car lot. With nothing to do in this place during the hot, lazy days he begins to develop an interest in pretty lot employee Gloria Harper (Jennifer Connelly) who seems an untouched innocent but nevertheless harbors a secret but soon enough the bored but aggressively beautiful Dolly Harshaw (Virginia Madsen), much younger wife of the lot owner, takes an immediate interest in Harry when she pulls up in her ’58 Cadillac and makes sure that he knows. When he stumbles onto knowledge of how lax the security is at the local bank Harry comes up with a plan to rob the place which involves setting a fire nearby. He does so with seeming ease, even gaining an alibi when he impulsively decides to rescue someone from the building he set ablaze, only certain people are on to him almost immediately and as his interest in Gloria grows, he becomes aware that it’s going to be very difficult to escape the hold Dolly has on him.

Any film noir that has Miles Davis and John Lee Hooker playing on the soundtrack through nearly every scene is going to be of added interest, that’s for sure. With that music drifting in throughout THE HOT SPOT definitely is a lot of nasty fun for much of the running time, with the sweltering heat the characters feel in this tiny town practically oozing out of the frame during every moment as the story drifts along, never in any real hurry. The screenplay was originally written by Charles Williams and Nona Tyson from Williams’ book “Hell Hath No Fury” back in the sixties and any alterations Hopper made to the script may very well have been minimal—I would imagine there were some small changes in the language and the strip club scenes are certainly shot differently than they would have back then but Madsen still says that the town picks up on Saturday nights because, “they show two vampire operas at the movies instead of one.” The leads drive vintage cars but based on all other indications the film is set in (then) present day, which means that maybe it doesn’t exactly all make sense in this context, but so what. It’s almost defiant in how this story exists somewhere out of time, like the modern world never seems to have reached this lazy town in the middle of nowhere. (“I didn't really change anything, because I didn't want to,” Hopper told Roger Ebert at the time) In its heart, it’s clearly still set in the late 50s but if we get sucked into it, just as Harry Maddox gets sucked into the lives of these two women against his better judgment, that’s all that matters.

THE HOT SPOT gets the sex-soaked noir feel just right with a cast who seems game and a setting so well-established that this tiny town becomes a whole other character. It feels so small that we could probably see nearly all of if the camera ever did a 360 degree turn. There’s a sleazy feel all throughout of compositions that could have been used as the cover of some pulp novel back in the day but Hopper’s direction sometimes becomes listless and isn’t always quite as adventurous as it should be. By a certain point especially in the second half things just drag, as if he’s getting lost in the mood and heat of the scenes he’s shooting, entranced by every single step the characters take as they move through their scenes. This slow, languid feel is right for a movie set in such a lazy town but it just feels like too much by a certain point with not quite enough story to warrant a 129 minute running time—I’ve never read the book but I almost wonder if it takes less time to read it than it does to watch the film. When there’s an issue near the end of who was the unseen person in a certain place at a certain time it just feels like a step too far in trying to keep the twists going. Everything connects together in the end in a way that plays but it just feels like the pacing needed tightening. By a certain point this lack of real momentum causes any sort of tension that’s been building to pretty much dissipate and hurts the effectiveness of the ending which, on its own, works pretty well. With that music by Jack Nitzsche which makes such use of those legends, THE HOT SPOT is an enticing piece of old school pulp to soak in for a while as it drifts along but it takes that mood maybe a little too far for its own good.

All of that said, there’s no avoiding the reasons anyone who’s seen it cares about this movie: the ultra-brassy, super-hot Virginia Madsen who takes hold of each scene she’s in and yes, yes, yes, Jennifer Connelly. She looks fresh, lovely, beyond fetching whether spotted in big glasses and perusing the cheesy romance novels at the local drugstore, wearing a black bikini when going swimming with Johnson at the local watering hole (“You want to see my birthday cake?”) or in the flashback scene where she, well…I swear, I’m trying to be mature in writing this but the way Hopper presents these two actresses—the evil blonde, the virtuous brunette—sends this movie into the stratosphere, making every moment either one is onscreen truly unpredictable and quite stunning to watch in its own way. It makes me wish that I had somehow gotten the opportunity in life to shake his hand not only in admiration for his career but to thank him for making this movie. The pacing is ultimately a definite drawback in how well the film ultimately works but there are times, certain scenes involving either one of these actresses, when it’s pretty easy to forget all that. One element I always admired about the film was the nonsensical slogan on the poster—“SAFE IS NEVER SEX. IT’S DANGEROUS”—which seems to be an odd placement of some of the words. This may have been Hopper’s doing as well, as he once told Entertainment Weekly: “It’s totally stupid, but I liked it.” THE HOT SPOT is more ridiculous than stupid but it’s crazy ridiculous, taking its sex-drenched feel as far as possible and seemingly loving how it’s able to take it all so far. It goes beyond its coolness presenting a group of characters who can only keep up their façade for so long and if it doesn’t destroy them in the end it ultimately reveals just who they are. The final shot says it all—forced to go down a long, straight, hot road in life, no chance to turn off, nowhere else to go, making us believe in the idea of a hell of one’s own making, even if it is with such a beautiful woman.

