"...the main purpose of criticism...is not to make its readers agree, nice as that is, but to make them, by whatever orthodox or unorthodox method, think." - John Simon

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." - George Orwell

Friday, May 12, 2023

Miami Blues

 
"The Sunshine State is a paradise of scandals teeming with drifters, deadbeats, and misfits drawn here by some dark primordial calling like demented trout.” – Carl Hiaasen

 
Author Charles Willeford has been called “the progenitor of modern South Florida crime novel” with his last four novels chronicling Miami’s shift from vacation paradise destination for retirees to “the nation’s capital of glamor, drugs, and weird crime,” inspiring writers such as Carl Hiaasen and James W. Hall, and filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino. It was his 1984 novel Miami Blues that started it all, featuring the first appearance of grizzled police detective Hoke Moseley who would go on to appear in three subsequent novels. Their commercial success eventually roused interest in Hollywood and Miami Blues was adapted in 1990, part of a fantastic crop of neo-noirs that also included The Grifters, The Hot Spot, and After Dark, My Sweet. A passion project for both its writer/director George Armitage and producer/star Fred Ward, it sadly did not do well at the box office, was coolly received by critics, and has become largely forgotten, despite its profane dialogue and sudden, often violence that anticipated the films of Tarantino two years later.
 
Frederick J. Frenger Jr. a.k.a. Junior (Baldwin) is an ex-convict flying into Miami from California, armed with someone else’s driver’s license, and ready to wage a one-man crime spree on the city. He gets off to a roaring start right out of the gate – literally, when he tries to steal another passenger’s luggage but misses the opportunity. Undaunted, seconds later, he bribes a small child and makes off with another piece of unattended luggage and for an encore, breaks the finger of a Hari-Krishna follower who subsequently dies from shock.

We meet homicide detective Hoke Moseley (Ward) negotiating money with a blind informant, which is the kind of colorful introduction that tells us a lot about his character. He and his partner (Charles Napier) investigate the Krishna murder and the scene illustrates the short-hand between these two men who have obviously been partners for a long time, while showcasing the film’s black humor: “Your turn to notify next of kin,” Hoke says to his partner who replies, “No way! I did the fat lady that sat on a kid. That’s good for two.” It’s great fun to see these two veteran actors share a scene together, lobbing dialogue back and forth. One almost wishes a prequel had been done about these two characters.
 
Junior checks into a hotel and quickly arranges for a hooker and meets Susie (Jennifer Jason Leigh). He doesn’t want to have sex, but instead sells her clothes out of his stolen luggage. He takes an immediate shine to her. He hasn’t been with a woman in a long time – and initially it looks like he’s going to be rough with her – but instead is very tender.
 
Miami Blues is a battle of wills, fused with a cat-and-mouse game, as Hoke pursues Junior. He questions him early on at Susie’s over a dinner in a fantastic scene that’s crackling with subtle tension simmering under the surface, as the cop knows the crook is lying about the dead Hari Krishna, but puts on airs for Susie’s benefit. It is a wonderfully acted and staged scene as she is oblivious to what is going on while Hoke and Junior sniff each other out.

Junior is a career criminal who sees the world as a playground. If he wants something he takes it. Someone gets in his way he removes them. He is all about taking short cuts. The first third of the film mostly focuses on Junior’s exploits as we see him spotting a two-man pickpocket team and follows the guy with the loot into a public bathroom, beats him up, and takes the money. He’s a ballsy crook, buying a realistic looking water gun and then robbing a bunch of guys on the street. Baldwin looks like he’s having a blast playing Junior as a legend in his own mind as he sits in his hotel room at one point with a bunch of money, pretending he’s Al Pacino in Scarface (1983). He is excellent as a clever crook whose fault is that he never plans his crimes ahead of time. He’s spontaneous and this works for awhile but eventually catches up to him.
 
Jennifer Jason Leigh plays Susie as a na├»ve innocent who falls in love with Junior but is blind to his true nature. The actor conveys an earnest vulnerability. Susie sees Junior as a way to a better life – the house, the white picket fence, kids, and so on. Juniors taps into this when he tells her, “Let’s go straight to the ‘happily ever after’ part, okay?” She is the one ray of hope and optimism in his otherwise cynical world.
 
