Don Johnson as Harry Madox, drifter and used car salesman
Texas, Summer 1990
Film: The Hot Spot
Release Date: October 12, 1990
Director: Dennis Hopper
Costume Designer: Mary Kay Stolz
One of the benefits of writing BAMF Style the last eight years has been learning about movies from readers that may have otherwise never crossed by path. Thanks to suggestions from two readers, Peter and Cecil, I discovered The Hot Spot, a neo-noir in the pulp tradition with shades of The Postman Always Rings Twice and Jim Thompson’s hardboiled fiction. With some exceptions, I’ve found many neo-noir attempts to fall flat, either from trying too hard to replicate the look and feel of the golden age of noir or trying too hard to inject modern sensibilities from a more permissive, explicit era of filmmaking. On the other hand, the best neo-noir movies recognize that it was more often style, tone, and snappy dialogue that made those works by Hawks, Siodmark, Torneuer, and Wilder so watchable, with plot almost secondary to the story be it simple, complex, or somehow both as in the case of The Big Sleep.
Enter The Hot Spot, with a title alone that would fit well among Columbia’s B catalog of early ’50s noir. As Roger Ebert stated in his three-star review, “Only movie lovers who have marinated their imaginations in the great B movies from RKO and Republic will recognize The Hot Spot as a superior work in an old tradition.” All the elements are here: our laconic, chain-smoking anti-hero, his femme fatale vs. the ingenue romantic interests, and plenty of drinking alone in sweaty, neon-lit motel rooms while pondering the next move.
It helps that the screenplay had been originally adapted in the early ’60s by Charles Williams and Nona Tyson from Williams’ 1952 novel Hell Hath No Fury. The script was originally intended to be a vehicle for Robert Mitchum before Dennis Hopper dusted it off decades later to replace the heart of the Mike Figgis-penned heist film he was planning to make with Don Johnson, fresh from his career-defining role on Miami Vice. As Johnson recalled in a 2014 interview with The A.V. Club:
Three days before we started shooting, Dennis Hopper came to all of us, he called a meeting on a Sunday, and he said, “Okay, we’re not making that script. We’re making this one.” … This was three days before we started shooting! So he was kind of looking around the table at everybody and saying, “Well, you know, if Don Johnson bails, we don’t have a movie.” And I read the script, and I said, “Wow!” I mean, the Figgis script was really slick and cool, and it was a heist movie, but this was real noir, the guy was an amoral drifter, and it was all about how women were going to take him down.
The premise alone should be familiar: a stranger rides into town. In this case, it’s the fashionable yet cynical Harry Madox, steering his ’59 Studebaker off of a blue highway into a steamy Texas berg, seemingly comprised solely of barbecue joints, motels, and car dealerships. Emboldened by a beer at a sleazy strip club, Harry follows a voluptuous young woman (Jennifer Connolly) onto a used car lot where he picks up the slack from a lackadaisical salesman and impulsively sells a Mercury, in turn securing himself a job at the dealership.
The next day, Harry—and the audience—get better acquainted with the world of “Landers” (actually filmed in Taylor, Texas), when he begins his first full day of work at Harshaw Motors. “Shouldn’t chew that stuff,” Harry advises his fellow salesman Lon Gulick (Charles Martin Smith), adding “it’s bad for ya” just before lighting his own Kool. Right away, Harry makes it clear that he won’t be a model employee, refusing his boss’ command to accompany a “Miss Harper” on the unenviable task of repossessing a Taurus from local deadbeat landscaper Frank Sutton (William Sadler), until a look at his co-worker reveals her to be Gloria, the attractive young woman that drew him to the lot in the first place.
As Harry continues getting acquainted with the town while the rest of its inhabitants busy themselves with a restaurant fire, he encounters a loquacious banker who’s all too forthcoming about his deviances and the bank’s lack of adequate security as well as his boss’ seductive wife Dolly (Virginia Madsen), who motors into the lot and soon coaxes Harry into joining her in the cockpit of her long pink Cadillac.
Dolly: So whatcha gonna do in our town?
Harry: Whatever there is to do.
What’d He Wear?
With the heat steady around 90°F, Harry is quick to throw off his fawn-colored jacket after arriving at work, spending the rest of his morning in the striped shirt and tie that has been the subject of multiple BAMF Style requests from readers Peter and Cecil.
The long, ventless, single-breasted suit jacket is styled and cut consistent with late ’80s fashions with its wide, padded shoulders, low two-button stance, spacious, boxy fit. The details are otherwise similar to traditional business suits with welted breast pocket, straight flapped hip pockets, and four-button cuffs. While the material is likely a lightweight linen blend to match the trousers, the extra layer would have still been somewhat oppressive in the extreme heat, and it’s no surprise that Harry—not particularly bound by decorum or tradition—would remove the jacket as soon as he’s inside the poorly cooled dealership office.
