It's a hot day. A man drives into a small Texas town and sees a young woman -- a long, willowy brunette in a thin cotton dress and mile-high pumps -- walking her dog. Nice town, he says to himself, even though he'd planned to stop only long enough for a tall cool one. Think I'll settle down.
He's had better ideas.
The town, which is the setting for Dennis Hopper's stylishly silly thriller "The Hot Spot," turns out to be a kind of sexual tinderbox. And Harry Madox (Don Johnson) -- like most pulp heroes -- has a loser's knack for girl trouble. With equal ease, he gets a job at a used-car lot and involves himself with both his boss's sultry wife, Dolly (Virginia Madsen), and Gloria (Jennifer Connelly), the fresh young thing with the dog. Dolly, whose body snakes around inside her hot-pink outfits like Houdini trying to slip out of a straitjacket, is a Venus' flytrap in female form, a predator with satin sheets. She says there are only two things to do in this steamy backwater.
"You got a TV?" she asks.
"Nope," he answers.
"Well, now you're down to one."
Based on Charles Williams's 1952 novel "Hell Hath No Fury," "The Hot Spot" builds its story on blackmail and double-cross. Everyone has venal motives -- everyone, that is, except Gloria, who's the story's innocent angel and symbol of purity. Madox responds to her for just that reason. She's his chance to cleanse himself and make a new start. But old habits die hard, and Dolly wants Madox for her very own. And, as she tells him, she usually gets what she wants.
Early on, as Hopper lays out the relationships, the movie is teasingly entertaining. Hopper slides us into the narrative, and at first, his pacing is brisk and efficient. His images have a honeyed brightness, and as long as he's working on the level of innuendo and suggestion, Hopper generates some genuine heat. But as soon as the action becomes more explicit and the actual sexual gymnastics begin, the movie's fire goes out.
Moviemakers seem particularly drawn to this brand of hard-boiled pastiche, enough so that these films almost constitute a new genre -- let's call it nouveau noir. What they present is a combination of classic noir elements from Cain and Hammett and Thompson -- corruption through lust and booze and, ultimately, murder -- with voluptuous music-video stylings. The problem is that those cheap paperbacks weren't voluptuous in the least; they were plain, unsentimental and mercilessly lean, with a dark, cynical vision -- tough-guy books that, in the '40s, were made into punishingly brutal movies.
Hopper wants to be tough but doesn't have the guts for it. In "The Hot Spot," he sends up his material as he stages it, signaling us that the universe he's created is an anachronism, a collection of quotes from an antique form, and in the process turns his story into lurid kitsch. Where he needs to shove in the knife he turns cute, giving us overblown production design and gaudy effects -- complete with existential thunderclaps on the soundtrack -- instead of bare knuckle. In this circle of the Inferno, the down-and-outers wear $500 slacks.
The actors, too, contribute to the failure, by both what they do and what they are. They don't seem to want to penetrate to the core of the characters they play. Johnson seems too much the pampered pretty boy here; all signs of experience seem to have been sandblasted off his face. Williams's Madox had a streak of sadism in him (almost all hard-boiled heroes do), but when Johnson is supposed to turn violently desperate, his emotions seem thin and tepid; there's no rage or genuine nastiness in this man.
Madsen may not be the most egregiously untalented of the new movie beauties, but she's close to it. As Dolly, she presents a Southern accent as ludicrous as any in captivity; she keeps trying for Blanche DuBois and coming out with Gomer Pyle. Connelly, who's equally stunning, is more effective, though perhaps only because she manages to convey a kind of lush virginality and requires little more than a few close-ups of her Bambi lashes and a loving pan down her endless calves to manage it.
Hopper is good at this sort of thing; all his star actors get the come-on -- Johnson included. As a result, "The Hot Spot" is closer to poster art than white-trash thriller. The picture does turn violent, as Madox tries to protect Gloria from a seedy extortionist (William Sadler), but its violence, like its sex, is without heat. There's smoke, but no fire.
The Hot Spot, at area theaters, is rated R and contains nudity and violence.