Ward’s Hoke is a broken-down detective on the outskirts of retirement but he’s smart and a student of human behavior, sussing Junior right away, correctly figuring out he’s an ex-con by the way he protects his food while eating dinner. He’s also pissed that Junior is running around with his badge impersonating him and makes it his mission to take the guy down. It’s a fantastic role that showcases Ward’s considerable talents and rare opportunity to headline a film. It’s a shame that Miami Blues wasn’t a bigger hit as it would’ve been great to see him reprise the role again in another adaptation.

Associate producer William Horberg gave Miami Blues to Fred Ward soon after it was published. After reading it, he thought it would make for a great film. “It has a certain irony about it, a certain dark comedy that I like. It’s a little absurd. There’s a random violence in it that I thought was very real,” Ward said in an interview. He optioned the book rights for a two-year deal with $4,000 that the actor paid out of his own picket. He brought it to friend and filmmaker Jonathan Demme, with whom he had worked with on Swing Shift (1984), in the hopes that he’d direct. Demme, just having shot Married to the Mob in Miami (1988), demurred but suggest another friend of Ward’s – George Armitage – to direct instead. Demme knew Armitage from when they were starting out, making films for Roger Corman. He read the book and loved it, going on to write a spec screenplay and agreed to helm it with Demme producing along with Gary Goetzman. Ward had pitched the project to Orion Pictures on two occasions and was turned down both times until he showed them Armitage’s script. They agreed but only if a young actor was cast in one of the lead roles.
 
Originally, Ward wanted to play Junior with Gene Hackman playing Hoke. The two men met and Hackman was interested but when Alec Baldwin came in to read for the part of Junior, he was so good they cast him in the role, and Ward decided to play Hoke. Early on, Leigh Taylor-Young (Jagged Edge) was originally cast as Susie but dropped out for unknown reasons. Jennifer Jason Leigh was later cast in the role and to prepare, she cut her hair short and isolated herself from the rest of the crew to replicate the loneliness of her character. She also went to Okeechobee, Florida, attended her first football game, and hung out with local high school girls to learn the dialect, their attitudes and aspirations.
 
Miami Blues received mixed reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave it two out of four stars and wrote, “The movie wants to be an off-center comedy, a lopsided cops-and-robbers movie where everybody has a few screws loose. But so much love is devoted to creating the wacko loonies in the cast that we're left with a set of personality profiles, not characters.” In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “Miami Blues is best appreciated for the performances of its stars and for the kinds of funny, scene-stealing peripheral touches that keep it lively even when it's less than fully convincing.” The Washington Post’s Rita Kempley wrote, “Armitage, a Demme pal, has been struggling to escape B-moviedom for the past decade. But Miami Blues, panicky and sleek as a fire engine, is more than a snappy comeback. It's a centered lament, a screwball thriller about making ends meet, about how even an armed robber can't afford the American Dream.”

In his review for Entertainment Weekly, Owen Gleiberman wrote, “By the time Miami Blues winds into its crushingly bloody, absurdist finale, the only question of any urgency is, Which actor has become harder to watch: Baldwin with his histrionics or Fred Ward flashing those naked gums?” The Los Angeles Times’ Peter Rainer wrote, “This is the problem with the action-filmmaker’s anything-for-a-jolt ethos: Whatever doesn’t jump-start the story is skimped. In fact, in Miami Blues, the story is all jump-starts. I realize that this may be all that most people require from a glorified programmer like Miami Blues, but the film has so much finesse, and its best moments are so freakishly dippy, that you regret the devaluation.”
 
Miami Blues presents a heightened reality of a city where danger lurks behind every corner, where a veteran police detective is assaulted in his own home, and where an opportunistic crook can wage a one-man crime wave posing as a cop. As Hiassen has said, the film presents “a paradise of scandals teeming with drifters, deadbeats, and misfits drawn here by some dark primordial calling like demented trout.”
 
 
SOURCES
 
Fisher, Marshal Jon. “The Unlikely Father of Miami Crime Fiction.” The Atlantic. May 2000.
 
Leung, Rebecca. “Florida: ‘A Paradise of Scandals’.” 60 Minutes. April 17, 2005.
 
Mitchell, Sean. “Exploring the Dark Side.” Los Angeles Times. April 15, 1990.

Pinkerton, Nick. “Interview: George Armitage.” Film Comment. April 28, 2015.

Van Gelder, Lawrence. “Miami Splice.” The New York Times. September 30, 1988.

Van Gelder, Lawrence. “Fred Ward’s Blues.” The New York Times. April 20, 1990.
 
Weinstein. Steve. “The Transformation of Jennifer Jason Leigh.” Los Angeles Times. April 29, 1990.

