“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.…