(SPOILERS) If the ‘90s crime movie formally set out its stall in 1992 with Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, another movie very quietly got in there first at the beginning of the decade. Miami Blues picked up admiring reviews but went otherwise unnoticed on release, and even now remains under-recognised. The tale of “blithe psychopath” Federick J. Frenger, Jr., the girl whose heart he breaks and the detetive sergeant on his trail, director George Armitage’s adaptation of Charles Willeford’s novel wears a pitch black sense of humour and manages the difficult juggling act of being genuinely touching with it. It’s a little gem of a movie, perfectly formed and concisely told, one that more than deserves to rub shoulders with the better-known entries in its genre.
One of the defining characteristics of Willeford’s work, it has been suggested, is that it doesn’t really fit into the crime genre; he comes from an angle of character rather than plot or hard-boiled language. This may help to explain why the Time Out review, at the time of the movie’s release, opined that, good as it was, it didn’t quite translate to the screen and had problems nailing a tone. I can’t comment on how well adapted it is but really, who wants to be fenced in by categories? Not Elmore Leonard, who claimed no one wrote a better crime novel than Willeford (and Leonard knew a thing or two).
Also notable is that Tarantino cites Willeford as an influence, specifically in reference to Pulp Fiction. You can certainly see the DNA linking Armitage’s to the uber geek’s genre pictures. The sudden eruptions of violence, and the twisted humour. But Willeford’s been described as a quirky writer (Sergeant Hoke Mosely is certainly that), which is something one would attribute more to the Coen Brothers than Tarantino (Tarantino’s characters are quirky their own way, but it isn’t quite the same kind of quirky). Additionally, in the movie at least, there’s an emotional resonance, an area where Tarantino has trouble making a connect (Jackie Brown tries for that quality the hardest but, while I know many venerate it as the director’s most mature work, it feels to me like he is going through the motions of trying to impress with just that). He’s too obsessed with surface coolness to really (want to) touch the heart.
Miami Blues, published in 1984, was the first of four Hoke Moseley novels, and no doubt if the picture had been a success other films would have followed. As it is, studio Orion’s financial woes were growing at this point. Whether Miami Blues, on which production had been completed in 1988, was a victim of insufficient purse power to guarantee a proper lease before is unclear, but it surely can’t be a coincidence that it was released with negligible publicity a mere month after Alec Baldwin’s break-out hit The Hunt for Red October (okay, it’s Sean Connery’s show, but it’s the closest the actor has come to being a bona fide box office draw). Unsurprisingly, the gambit had no effect (and Baldwin would run up a string of flops in subsequent years). Come the end of the year, Orion would hit it big with Dances with Wolves, and then only a few months later again with The Silence of the Lambs, but both came too late to save the floundering studio. I recall going out of my way to see Miami Blues at the cinema when it limped into limited UK release at the end of 1990, so I guess the Orion guys did something right with the trailer.
For whatever reason, there have been few adaptations of Willeford’s novels, pretty much the opposite to Elmore Leonard whose star waxed brightly during the 1990s (Willeford died in 1988, which may not have helped). You might have expected Tarantino to get behind him the way he did Leonard, but nada. Willeford wrote the screenplay for 1974 Warren Oates starrer Cockfighter (from Monte Hellman), and 1999 saw Patrick Warbuton in The Woman Chaser. And that’s been it… Except that a pilot for Hoke, starring Paul Giamatti as Hoke Moseley, is on the way. Much as I love Fred Ward’s incarnation (and he clearly loved Hoke; he co-produced the film), and would have dearly liked to see him in further adventures, Giamatti is about a great a choice as one could imagine. He oozes quirk. There’s good pedigree behind the scenes too; Scott Frank wrote and directed it, and if it goes to a series he will be the co-showrunner. He’s a fine writer, and no slouch as a director (check out his debut, The Lookout). FX, the channel behind it, is surely hoping for a replacement to the outstanding Leonard adaptation Justified, which is on its way out, so fingers crossed.