Monday, January 16, 2023

A Flash of Green


What is the price for one’s soul? Is it ever worth the price, to betray loved ones, those who matter most to you? This is the dilemma that newspaper reporter Jimmy Wing (Ed Harris) wrestles with in A Flash of Green (1984), Victor Nunez’s adaptation of John D. MacDonald’s 1962 novel of the same name. As with all of the filmmaker’s films, this one is, first and foremost, a fascinating character study with a conflicted protagonist at its center.
 
Jimmy is a reporter for a local Florida newspaper in 1961. Developers are trying to buy Grassy Bay, a body of water in the heart of Palm City. Their goal: fill it in so that they can build homes on it, making a lot of money in the process. Some of its residents, however, have formed a committee called Save Our Bay (S.O.B.) to stop it, citing egregious environmental damage if it goes through.
 
Jimmy meets with Elmo Bliss (Richard Jordan), a county commissioner, to get the skinny on the development. He is told that the plan is to create an island, populating it with homes; as he puts it, “We’re going to manufacture a paradise.” Elmo is tired of being a commissioner and is going to run for the governor’s mansion. He plans to use the money he makes from Grassy Bay to fund his campaign. He wants Jimmy to spy on the S.O.B.s and dig up dirt on them … for a price, of course. He lays it all out for the reporter when he tells him, “World needs folks like me. Folks with a raw need for power. Without us, wouldn’t anything ever get done.”

Initially, Jimmy stays neutral, giving Katherine Hobble (Blair Brown), one of leaders of the eco-group, a heads up and she begins to rally the locals to stop it. He checks in on her and her two children from time to time as her husband - his best friend -- died a year ago. The steady income from Elmo, however, sways Jimmy, who is adrift in life. Adding to the weight of this decision is his wife, Gloria (Tiel Rey), who suffers from a degenerative brain disorder that her doctors understand little about and from which, it appears, she will never recover. The rest of the film plays out his moral dilemma – help Elmo for the money and in doing so betray Kat, the woman he loves but is afraid to admit it, even to himself.
 
Ed Harris delivers a memorable turn as a man faced with a conflict, a crisis of conscience. The deeper Jimmy digs for dirt for Elmo, the more morally compromised he becomes. He passively watches as his friends are railroaded by local politicians. Why is Jimmy willing to do this? Has his wife’s medical condition left him so cynical that he doesn’t care about anything? Kat and her kids humanize him, give him something to care about – a life he’d like to have. Jimmy’s actions are ruining people’s lives … good, decent people he’s known for years. Even those closest to him, like Kat, are being harassed on the phone by religious zealots, surreptitiously employed by Elmo to scare of members of the S.O.B. Harris does an excellent job conveying the guilt that plays across Jimmy’ face when the S.O.B. fall apart, knowing that it is because of his actions.
 
Richard Jordan does an excellent job of expressing Elmo’s passion for the development deal. He’s honest with Jimmy about his ambitions but not about how far he will go to realize them. Jordan is a fascinating actor to watch as he so effortlessly disappears into his character, something he did often in such diverse films as The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973), The Mean Season (1985), and The Hunt for Red October (1990). In A Flash of Green, Elmo is the obvious villain of the film, but Jordan resists the urge to play him that way, even when he obliquely admits to sending guys to beat-up Jimmy repeatedly in the hopes of ‘persuading’ him to leave town after he turns the tables on Elmo. It is hinted that these two men have known each other for many years, the only reason why Elmo doesn’t have Jimmy killed.

Blair Brown is also very good as a woman still struggling with the loss of her husband, raising two children, trying to protect the bay from greedy developers, and sorting out her feelings for Jimmy. She has a lot on her plate and Brown’s intelligent, layered performance results in a fascinating character. At times, it is painful to watch her and the other committee members struggle against more powerful forces that they have no hope of beating. Brown resists any urge to inflate Kat’s fight to heroic heights, as one would see in a Hollywood movie, and instead opts to have that be only one of many aspects of her rich character.
 
There are also memorable minor roles, such as George Coe as a fellow journalist who doesn’t have the stomach for the darker stories that he and Jimmy sometimes cover. His response is to get so drunk that Jimmy must take him to his wife who cares for him. Even his character has his own arc and finds a way to redeem himself as he does his own part in the unfolding drama.
 
