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
I’m wrapping up this summer’s #CarWeek with the under-discussed neo-noir The Hot Spot, made among the wave of sweaty erotic crime dramas of the ’80s and ’90s exemplified by movies like Body Heat through Basic Instinct.
Don Johnson was nearing the end of his star-making tenure on Miami Vice when he was tapped for The Hot Spot‘s leading role as Harry Madox, an enigmatic drifter whose arrival in the quiet Texas berg of Landers sets forth a series of events straight out of James M. Cain or Jim Thompson’s poison pen.
The Hot Spot comes by its pulp credentials honestly, adapted from Charles Williams’ 1952 novel Hell Hath No Fury and originally intended to be adapted as a Robert Mitchum vehicle in the early ’60s. Though set in the present, The Hot Spot retains much of this retro style inspired by the era of its original conception, as seen in many of the costumes and cars, most specifically Harry’s black ’59 Studebaker Silver Hawk that he drives into town.
“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,” explained director Dennis Hopper in an interview with Roger Ebert. “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?”
After impulsively selling a Mercury at the town’s car dealership, Harry lands himself not only a job but also a dangerous but enviable position in a love triangle between the dealership owner’s seductive wife Dolly Harshaw (Virginia Madsen) and his good-natured young colleague Gloria (Jennifer Connolly). His fellow salesman Lon Gulick (Charles Martin Smith) sees through Harry’s “you gotta take what you want” maxim and adds his own words of wisdom: “look before you leap.”
Trouble instantly finds Harry that morning in the form of a phone call from Dolly, shaving her legs while asking that he bring over a hat belonging to her husband… who happens to be out of town, by the way. Despite the flimsy excuse and its accompanying Mai Tai, Harry’s advances are met with mixed signals so he turns his attention back to Gloria, inviting her to join him for a soda. But, only several hours later, he’s strolling back into the tiki-decorated yard of the Harshaw estate, under the watchful eyes of Dolly, standing naked in her bedroom window. Their inevitable affair can only to lead to trouble… but will Harry look before he leaps?
What’d He Wear?
Among Harry’s offbeat style in The Hot Spot, he dresses somewhat more conventionally for this pivotal day-into-night sequence, illustrating a practical if retro-inspired sense of how to blend dressing professionally but with character against the summer heat.
Like many professionals in warm climates, Harry beats the heat in tailored linen, specifically a gray single-breasted jacket with a white-flecked finish. Gray is a common color for business tailoring, though not necessarily for linen, which is traditionally found in more “natural” colors along the beige-to-brown spectrum. Harry’s lighter gray linen jacket smartly avoids the dissonance of wearing this cool-wearing fabric in a darker gray while still businesslike enough to look appropriate for his new job. (Though I’ll allow that Harshaw Motors does not seem to restrict its salesmen to a specific dress code… or moral code.)
With its straight, padded shoulders and full fit, Harry’s jacket would have been stylish during The Hot Spot‘s late 1980s setting and production, though in a manner more reminiscent of classic ’50s fashions than Johnson’s baggier Miami Vice fashions. The jacket has notch lapels of moderate width that roll to a low two-button stance, as well as a welted breast pocket and straight flapped hip pockets as found on most business suit jackets. The ventless jacket is finished with three-button cuffs.
- Bar III Slim-fit textured linen suit separate jacket in gray linen (Macy's, $109.99)
- Club Room Linen blazer in "gray slate" linen (Macy's, $60)
- J.Crew Ludlow slim-fit unstructured suit jacket in "deep water" Irish cotton-linen (J. Crew, $198)
- Robert Graham Delave linen slim-fit suit jacket in gray linen (Bloomingdale's, $348.60)
Harry’s skinny silk tie also recalls fashion trends of the mid-20th century, though perhaps more ’60s than ’50s as lapels, collars, and tie widths narrowed. With a mid-gray ground coordinating with his jacket, the tie has a scattered tonal pattern that resembles stretched-out animals (perhaps dogs) in varying directions. He holds the tie in place at mid-chest with a silver tie clip detailed with a raised stone in the center.
Rather than conventional dress shirts, many of Harry’s shirts worn for work are two-pocket sport shirts like those fashionable during the ’40s and ’50s “noir era”. These shirts are often detailed with camp collars, with an additional loop on the left side to connect to a small button under the right-collar leaf that closes the shirt up to the neck, presenting like a point collar that allows wearing a tie.