As a movie star, Don Johnson never quite set the world on fire, to quote something said to him here, but I always liked him in a few films and he works well here as this amoral guy used to looking out only for himself as he caught between these two women against his better judgment. He’s not quite Ralph Meeker in KISS ME DEADLY, who kept coming to mind while I was watching this (actually, the project was in development to star Robert Mitchum in the early 60s), but he’s pretty ideal here, playing very well off both actresses and making us believe that he could get a sudden crisis of conscience while pulling off a bank robbery. Virginia Madsen, evocatively shot shaving her legs while placing phone calls on multiple occasions, in particular eats her role up, coming off as fearless, willing to try anything with those eyes of hers to sell this character who, as somebody tells how her husband met her, “…just sorta happened.” It plays as so fearless that it’s surprising to read Hopper quoted as saying the actress was “very embarrassed” by her nude scenes—that said, she did pay tribute to him the day he died on her Twitter page. Cool, Virginia Madsen’s on Twitter! But it’s Jennifer Connelly, fresh and virtuous, intelligent yet still a touch naïve, who nails every moment and makes you want to rescue her from all this sleaze, something a guy like Harry Maddox may want to do, but he never can. It’s her face which ultimately reveals all the betrayals she’s experienced in her young life all in this small town, which stays with you after the credits roll. The best possible compliment I can give is that each of these actresses would have been right at home in this kind of noir made back during the 50s. The reliable character actors who turn up include Jerry Hardin as George Harshaw, Charles Martin Smith as fellow salesman Lon, William Sadler as a suspicious character Gloria is somehow mixed up with, Barry Corbin as the town sheriff and the always welcome Jack Nance as the bank manager (he and Hopper must have met on BLUE VELVET), all fitting perfectly into this milieu. Looking up the film I get the feeling that Hopper and Johnson didn’t exactly become close pals during shooting and each of these guys playing in scenes with him could almost be surrogates for the director who doesn’t appear in the film. In each actor’s own way they smile at Harry Maddox, put up with him, regard him with suspicion and he just wants to be left alone—I can’t help but picture each of these guys palling around with the director while the film’s star goes off to his trailer to brood like his character.

The film didn’t do much at the 1990 box office and Hopper’s next film as director was also his last—1994’s CHASERS, a forgettable comic spin on THE LAST DETAIL which played like a goof more than anything. As an actor, he still had TRUE ROMANCE, RED ROCK WEST, SPEED and WATERWORLD (among others) to look forward to as well as 2005’s LAND OF THE DEAD, a performance I have a soft spot for partly because I spotted him in the audience at the Arclight on opening night. Whatever else you want to say about THE HOT SPOT, we all know that it doesn’t represent the pinnacle of Hopper’s cinematic legacy in front of or behind the camera. It is a nice bit of nasty fun however and even if it goes on too long, it has certain moments that I’ll always remember with fondness. Hey, I’m only human. THE HOT SPOT was made by someone who lived one hell of a life and while it’s just one small piece of that legacy, it’s true to its own intentions right up to the very end and he deserved to be proud of it. And while I doubt there are any grand conclusions to reach about Dennis Hopper from this movie, it is interesting to wonder just how much its nastiness and portrayal of dark secrets in a sex-soaked environment says about how he felt about the life he led and the world that was around him. Of course, maybe it was just a movie he felt like making and thought it would be a kick which thinking of his persona certainly seems possible as well. In a People Magazine interview given when this film was released he mused about getting older while raising his newborn son Henry with then-wife Katherine LaNasa and said, “If I take care of myself, I'll be 74 when Henry is 20. That's pretty heavy.” As it turns out, we just lost him at 74 but the age probably seemed much older to him when he said that. The death of Dennis Hopper is a tragedy. The life of Dennis Hopper is legend. This particular film that Dennis Hopper directed…it may not be his masterwork or what people remember him for but I sure wouldn’t want to go through this life without it.


Unknown said...

Fantastic piece, Mr. Peel. The original novel by Charles Williams is pretty fantastic, and definitely worth your time. (Actually, pretty much everything Williams wrote comes recommended.)

le0pard13 said...

This is one I've missed by Hopper, and I'VE GOT TO RECTIFY that. Immediately... especially after reading this fine review of yours, Mr. Peel. Thanks for this.

Unknown said...

I will second the original novel. It is quite good and I found Hopper's film to be pretty faithful to it.

This film kicked off a fantastic run of neo-noir films in the 1990s: THE GRIFTERS, AFTER DARK, MY SWEET, MIAMI BLUES, etc.

I always dug Hopper's film, for many of the reasons you stated so eloquently. And wow, weren't Madsen and Connelly incredible in this film? And not just in the looks dept. but just in the way they inhabited their respective characters.

Oh, and in regards to the rift between Don Johnson and Hopper, the Wikipedia article says:

"The director gave his impressions of working with Johnson: "He wasn't that bad. He has a lot of people with him. He came on to this film with two bodyguards, a cook, a trainer, ah let's see, a helicopter pilot he comes to and from the set in a helicopter, very glamorous let's see, two drivers, a secretary, and, oh yes, his own hair person, his own make-up person, his own wardrobe person. So when he walks to the set he has five people with him." Johnson found Hopper's approach to filmmaking "a little disappointing, I gotta tell you.'"


"Director Dennis Hopper felt that stars Don Johnson and Virginia Madsen were not as enthusiastic in promoting the film as he would have liked. Hopper said of Johnson that "He says he's not going to do anything for this picture until he reads the reviews." Johnson claims that he was unable to do promotion because he was shooting the film Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man with Mickey Rourke."