Sam Gowan, who had worked on Victor Nunez’s first film, Gal Young ‘Un (1979), went on to work at the University of Florida Libraries as the assistant director for special resources. Part of his division was the John D. MacDonald repository. MacDonald was a successful crime author, both critically and commercially, with his series of Travis McGee novels, and 1957 novel The Executioners adapted into film twice, in 1962 and 1991. Gowan and his wife enjoyed the man’s novels and she suggested asking Nunez to adapt one of them. Warner Bros., however, owned long-term options on all the Travis McGee novels, save for a couple of the early ones, which were available. He contacted MacDonald’s agent in Los Angeles and worked out a deal that required a small payment up front and a loaded backend, whereby if the film did well financially, the author would be paid more.

The budget for A Flash of Green was $750,000, ten times larger than Gal Young ‘Un. Half of the budget came from a small group of local investors with PBS American Playhouse covering the rest, who had been impressed with Nunez’s first film. To keep costs down, the entire cast worked for Screen Actors Guild minimum.
 
At the time the film was cast, Ed Harris turned down a chance to extend his run on Sam Shepard’s off-Broadway success, A Fool for Love (for which he won an Obie Award), and an offer from Paul Newman to appear in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, to go to Florida and act in Nunez’s project. Harris said, “I loved Victor’s sensibility and his cinematic tastes, his knowledge and how he films.” The actor was also drawn to the character of Jimmy Wing:
 
“I really appreciated the subtle character study that this guy is. He goes through so many changes. He’s someone who gets caught up in events that sort of catch him and sweep him away and he really has to climb his way back. He was a character I could really explore.”
 
To this end, the actor worked with the filmmaker on the screenplay, and during rehearsals, he frequented local stores for his character’s outfits. Harris’ hands-on approach extended to other cast members. Richard Jordan helped get period-specific props for the film and remarked on the challenge: “That era is too recent for anyone to collect and a lot of what you’d want to use has wound up in garbage cans.”

Critics of the day gave A Flash of Green generally favorable reviews. Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars and wrote, "A Flash of Green is attentive to the compromises of daily life, and it understands how people can be complicated enough to hold two opposed ideas at the same time." In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, "A Flash of Green is not perfect, but it is provocative and nearly always intelligent." The Washington Post's Lloyd Grove wrote, "Nunez, who also worked the camera with an eye for faded beauty, has made Palm City a self-contained world where there can be no appeal to a higher authority. While sometimes he's a bit heavy on the symbolism -- having Wing, at one point, fiddle with a two-faced doll -- he usually handles the material with admirable subtlety, letting the story all but tell itself."
 
The worlds in Nunez’s films feel fully fleshed out and realized, populated by readily identifiable people with compelling dilemmas. In the case of A Flash of Green he also creates a real sense of place; the attention to period detail on a budget is fantastic, with vintage cars and clothes used sparingly and matter-of-factly. He achieves it with small details, such as the cluttered office that Jimmy works in or the Spartan wood interior of Elmo’s office. Nunez also has a great ear for dialogue, accurately capturing the way people talk, evident in the scene where Kat debates with her friends about the development of Grassy Bay, with one arguing that developing the land will help the depressed local economy. The film presents several different points-of-view and then shows them in conflict with one another.
 
Nunez does a deft juggling act of showing how parts of Florida are being ruined by greedy developers and the toll it is taking on the residents, without being preachy about it, and by focusing on the relationships between them. A Flash of Green might be the most low-key crusading journalist film ever made. There are no heroic, epic speeches, moustache-twirling villains, car chases or gun battles – just people trying to protect their own little piece of the world. Much like John Sayles, Nunez is interested in telling stories about everyday people trying to get by, finding that their personal dilemmas are just as worthy of telling as any epic tale. For the people in his films, what goes on in their small world means everything to them. Life is about the choices we make and having to live with them. Jimmy has to live with the choices he has made. They were tough decisions that took their toll on him physically and emotionally. Jimmy finds that it isn’t easy buying back even a part of his soul. It is a long, hard journey but by the film’s end, there is hope that he is on his way to redemption.
 

SOURCES
 
Crandell, Ben. “FLIFF Reunites Old Friends Ed Harris, Victor Nunez.” South Florida Sun Sentinel. November 17, 2015.

Fein, Esther B. “Shaking A Hero Image.” The New York Times. July 22, 1985.
 
Gowan, Sam. “My Life in Movies.” The Gainsville Sun. April 1, 2004.
 
Maslin, Janet. “At the Movies – Jordan Assembled Props.” The New York Times. June 28, 1985.