With this outfit, Harry wears a long-sleeved white shirt patterned with a dark gray grid-check that looks as though “sketched” onto the shirt with a particularly inky pen. The back has side pleats, and the front has two box-pleated chest pockets, each covered with a non-buttoning flap. The shirt buttons up a plain (French) front, sans placket, with the aforementioned loop collar seen most clearly when he’s removed his tie.
Harry balances the lighter upper half of his outfit with a pair of pitch black wool trousers with a long rise to Johnson’s natural waist, where he holds them up with a black leather belt that closes through a thin gilt single-prong buckle.
The double-forward pleated trousers are detailed with side pockets, button-through back pockets, and turn-ups (cuffs) with a half-break over the tops of his black leather plain-toe derby shoes, a more traditional business shoe than the natty tan bucks he often wears with more natural-toned outfits. Though not discerned clearly, he almost certainly wears black socks to avoid disrupting any harmony below the belt. (Dolly and Gloria provide enough of that as it is.)
As the nature of Harry’s relationship with Dolly devolves into sexual territory, The Hot Spot shows Harry’s underwear (though many viewers may be more distracted by Dolly’s lack thereof), including a pair of ecru cotton boxer shorts patterned with narrow gray pinstripes. The shorts appear to be two pieces: a front and a back that create short side vents where they are seamed together on the sides.
Harry also wears the quintessential “tough guy” undershirt, sporting a white ribbed cotton sleeveless A-shirt. This style was pioneered by Jockey in the 1930s, originally known as the “athletic shirt” (hence “A-shirt”) before it received the unfortunate colloquial nickname of “wife-beater” following a much-publicized mugshot of an undershirt-clad Detroit man arrested in 1947 for killing his wife.
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 and smooth dark brown leather strap with black edge stitching. The black dial has a gold-printed inner ring with short notches in increments of 10 and the even hour markers marked in gold numerals while the odd hours are non-numeric triangles, aside from the 3:00 position, which is replaced with a white date window.
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. The brand philosophy remains in effect today, with many Fossil “hybrid” watches offering smartwatch functionality in a classic package.
Harry’s ride stands out among the contemporary K-cars across the Harshaw Motors dealership lot as he pulls into town behind the wheel of a black 1959 Studebaker Silver Hawk, a sleek and sporty automotive artifact from the fabulous fifties and particularly the celebrated “year of the fin”.
Studebaker had introduced its Hawk series in 1956, differentiated the following model year with the introduction of the elegant pillared Silver Hawk to replace the Power Hawk and Flight Hawk models. Engine options included a base 170 cubic-inch straight-six or the more powerful 259 cubic-inch V8, as was chosen for The Hot Spot according to an IMCDB commenter who spied the telltale “bright wheel opening, drip rail and full taillamp housing trim” that was characteristic only of V8-powered Silver Hawks. (Depending on whether it had a single- or quad-barrel carburetor, this V8 engine could generate between 180 and 195 horsepower.)
Movie critic Roger Ebert marveled at The Hot Spot‘s inclusion of the Silver Hawk, which he described as “the only car I have ever loved” when interviewing director Dennis Hopper about the movie. Hopper responded that he was also a fan, explaining that he thought it was “the best-looking car ever made” and specifically chosen to reflect the era’s influence on his contemporary-set movie.
1959 Studebaker Silver Hawk
Body Style: 2-door pillared coupe
Layout: front-engine, rear-wheel-drive (RWD)
Engine: 259 cubic inch (4.2 L) Studebaker V8 with 4-barrel carburetor
Power: 195 bhp (147.6 kW; 197.8 PS) @ 4500 rpm
Torque: 265 lb·ft (359 N·m) @ 2800 rpm
Transmission: 3-speed automatic
Wheelbase: 120.5 inches (3061 mm)
Length: 204 inches (5182 mm)
Width: 71.3 inches (1811 mm)
Height: 55 inches (1397 mm)
Designed by Robert Bourke, contracted from Raymond Loewy Associations, the Silver Hawk echoed the glamorous detailing associated with the late ’50s. However, many Studebaker customers found themselves instead drawn to the less expensive Lark compact series, and the Silver Hawk was discontinued in 1959 after only three years in production. The Hawk name hobbled along as Studebaker continued to offer Hawk—and the restyled Gran Turismo Hawk—through the mid-’60s.
