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Continuing its productive licensing deal with MGM, Shout! Factory has packaged a pair of sexy crime thrillers. One is a prime cut of neo-noir and the other a sex-driven murder mystery presented in an unrated version. Fans of erotic thrillers will get a full share of brazen women, with bounteous nudity displayed as a production value; with stars Virginia Madsen, Jennifer Connelly and Heather Graham.
1990's The Hot Spot is a high point in the patchy career of actor-director Dennis Hopper, who here directs a story with classic noir contours but stays behind the camera. It's stylish and well cast -- with Don Johnson delivering an excellent performance. The crippling drawback is length. At a slow 130 minutes the momentum slackens off after the first hour.
The script by Nona Tyson and Charles Williams is from Williams' hardboiled crime novel Hell Hath No Fury. Drifter/hustler/lady's man/thief Harry Maddox wanders broke into a Texas town, needing fuel for his Studebaker. He wangles his way into a job selling cars and is soon romantically involved with the dealership's demure secretary Gloria Harper, as well as the flagrant tease Dolly Harshaw, the owner's wife. Harry has other things on his mind as well, especially after he finds that the security system in the local bank is sitting in a box, uninstalled. All he has to do is get the easily distracted bank manager (Jack Nance) out of the way for a few minutes.
The Hot Spot soaks in atmosphere. Beginning with a lengthy sequence in the desert, we watch Harry Maddox wander through town on hot nights figuring ways to grab enough cash to blow town. He eventually robs the bank by setting fire to a warehouse with a homemade bomb. But he encounters more difficulty handling the two women in his life, both of which are dream girls beyond one's mortal expectations. Gloria Harper is innocent on the outside but eager for some corrupting experience. Dolly Harshaw initially strikes Harry as a rich but trashy playgirl lacking in brainpower. He learns the hard way that her conniving spirit is the equal of his own -- when a murder or two occur and people learn each other's secrets, Dolly isn't above a little amorous blackmail.
The movie has good dialogue and a workable thriller plotline, but director Hopper is in love with atmospheric effects that slow the story to a crawl. It's a matter of editorial choices. Some important scenes were left out in favor of beauty shots of Don Johnson standing against walls or gazing out the window of his seedy hotel room. Hopper's exploitative approach to the gentle actress Jennifer Connelly is borderline offensive. After all of his elegant neo-noir scene blocking, Hopper films a quasi-lesbian flashback incident with Gloria Harper using angles that would appeal to a prurient 14 year-old boy. It is said that the director couldn't figure out how to cut Easy Rider down to a reasonable length, and was (eventually) grateful when other hands intervened to whip it into viewable shape. The Hot Spot movie delivers on its promise, but by all evidence it could have been much more memorable. 1
2002's Killing Me Softly is an upscale take on what in the direct-to-VHS decade of the 1990s was called an "erotic thriller" -- hotshot producer-directors like Andrew Stevens turned out dozens of negligible mystery movies without major actors but a maximum of gratuitous nudity and soft-core sex scenes. Whatever murder story was being told, a sex scene of some description was never more than a few minutes away.
Director Kaige Chen lays on the slick cinematography for a rather thin tale about a whirlwind sex crush that turns into a nightmare marriage when the bride thinks her husband might be a murderer. It worked for Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock but this time around the details come straight from a supermarket pocketbook. Beautiful new media specialist Alice (Heather Graham, 'Rollergirl' from Boogie Nights) locks eyes with drop-dead handsome Adam Tallis (Joseph Fiennes) on a London street, and not much later is following him home for wild sex. Two or three kinky encounters later, Alice walks out on her steady boyfriend and moves in with Adam, barely knowing his name. Surprise of surprises, Adam's rugged looks go with his lifestyle -- he's a famous mountain climber and the subject of a new book. His sister Deborah (Natascha McElhone) is also an enthusiastic climber and welcomes Alice with open arms. Romantic Adam fulfills a girl's wildest dreams by rushing Alice into a blissful wedding. But she's soon having grave doubts: anonymous notes tell her that Adam is a rapist and that previous women he's known have died under mysterious circumstances -- the latest one in a spectacular climbing accident. Alice breaks into a locked closet and reads troubling letters. Adam asks Alice many questions but is tight lipped about himself, and pleads with her to have faith if she loves him. But the rough sex begins to feel more physically threatening, and Alice begins to panic.
Killing Me Softly is an efficient commercial product that knows exactly what its audience wants. The female viewers get a 'dangerous' sex partner in Joe Fiennes' Adam, a guy with permanent bedroom eyes and a perpetual knowing smirk on his stubble-bearded face. Adam provides the feral sex that Alice craves, ripping her clothes off, clutching at her body and going at her with the ardor of a revved-up lawn mower. The male audience gets to glom the dreamy Heather Graham, she with the come-hither smile and an ability to do heavy breathing exercises even when trussed up in an autoerotic-asphyxiation rig. As the new bride of a champion climber, Alice is a good sport when her surprise honeymoon consists of a ten-mile honeymoon hike, after which she follows her new hubby's instructions to strip in freezing weather and pose nude in front of one of his favorite statues. Say cheese!
The central conflict is a bit like Nicholas Ray's In a Lonely Place, minus the character complexity, romantic insights and attendant subtleties. Adam is either a diabolical killer or a mixed-up romantic. He withholds important information from Alice with the excuse that true love requires that she have unquestioning faith in him and all of his bizarro sex game instructions. Although Alice may think she's up for this arrangement, it's certainly not a flattering one -- she's supposed to indulge not only his sexual fantasies but also his rampant desire to be in total control every second of their relationship. That's all.
The cinematography is very attractive and Kaige Chen's direction more than competent. Natascha McElhone is appropriately assertive in her immediate adoption of her new sister in-law. Although restricted to a few isolated memory cutaways, the attractive mountaineering flashbacks work quite well. As might be expected, Adam Tallis is something of a superman. A beloved member of a mountaineering community, he's also the kind of guy that shows up when Alice's purse is stolen, and practically beats the thief to death. Naw, he's not dangerously aggressive!
Shout! Factory's Double Feature Blu-ray of The Hot Spot and Killing Me Softly is a good pairing that shows no compromise in encoding. Being a newer picture, the transfer of Killing Me Softly looks a little better, but don't judge The Hot Spot from its title sequence, which has a lot of built-in optical dirt. The price is certainly right, so fans of sexed-up thrillers curious to see the amorous performances of the featured stars have no reason to pass this one by.
There are no extras.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. Could it have been better? Maybe the film's editor knows the truth. As the trailer editor on The Hot Spot I watched weeks and weeks of uncut dailies looking for likely scenes. I ended up cutting the trailer from a much different work print version, which contained several scenes later dropped from the final cut. At least two scenes in my trailer are not in the movie itself. Orion Pictures liked the trailer so much that they pulled the unused footage for me from the B-roll negative. Unfortunately, the trailer is not on the disc; you can see it online here. It was a big hit!
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