Director George Armitage started out at Roger Corman’s New World Pictures, as did producer Jonathan Demme. You can see Demme’s fingerprints all over this, but only in a good way; regular Demme cinematographer Tak Fujimoto and editor Craig McKay are on board. The great Charles Napier, as prerequisite to a Demme movie as Dick Miller was to a Joe Dante, has a great time playing fellow police Sergeant Bill Henderson (told it’s his turn to notify next of kin, he tells Hoke, “No way. I did the fat lady that sat on her kid. That’s good for two”). And, of course, Alec Baldwin essayed one of his first big screen roles in Demme’s Married to the Mob, as “Cucumber” Frank de Marco. There’s also something of the freewheeling, anarchic energy of Something Wild in Miami Blues. Armitage hadn’t directed in a decade when Miami Blues arrived, but the crime genre has become something of his (rarified) movie bread and butter since.
Perhaps that’s appropriate, as his second picture was a Blaxploitation adaptation of the Get Carter source novel, Jack’s Return Home, made as Hit Man. John Cusack would handpick him for the classic Grosse Point Blank, seven years after Miami Blues (the mixed bag spiritual sequel War Inc. would surely have been a better movie if Armitage had returned) but his winning not-quite-streak came to an abrupt end with 2004’s The Big Bounce, a botched Leonard adaptation. It’s not bad exactly (although many would dispute this), but any picture with that cast and that material should have been much, much better. And that’s a decade ago now, and not a sniff of him since, which is a shame. A new offering from a rarely working director who has made distinctive movies in the past is always something precious to savour even if the result is mixed, such as Bruce Robinson’s return for The Rum Diary.
While Baldwin’s “Junior” Frenger is ostensibly the lead protagonist/antagonist, duties are fairly evenly divided between him, Hoke and Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Susie Waggoner. It’s Junior who initiates the plot, mugging and murdering Herman Gottleib at San Francisco airport and taking his luggage and flight to Miami. No sooner has he landed than he’s approached by a Hare Krishna (“Have you seen the movie Gandhi?”) in a scene that instantly establishes the (yes!) quirky sense of humour and off-kilter plotting embraced fully by the movie. Later, composing haikus for Susie, we see the same kind of verging-on-the-absurd playfulness as Junior narrates his “breaking, entering” and “Finding a… big gun!”
This is a young, slim Baldwin, very different from the beery, heavy set guy he’s become. And Junior is a gift of a role; impulsive, instinctive and dangerous, with a craziness in the eyes, he’s a loose cannon with just enough redeeming features (as Susie notes) to make him likable in spite of himself. He even does a mean impression of Pacino in Scarface. The “blithe psychopath” description is perfect, in fact. As he says to Susie, “My problem is I can have everything and anything I want, but I don’t know what I want”. He tries “the straight life” (although it’s nothing of the sort), until it bites back (“I though for one minute there I was some kind of solid fucking citizen or something” he complains after a 4x4 has run him over). His bluntness is both highly amusing and exceedingly rude (“Your husband must have been glad to die” he tells Edna (Bobo Lewis) as she stitches his eyebrow back on. His mercurial “I could try that attitude” is summed up in the idyllic beach sunset scene where he watches a family plays Frisbee with their dogs. Later we see Junior and and Susie play Frisbee in a happy family life montage sequence (now they are “married”). And symbolically, Susie throws the Frisbee to Hoke at the end; the dream is over.
Junior’s criminal career isn’t given much shading beyond its idiosyncratic bent; “I used to rob people who robbed people” he tells Susie. Kind of like Robin Hood, “Except I didn’t give the money to poor people”. He clearly doesn’t do this out of any criminal code; it’s simple opportunism (and most likely, there’s less chance of repercussions if you’re robbing those who won’t report it to the police). We get a taster of this when he sticks up some street punks with an Uzi squirt gun (most audacious). So when he makes off with Hoke’s badge (amongst other items), it sets the scene for a neat dovetailing with his chosen avenue of wrongdoing. Posing as a police officer, he treats us to a succession of cheerfully unlawful acts by a “lawman”.
Some of these actually are an attempt to uphold the law; he stops a hoodlum robbing a till by putting a bullet in his leg and then commanding, “Stop, or I’ll shoot!” “You just shot me!” complains the astute hood (a memorable moment in the trailer). A montage of crimes includes Junior handcuffing a couple of drug dealers at a marina. They just happen to be responsible for The Dumbbell Murders case, one Hoke has been making no headway with (“Maybe you should wait, let him solve a couple more of your caseload, huh?” comments Henderson wryly. Best of all, he confronts an armed robber with “only bottles of spaghetti sauce” (as the news anchor reports when the story appears on TV). He even gives the robber a speech about turning his life around, probably taken from a TV show or some such (the harsh punchline to his visit to the supermarket is that they’re even out of the whipping cream he came to get); when Junior robs an illegal betting ring, he throws out the patter Hoke quizzed him with earlier, even though it is now rendered as nonsense.