Despite its automobile production dating back to the turn of the century, Studebaker itself wouldn’t last much longer, moving operations from South Bend to Ontario, where the final Studebaker automobile rolled off the production line on March 17, 1966.
“Oh you were expected alright!” Dolly greets Harry, pulling a nickel-plated derringer from under her pillow and pointing it at his head… until he takes it from her hand while she goes down on him. The IMFDB experts have identified the specific weapon used on screen as an American Derringer Model 1, a recreation of the classic 19th century-style derringers as popularized as a backup weapon in Westerns.
American Derringer began producing the Model 1 in 1980, more than a hundred years after the over/under-barrel style had been designed by Dr. William H. Elliott and first produced by Remington in 1866. Unlike the Remington Model 95, which was only available in the rimfire .41 Short, the American Derringer Model 1 is available in a wide range of ammunition from the small .22 LR and .22 WMR up to .45 ACP and .45 Long Colt and even the .410 shotgun shell and .45-70 Government rifle rounds.
Like its Remington forebear, the American Derringer Model 1 loads by breaking the three-inch barrel upwards and inserting both rounds. Once the barrel is snapped back into place, the single-action weapon can only be fired by cocking the hammer and squeezing the spur trigger to fire one round (from the bottom barrel), before re-cocking the hammer and pulling the trigger again to fire the second (from the top).
What to Imbibe
Dolly has “My Little Grass Shack in Kealakekua, Hawaii” performed by The New Hawaiian Band playing when Harry arrives, befitting her selection of drinks for their mid-morning rendezvous: “I hope you like Mai Tais.” (At first I considered this a missed opportunity for Harry to respond with “I like your everything,” but I guess that’s why I don’t end up in situations like this.)
Made with two kinds of rum, the Mai Tai may be the quintessential cocktail of tiki culture, the American-led movement inspired by Polynesian and south Pacific culture. Both Donn Beach (of Don the Beachcomber’s) and Victor J. Bergeron (of Trader Vic’s) have claimed to have invented the Mai Tai, though it was likely Bergeron who was first to use the name—inspired by the Tahitian word maitaʻi—and whose recipe remains in rotation today.
The IBA-specified method for making Mai Tais calls for amber Jamaican rum (4 parts), 4 parts Martinique molasses rum (4 parts), fresh lime juice (4 parts), orange curaçao (2 parts), orgeat syrup (2 parts), and simple syrup (1 part), shaken over ice and poured into a taller glass filled with crushed ice, then tropically garnished with a pineapple spear, mint leaves, and lime peel, though—like the recipe itself—these are subject to change at the bartender’s discretion.
Dolly’s tropical-themed bar also includes Monte Alban mezcal, Icy vodka, and that Old Oak “Limbo Drummer” that Sally Draper mistook for syrup in her father’s apartment during the fourth season of Mad Men. After Harry returns and the two consummate their attraction, they enjoy some post-coital I.W. Harper bourbon poured from her bedside bottle.
How to Get the Look
Though some of the details may trend toward specific eras, Harry Madox’s overall sartorial philosophy of a businesslike linen odd jacket with a shirt, tie, and slacks on a hot day could be universally applied beyond selling cars in a noirish Texas town.
- Gray flecked linen single-breasted 2-button sport jacket with notch lapels, welted breast pocket, straight flapped hip pockets, 3-button cuffs, and ventless back
- White grid-check long-sleeved sport shirt with looped camp collar, plain front, flapped box-pleated chest pockets, and button cuffs
- Gray dog-printed skinny silk tie
- Silver stone-detailed tie clip
- Black wool double forward-pleated trousers with belt loops, side pockets, button-through back pockets, and turn-ups/cuffs
- Black leather belt with gold-finished square single-prong buckle
- Black leather plain-toe derby shoes
- Black socks
- White ribbed cotton sleeveless A-shirt/undershirt
- Ecru pinstripe cotton boxer shorts
- 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…
In this life, you gotta take what you want… damn sure can’t stand around and wait for somebody to give it to you.