"...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 naïve 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.”
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.