Harry Madox’s trademark look consists of a short-sleeved shirt with clipped-in-place tie, pleated linen trousers, and nubuck shoes. While short-sleeved shirts and ties have been disparagingly equated with the bland styles of NASA mathematicians or high school vice principals, Harry spins the look by wearing uniquely patterned shirts with enough insouciance that he looks more rebellious than square, opting for offbeat shirts that suit his own comfort and dress code. Rules of fashion be damned to Harry Madox, who isn’t about to compromise his own comfort for a job he already resents before he starts.
We already sense that Harry Madox isn’t necessary on the level when we meet him, but it’s hard to miss what’s being suggested by this shirt with its bold horizontal stripes that evokes the sepia-toned image of old-fashioned prison garb, particularly those of Southern chain gangs. The unorthodox horizontal block stripe elevates the impact of its otherwise bland beige and stone gray colorway, further enhanced by a raised tonal windowpane grid that adds texture and character. He also self-cuffs each of the short sleeves for an added “tough guy” touch.
When Harry loosens and removes his tie, it’s revealed that the shirt is a casual camp shirt with the traditional loop collar which Harry fastens under the tie knot to effect the look of a spread collar. The shirt has large, clear plastic buttons that fasten up a plain front and a breast pocket for his ubiquitous cigarettes. The sheer lightweight linen shirting outlines both the deck of Kools in his pocket as well as his undershirt.
In addition to the requests to write about this shirt, Peter also asked if it would be possible to find shirts like this currently available. While several brands are currently marketing and offering horizontal-striped shirts (with a brief selection below), I’m ashamed to report that I fell short of the task of finding any with the distinctive colors and/or “prison stripe” as we see Don Johnson wearing here; for whatever reason, my shirts I encountered were of a thinner stripe and almost always incorporated blue into its colorway. I’d welcome any input or feedback from BAMF Style readers who may have seen something similar and can help Peter on his quest!
All availability and pricing of the below selections current as of August 2, 2020:
Goodfellow & Co. Striped Standard Fit Short Sleeve Shirt in cyber blue stripe cotton (Target, $19.99)
Lucky Brand Men’s San Gabriel Shirt in blue/white stripe linen (Macy’s, $69.50)
Madewell Ransell Stripe Double Weave Perfect Short Sleeve Shirt in throw stripe faded rosebud (Nordstrom, $47.70)
Old Navy Textured-Dobby Short-Sleeve Shirt for Men in white stripe cotton (Old Navy, $29.99)
Original Penguin Chambray Horizontal Stripe Shirt in dark sapphire cotton (Original Penguin, $79)
Perry Ellis Multi-Color Stripe Button-Up Shirt in bijou blue cotton (Amazon, $34.99-$39.99)
Rails Carson Stripe Short Sleeve Linen Blend Button-Up Shirt (Nordstrom, $118)
Tasso Elba Men’s Cannela Linen Striped Shirt in khaki combo linen (Macy’s, $31.99)
Tasso Elba Men’s Stripe Linen Shirt in coral stripe linen (Macy’s, $31.99)
Tasso Elba Men’s Sunset Striped Shirt in tan combo linen (Macy’s, $31.99)
Weatherproof Vintage Men’s Horizontall Stripe Twill Slub Shirt in moonlight blue cotton (Macy’s, $27.50)
Harry’s narrow tie is covered in an appropriately chaotic black static print against a minty gray ground that coordinates with the darker stripe of his shirt, held into place at mid-chest by a gold tie bar or clip, detailed in the center with a black enamel-filled accent.
Harry’s white ribbed cotton sleeveless undershirt is outlined through the sheer linen shirting and on full display when he joins Lon in washing down the ’86 LTD sedan that he and Gloria drove out to Sutton’s dilapidated spread. This particular A-shirt has a deep scoop neckline.
The fawn-colored trousers have a lightweight construction prone to wrinkling that suggests linen or a linen blend, likely the same material as the matching suit jacket he had been wearing at the start of his workday. Like all of his other trousers, these are styled in the fashions of the late ’80s and early ’90s with a full, baggy fit abetted by double reverse-facing pleats flanking the fly. They have a straight pocket on each side, just forward of the seams, with two back pockets; the right back pocket is covered with a scalloped, single-button flap, while the left back pocket merely has a slim welt across the opening. The bottoms are finished with turn-ups (cuffs).
Excess bagginess aside, Harry’s trousers have a stylishly medium-to-long rise to around Don Johnson’s natural waist, considerably higher than the low-rise trousers commonly seen over the last decade. His trousers are held up with a plain black leather belt with a steel single-prong buckle.
