Hell Hath No Fury aka The Hot Spot by Charles Williams

“When you break the law, you can forget about playing the averages because you have to win all the time.”

The Hot Spot (1990) from director Dennis Hopper is one of my favourite neo-noir films. The film features Don Johnson, Jennifer Connelly, and Virginia Madsen, and I’ll leave you to guess which of those two women plays the femme fatale here. It’s the tale of a used car salesman who is trapped in a shabby Texas town by his relationships with two very different women. It was just a matter of time before I read the 1953 book, and I was not disappointed-this is pure unadulterated noir, and here’s the very first line:

The first morning when I showed up on the lot he called me into the office and wanted me to go out in the country somewhere and repossess a car.

A simple enough sentence, and yet it drops us right in the action while telling us a few things about the narrator’s attitude towards his job at Harshaw’s used car lot. Newly hired used car salesman Harry Madox is the narrator of this tale. He drifts to a dry, sun-bleached, dull small town after leaving Huston, lands a job at the town’s only used car lot, and a room at depressingly drab boarding house. He left Huston quickly, and as the story unfolds, fragments of information about Harry’s troubled past (specifically his problematic record with trashy women) appear through the narrative.

Strong descriptions of the locals and of the terrain add a great deal of throbbing atmosphere to this dark, brooding tale. Passages describing Harry’s airless room at the boarding house ooze with suffocating boredom combined with encroaching desperation. It doesn’t help that Harry, cooking in the muggy heat of his tiny room, can hear his neighbour droning on as he reads aloud from the Book of Genesis night after night.

It was sultry and oppressive, and after I took a shower and tried to dry myself the fresh underwear kept sticking to my perspiration-wet body. I sat in the room in my shorts and looked out the window at the back yard as the sun went down. It had a high board fence around it, a little grass turning brown with the heat, and a chinaberry tree with a dirty rabbit hutch leaning against it. This is the way it looks at thirty, I thought; anybody want to stay for forty?

But things look up for Harry when he meets Gloria Harper who’s the bookkeeper for their mutual boss, Harshaw.

I watched her, thinking how it would be, the way you always do, and how pretty she was. She was a little over average height, and there was something oddly serious about her face, more so than you’d expect in a girl who couldn’t be over twenty-one. She looked like someone who could get hurt, and it was strange I thought about it that way because it had been a long time since I’d known anyone who was vulnerable to much of anything. Her legs were long and very nice, and she wore rather dark nylons.

Harry’s usual rough approach to women doesn’t work with Gloria, and so he backs off. Soon he’s comparing her to a long-stemmed yellow rose. Could this be love?

On the other end of the female spectrum is the trashy wife of Harry’s boss, Dolly Harshaw.  While Gloria is serious, quiet and introspective, Dolly is 100% unadulterated tramp with a drinking habit and an unquenchable desire for rowdy sex. In this small, gossipy Texas town, Harshaw is one of its wealthiest citizens, and Harshaw and his wife make an incongruous couple. He’s in his 50s and out-of-shape while Dolly, provocatively dressed and reeking of sex prances around town like a cheap hooker desperate for business.  Here’s Harry on Dolly:

I thought of a full and slightly bruised peach beginning to spoil a little. She was somewhere between luscious and full-bloom and in another year or so of getting all her exercise lying down and lifting the bottle she’d probably be blowsy.

Harry believes that “in this world you took what you wanted ; you didn’t stand around and wait for somebody to bring it to you,” and while that may be an admirable attitude, in Harry it spells trouble. It’s not long before he finds himself a Person of Interest with the local law enforcement. And then there’s Dolly Harshaw–a woman whose sexual designs on Harry are hardly discreet. Harry doesn’t exactly have a good track record “in staying out of trouble when it was baited with that much tramp.” Harry makes the mistake of thinking he can handle himself and that he can handle Dolly. The problem is that Dolly is a lot more conniving and vindictive than Harry can even begin to imagine:

It began to come home to me then that maybe I didn’t know all there was to know about her. I began to sense a steel-trap deadliness of purpose operating somewhere between that baby stare and sensuous face. She was as tough as a shark, and she got what she wanted.