Junior’s final escapade as Hoke is fairly solid evidence that crime doesn’t pay. He arrives at a pawn shop already looking the worse for wear and proceeds to lose the fingers of his left hand when he’s on the receiving end of a particularly unfriendly meat cleaver. While Junior is a highly inventive criminal, he’s also an extremely petty one (well, apart from his homicides, that is). That’s part of the blitheness of his psychopathy (it also explains why he stitches up Hoke, getting him into trouble with Paul Gleason’s Sgt Lackley; he demands Hoke to be cut in on Pablo’s prostitution ring, taking half Lackley’s cut).
Leigh’s turn as a hooker with a heart of gold far eclipses that of Julia Roberts in the same year’s Pretty Woman. Leigh had made a fair few shitty movies during the previous decade, but she was on a roll at this point. Susie probably ought not to really work as a character; she’s imbued with a pervading sweetness, a childlike simplicity and guilelessness that could easily come across as phoney or annoying. And, she relies wholly on her man to guide her and fulfil her; she isn’t the most liberated of gals in that respect. Yet Leigh ensures we really connect with her; we really see that she’s hoping against hope for the best with Junior. Every disappointment registers, however briefly, and it’s clear she’s not blind to his ways. We don’t really know what she has experienced in her life, but the snippets we’re offered go a long way. She tells Hoke she gave Junior the benefit of the doubt because he had some good qualities; “He always ate everything I cooked for him, and he never hit me”. All she asked of him was that he told her the truth and this is the clincher for her leaving him (“You promised!”)
Prior to that, Susie is accepts Junior’s selfishness and puncturing of her dreams, be it the Burger World franchise, children (“I don’t want to have any babies. This world’s a shithole. You think you can handle that?” “I do” she concedes) or raiding her bank account (and getting angry that she left some money in order to to be eligible for a free teapot). Because, well, she sees a good and caring side in him. The side that is willing to buy into the white picket fence (“Let’s go straight to the happily ever after”). She doesn’t have any illusions that it will work out (“It’s just eight days. You’ll still be here, won’t you?” she asks when he blows up about the bank account), and there’s an air of resigned sadness in her reaction to Junior’s death. Her defining scene, and for their relationship, is the vinegar pie she serves him. Prior to this, we saw her flood the cake with vinegar, and Junior’s affirmation (“Really great!”) shows perhaps unexpected craft in eliciting whether Hoke was right to accuse Junior.
The chemistry between Baldwin and Leigh makes their early scenes a delight; all three leads have a wonderful rapport, in fact. Junior’s irrepressibility and gusto is infectious. Baldwin lights up scenes here in a way we don’t often see. The actor is often called on to be heavy and didactic, so seeing him lift a scene with his laughter is something of a treat (““Shit happens when you party naked!” That’s the best part!” he reads from the t-shirt Susie has bought him). And he goes great guns with Fred Ward in their couple of scenes together.
You could watch them playing their game of verbal cat-and-mouse for hours, as Hoke seeks to get a rise of Junior, who parries with a clever counter manoeuvre. As soon as Hoke turns up at the door (“Bet you’re Herman Gottlieb” – isn’t Herman Gottlieb a great name? – he says to Junior; “How much?” replies Junior, not missing a beat) he’s looking for Junior to make a mistake, while Junior responds with cocky impertinence (calling him Sarge, suggesting his daughter, who has a huge dental bill has “got your teeth, man”). Hoke continually alludes to Junior’s potential finger-bending skills (“Boy, you got a grip there Herman”), spending time inside (Junior deflects the shots by suggesting he spent time in foster homes, and was an aerobics instructor) and asking if Junior would attend a police line-up (“Have you ever stood in a line-up before, Herman?”; “Never been caught, Sarge”) the back-and-forth between these two is electric, and their comic timing magnificent (Hoke has clearly riled his target, as the very next thing Junior does is visit his hotel and pistol whip him).