Harry rotates through three pairs of shoes over the course of The Hot Spot, though his most commonly seen are these taupe nubuck oxfords with brick red outsoles. Bucks like these, a fashion dating back to the early 20th century, are still relatively easy to find from modern shoemakers:
- Allen Edmonds Nomad Buck Oxford derby shoes in bone nubuck (Amazon)
- Clarks Oliver Lace Dark Sand Suede derby shoes in dark sand suede (Clarks)
- Cole Haan Morris Plain Oxford derby shoes in taupe nubuck (Amazon)
- Deer Stags Walkmaster derby shoes in sand nubuck (Amazon)
- Eastland Men’s Buck Oxford derby shoes in taupe suede (Amazon)
- Florsheim Highland Plain Toe Oxford derby shoes in “dirty buck” suede (Florsheim)
His socks are a darker taupe brown to coordinate with the fawn color of his trousers, though they also have white striped rings.
Yeah, but I got ambitions. See, I figure if I stick around sellin’ jalopies another 30, 40 years, somebody’ll give me a testimonial… and a $40 watch.
Strapped to his left wrist, Harry wears a Fossil “Uomo” quartz watch with a polished gold-toned case, best seen when he’s repeatedly checking the time on the day of the big heist. The black dial has a gold-printed inner ring in increments of 10 and a white date window in the 3 o’clock position, and the strap appears to be a smooth dark brown leather with black edge stitching.
Founded in 1984 by Tom Kartsotis, Fossil was still a relatively young brand at the time, but its initial intent to offer “fashion watches with a retro look” made it the ideal choice for Don Johnson to wear in The Hot Spot, a stylish thriller with a retro noir feel.
Harry Madox drives into town behind the wheel of a black 1959 Studebaker Silver Hawk, a beautiful emblem from the noir era. Studebaker introduced its dramatic-finned Hawk coupes in 1956, adding the pillared Silver Hawk to the line for the following model year, replacing the Power Hawk and Flight Hawk models.
1959 was the last year for the Hawk line, with the Silver Hawk the only model still offered by Studebaker, with straight-six and V8 engine options available. Johnson’s screen-driven Studebaker can be identified as a ’59 model based on the “Silver Hawk” script being moved from the trunk lid to the fins and, according to IMCDB, it’s powered by the 259 cubic-inch (4.2 L) V8 engine, offering just under 200 horsepower.
Seeing the Studebaker on screen resonated deeply with Roger Ebert, who described the Hawk as “the only car I have ever loved” in a contemporary interview with Dennis Hopper, during which he was sure to ask the idiosyncratic director and actor about its inclusion.
“Because I like the car,” Hopper told Ebert when asked why it was used. “I think it’s the best-looking car ever made. It was designed by Raymond Loewy, the same guy that designed the Coke bottle… If you look at the movie, it will appear that it takes place in the present day, because Johnson is a used car salesman and he’s selling recent cars. But I didn’t really change anything, because I didn’t want to. At heart, it’s a film noir from the 1940s or 1950s. I put them all in 1940s-looking clothes. I figured, in a small town in Texas, not a whole hell of a lot has really changed, you know?”
For the sake of clarity, it was actually Robert Bourke who was responsible for the Hawk design, contracted from Raymond Loewy Associations.
How to Get the Look
A man outside of time, Harry Madox dresses for his days in sweaty, small-town Texas in short-sleeved shirts, ties, and pleated trousers, including this boldly horizontal-striped linen shirt that evokes the prison uniforms of a half-century earlier.
- Beige and stone gray horizontal “prison-stripe” linen shirt with loop collar, plain front, breast pocket, and self-rolled short sleeves
- Minty gray narrow tie with black static print
- Gold tie bar/clip with black enamel-filled center accent
- Fawn-colored linen double reverse-pleated suit trousers with belt loops, straight side pockets, scalloped-flap back right pocket, slim-welted back left pocket, and turn-ups/cuffs
- Black leather belt with steel single prong buckle
- Taupe nubuck oxford shoes with brick red outsoles
- Taupe socks with white stripes
- Fossil Uomo quartz watch with gold-toned case, black ringed dial (with 3:00 date window), and dark brown edge-stitched leather strap
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie, described by Ebert as “one of those exercises in style, sex and shadows that were familiar in the postwar years, before high-tech violence came along and took all of the fun out of sin. It’s a sultry melodrama starring Johnson as a man without a past. He drives into town (in the ’57 Hawk)[sic] and gets a job in a used car lot by selling a car to a customer even before he’s met the guy who owns the lot. The owner is a slow-thinking fleshapoid with a bum ticker, who lives in a big house up on the hill, where his young and reckless wife (Virginia Madsen) is bored, bored, bored by her endless routine: Get up, slip into a negligee, drink and smoke all day. She needs a real man. The first time she looks at Johnson, she’s like a butcher trying to decide where to make the first cut on a side of prime beef.”
The Hot Spot is further amplified by its bluesy soundtrack composed by Jack Nitzsche and features an original collaboration between John Lee Hooker, Miles Davis, Taj Mahal, and Roy Rogers.
Wow. That was about as much fun as kissin’ a passed-out drunk.