This is all set against the perfectly drawn back-drop of the small Texas town–a town in which people wait and watch each other because there’s nothing else to do. Scenes between Gloria and Harry often take place in the gorgeous, cool local watering spots just outside of town. These scenes are in contrast to the scenes between Dolly and Harry in which heat is emphasised in various ways.  Hell Hath no Fury AKA The Hot Spot is a masterpiece of noir–a novel which shows us a man who’s divided about what he wants in life. On one hand there’s a lifetime of hard work and mediocrity, and on the other hand there’s a fast track to easy money greased with lust and greed. The problem is that Harry thinks he can have it all–he thinks he can please both sides of his nature and still manage to keep everything, and everyone in balance. This is a little gem of a novel, and the story plays out with its emphasis on the undeniable draw of human nature to our corrupt, baser desires. Harry thinks he is master of his own destiny; he believes he can control events and ease himself up to a better life, but this is noir, and there is no escape from the sticky web of fate.

 

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69 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Williams Charles

69 responses to “Hell Hath No Fury aka The Hot Spot by Charles Williams

  1. I should add that Hell Hath No Fury was the original title. Then came the much later film The Hot Spot, so newer copies of the book are titled The Hot Spot.

    • I’m watching the movie as I type, for the umpteenth time, but this is the first “censored” version I’ve watched; there’s a lot of carnality that’s gonna be chopped, so we’ll see if it can stand up to the butchering; I just wanna say, the soundtrack!! Miles Davis & John Lee Hooker and Taj Majal, combined in the same studio!! Terrific idea; I’d a liked to talk to Mr. HOpper about that concept; The character actors here are all very well cast: including Barry Corbin, William Sadler, and Charles Martin Smith!

  2. This sounds absoluetly great. I might order it and would like to see the movie as well. I would be very disappointed if Jennifer Connelly was the tramp although she doesn’t strike me as femme fatale material. Is the femme fatale of the movie the tramp in the book? A town in which people wait and watch each other because there is nothing else to do sounds claustrophobic. The atmosphere sounds sultry.

    • I would think that you’d like this. In the film (and I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve watched it), I saw the Gloria/Jennifer Connelly as a bit more complex (and possibly more manipulative) than she is in the book. The casting is perfect for the film. There’s Madsen, blonde, luscious and “ripe” whereas Connelly has an ethereal quality.

      Madsen is the oh-so-trampy femme fatale.

  3. That makes sense. I do see Connelly as ethereal. I need to watch it. That is indeed high praise if you watched it so many times. Interesting that her character is more complex in the movie. I still think I will see if I find the book too.

    • You know how it is–the more you watch a film, the more you see: gestures, looks….

      • I just watched it and did indeed like it a lot. It’s in some ways almost perfect. Actors, atmosphere, score… It did remind me of another movie with a similar atmosphere but I can’t remember which one. The sultry atmosphere reminds me a bit of Siesta but that’s not it. Besides the story is completely different.

  4. leroyhunter

    Great review Guy, the book sounds like top stuff.

    I realised while reading that I was mixing the movie version up with One False Move.

    • I’ve seen One False Move and I thought it was ok. On the other hand, I love The Hot Spot. When it was released in cinemas, it arrived at my town for a once-only midnight showing. It wasn’t the most convenient time, but in a way it suited the film’s slow-burn style.

      Anyway, the book did not disappoint me. Perfect noir. Williams is almost forgotten these days, and that’s too bad.

  5. leroyhunter

    I’m going to look up book & film thanks to the review.
    Another 90s-noir this reminds me of is Red Rock West. Which of course starred Hopper I think?

  6. Great review, you make me want to watch the film & read the book.

    Harry being divided between the dangerous blonde (his less noble instincts) and the security brunette (doing what is right) made me think of Two Lovers by James Gray.

    • It’s very easy to look through Harry’s eyes and see two alternate lives stretching out ahead.

      I haven’t seen Two Lovers, so thanks for the tip. I’ll rent it.

      Have you seen Leaving aka Partir? I am curious about French divorce law.

      • Hi
        I haven’t seen Partir but I remember the trailers. What do you want to know?
        Talking about films, I’ve seen Des hommes et des dieux this week-end, I recommend it.

        • PS : email me if you don’t want to ruin this post with irrelevant comments

        • Basically I want to know if it’s a community property or fault divorce scenario.