Junior: Get you something to go, Sarge?
Hoke: Just you. Kidding, Herman.
Although he experiences a series of misfortunes, Hoke provides Miami Blues with its uplift. He’s the matter-of-fact, meat-and-potatoes (or pork chops) cop who gets there in the end. You can rely on him, in spite of his frustrations and lack of obviously Sherlock Holmes-esque deductive genius. Indeed, he doesn’t have any real work to do on that score; he gets handed the tips that lead him straight to Junior either by Henderson or long suffering colleague Ellita Sanchez (Nora Dunn). Yet we’re instantly on side with Hoke from his first scene. He and Henderson insensitively debate the possibility that the airport Hare Krishna was deliberately murdered while grieving fellow Krishna kneels right next to them. The duo shares a wonderfully tasteless line in gallows humour.
Hoke: The Krishna died of a broken finger? I mean, is that a homicide?
Henderson: Well, I guess he died of the shock… However, if the guy in the suede sports coat knew that Krishnas had a bad habit of dying every time you bent their finger back…
Hoke: Murder One?
Hoke: Boy, the guys at the station are going to laugh their asses off at this!
Anything involving the Krishnas immediately brings out the clown in Armitage. When Hoke interviews Krishna Ramba, the Head Krishna (played by production unit manager Kenneth Utt), the director revels in the unlikeliness of the abstract scenario that Junior, The Krishna Finger Killer, meant to kill him (Armitage shoots from a low angle, ensuring the scene feels even more skewed).
Fred Ward’s square jaw and boxer’s nose might suggest a career as a hard man, but he’s generally at his best cast to his strength of goofy blue collar affability (most memorably in the same year’s Tremors). It’s a shame he’s been so under-used in the last decade, longer even; he hasn’t had any really memorable roles since the mid-‘90s, and this is absolutely one of his best. The makers of Hoke are lucky to get someone with the ability of Giamatti, because it will take a lot to surpass Ward’s incarnation.
Lackley: He got your gun, your badge, and your teeth. You are a disgrace to the police force.
Moseley comes equipped with a set of false teeth (which Junior promptly makes off with) and a sizeable alimony bill; he lives in a fleapit hotel and is the very picture of unkempt, slobbish, middle-aged, down-at-heel, singledom. The kind of guy who thinks nothing of answering the door in his underwear. All he’s got is the job, which makes his humiliation by Junior particularly galling (particularly when a lowlife cop like Lackley has the effrontery to tell him he should be ashamed of himself).
He becomes a joke at the station, a particularly witty little cartoon emblazoning his office door bearing the description “The Strange Ranger”. Hoke’s attempts to be forceful with Sanchez only make him look further out of his depth. But he’s a genuinely nice guy, and his encounters with Susie are underpinned by great kindness. So much so that he instructs for her to be cut loose at the end, since she’s been through hell. And, despite Junior’s bloody demise and Susie’s tears, Miami Blues ends on an upbeat note; all is right with the world, as Hoke’s dentures have been returned!
Sanchez: You look different.
Hoke: I got my teeth back!
Part of the reason for the invigorating, sunny exit is the use of Norman Greenbaum’s Spirit in the Sky. It informs the opening credits (and Junior, the first person we see, is the one who will die and be laid to rest by the close) and encourages Hoke, and us, to break into a big toothy grin at the fade out. Gary Chang’s score, informed by a steel band groove, is similarly distinctive. Like Jonathan Demme, Armitage adopts a loose, freewheeling style, fond of the immediacy of handheld camera but never making it so you’re too conscious of his technique. As with the music, his approach is one brings an energy and zest to the proceedings. What could be heavy going stays light and frothy.
If nothing else, the pilot for Hoke (if it doesn’t make it to a series) ought to encourage a few people to rediscover this minor classic. Even better, a whole series is commissioned, Miami Blues is reappraised en masse and receives the rightful veneration it deserves. It would be nice too if the producers could find a role for Fred Ward somewhere in there, or toss Armitage an episode or two to direct. It would be a shame if The Big Bounce is the final nail in his directing career. So he flunked with Leonard; others have been beaten too (and to be fair to Armitage, he didn’t get credited with the screenplay). The great Leonard adaptations are few and far between, but this Willeford ranks alongside them.