          • I’m not sure I understand your question. The motives for a divorce are a different thing from what happens to the properties.
            Regarding property, there are 3 ways to be married in France :
            1) “communauté universelle” : you share everything. Rare.
            2) “séparation de biens” : you don’t share anything. Each member of the couple has their own property. (Recommended when one of the spouse has a business)
            3) “communauté réduite aux acquêts” : you keep for yourself what you had before getting married and you share what you buy after. Most commonly used and default choice if you marry without a contract.
            When you don’t divorce with “consentement mutuel”, the properties which are in the community must be sold. That’s where you can fight.
            In France, as far as the law is concerned, the bonds based on blood (ie children, parents, siblings) are considered as more important than those based on love.

    • A big thank you for mentioning Two Lovers. Watched it last night and enjoyed it every much.

      • I’m really glad you liked it.
        I’ve been to the cinema a lot lately, if you can watch Incendies by Denis Villeneuve, it’s really good. Lucchini’s last film, Les Femmes du 6ème ét

      • I’m really glad you liked it.
        I’ve been to the cinema a lot lately, if you have an opportunity to watch Incendies by Denis Villeneuve, it’s worth seeing. I think you’d like it.
        In a totally different style, I’ve seen Les femmes du 6ème étage, starring Lucchini and it’s pleasant.

  7. Gads – from your description, I’d swear I’ve seen or read this! Oh well, just have to rummage it up from somewhere for another go!
    Thanks for the tip.

  8. Were you telling me about Charles Williams recently? I’m trying to place where I know the name.

    Anyway, as you say it sounds like classic noir. One to look out for. The whole sultry atmosphere sounds very appealing.

  9. I liked this book quite a bit! I think that Mr. Madox needs to do some research on medically induced comas to resolve his predicament!

    Looking forward to the film. Feel better!

  10. Carolina Blue

    Hot Spot the movie is great! I love both Jennifer and Virginia!

    Btw, how about films like Unlawful Entry, Basic Instinct, Silver and Wild Things?

    Those are all steaming film noir types! XD

    Any other films similar?

    • I watched Gotham the other day and was horribly disappointed in it. It wasn’t easy to connect THIS Virginia Madsen with the same actress in Gotham. She was comparatively restrained. I can’t find Silver. Who stars in it?

  11. Carolina Blue

    Sorry for the double post…Sea of Love is good too.
    Anyways, Hell Hath No Fury oughta be a great read!

  12. Do you know this Jim Thompson novel:

    “A Hell of a Woman” [ http://www.powells.com/biblio?isbn=9780679732518 ]

    I’m enjoying it immensely!!

  13. Thanks for the nudge…
    Least I can do: You’ve given me so many good pointers!

    • I have a few Thompsons and I’d been just about to reach for The Killer Inside Me when I watched the film and decided I needed to let some time pass before I read the book.

      • leroyhunter

        The film’s a piece of work, isn’t it? I’ve shied away from the book as well a couple of times. In fact, I was about to start another one by him (Pop 1280) but went for Cormac McCarthy instead.

  14. The Killer Inside Me has been recommended several times and over the years I’ve picked up a few used Thompson titles. Perhaps I should have a Thompson fest or something. What have you read by Thompson?

  15. leroyhunter

    I’m up for a Thompson fest as well. Like you I’ve picked up titles without yet reading them: he seems to feature a lot in bargain bins (as if the shops just want rid of his stuff at any price) and I find it hard to say no to €3/4 books if they’re titles I’m interested in.

    I have Pop 1280, Killer Inside Me and The Getaway on the shelf.

  16. The Grifters was a really good movie! I just put a reserve on the book in our library.

  17. Ok, let’s do it.
    Titles so far:
    The Grifters
    Pop 1280
    Killer Inside Me
    The Getaway
    Hell of a Woman
    A Swell-looking Babe.

    I’ll write up the details this weekend.

  18. Leroy: Have you seen Coup de Torchon?

  19. The Getaway? Is that the one that was a flick with McQueen and Ali MacGraw? Love that flick too!!

    • Yeah that’s the one. There is a remake too.

      • leroyhunter

        Although I think the original is not Peckinpah’s best by a long shot, I watched about 35min of the Baldwin/Basinger remake once before turning it off in disgust. What a travesty!

        • Thanks for that. I was wondering whether or not it was worth renting. Now I know. I got a hint when I saw a comment about voting Basinger as the worst actress of the year for that film. Ouch!

          • leroyhunter

            To be fair to Kim, her awful performance doesn’t really stand out amidst the general awfulness. Funny to be reminded of how bad things got for Baldwin as well before his recent (relative) renaissance.

            • I like Kim. I wondered (but didn’t investigate) how close their break up was to the film’s production date. Makes me think of Orson Welles and the Rita Hayworth debacle. Some times it’s just not a good idea for husband/wife teams to make a film together–especially if there are problems on the home front.

  20. Although I think the original is not Peckinpah’s best by a long shot…

    But pretty good, no? I’m not familiar with most of P’s work – what is his best in your opinion? I know only Wild Bunch, Straw Dogs, and The Getaway, I think.

    • leroyhunter

      It is pretty good, Lichanos, and it’s been a while since I saw it. Maybe I’m being unfair to the movie. For me his best stuff is The Wild Bunch, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia and Cross of Iron. I’d put The Getaway in a second rank with Pat Garrett, Major Dundee & Junior Bonner. That’s still a pretty good second rank!
      I haven’t seen Straw Dogs or The Ballad of Cable Hogue.

  21. leroyhunter

    So, I watched it. Good movie, surprisingly sleazy by Hollywood standards. I thought there were a lot of little Lynch moments from director Hopper. God, Jennifer Connolly is so young in it.

    A decent Don Johnson movie – who knew? I guess I still haven’t gotten over being a student sitting around slagging off Nash Bridges.
    Found this pretty interesting article:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2004/may/17/usa.world?INTCMP=SRCH

  22. leroyhunter

    Definitely worth seeing. I liked the cast of bit characters as well, like the sheriff. The all-of-a-sudden ending works nicely. I’m interested in the comparison with the book.

    Have you ever seen Cutter’s Way?

    • No I haven’t seen Cutter’s Way. Been meaning too. I’ve heard the book’s good.

      Every time I watch The Hot Spot I get something new from it. Glad you liked it. It opened in America and sort of sank sadly. A lot of the reviews out there just don’t do it justice.

  23. leroyhunter

    Yes it seems to have been generally slated, even in Time Out which is usually a friend to the off-beat. Funny, when you consider that the equally lurid Last Seduction is generally considered a classic. It deserves a better rep.

    Cutter’s Way is great. Having seen it I’d love to read the book – there was a blog about it on the Guardian recently that pushed me into checking out the film at last.

  24. Some of the negative reviews focused on the issue of the same old story, and I thought was unfair and also a bit beside the point. For a neonoir, I think it’s close to perfect.

  25. Well, now I’m going to watch it again, though it’s been only a few months since I saw it. On the other hand, I watched The Last Seduction again recently, or most of it, and was very disappointed. I loved it first time around, but on a second viewing, it seemed a one-trick pony (except for Bill Pullman.) Her character was too perfectly bad and calculated – like a machine. No human could pull it off.

    Don Johnson seems a rather sad fellow – I never quite got who he was, never having watched Miami Vice.

  26. I didn’t watch Miami Vice either, but Johnson’s rep (to me at the time of the film’s release) didn’t help a great deal. But then again on the positive side I didn’t come to the film with any clear notions of his previous performances. I thought he did a great job here. Perhaps the role was right up his alley, but he was certainly believable. I remember early in the film him driving through town with this unspoken disgust at the smallness of it, and then beginning to scope out the money opportunities.

  27. Sunny

    I have just one question about the plot. This is the only thing that I did not understand. Who was having sex with Sutton when Harry kills him. Was it Gloria or Dolly?

    • SPOILER ALERT!!! DON’T READ IF YOU WANT TO READ THE BOOK

      For Sunny:
      Harry thought it was Gloria, but it was Dolly. They both had the same shoes with the cherries on. The shoes he saw at Sutton’s he assumed belonged to Gloria, and that she’d gone there to have sex with Sutton to keep him quiet. When Dolly pulls her stunt as the grieving widow, Harry realises that Dolly was having sex with Sutton too. Sutton’s death is yet another thing she can blackmail Harry with.

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