The New Cult Canon: Miami Blues

The New Cult Canon: Miami Blues

"Break-ing, ent-er-ing
The dark and lonely places
Finding a big gun"

A nice haiku generally isn't the stuff of hard-boiled crime fiction, but then Miami Blues—a pastel-colored neo-noir from 1990, based on the book by pulp novelist Charles Willeford—isn't any old piece of paperback trash, either. Known for injecting quirk into the genre without letting any sentimentality seep through, Willeford is a revisionist's dream, because he didn't play by the rules but respected them all the same. (It's little wonder that his work also translated smoothly to the big screen in the form of Monte Hellman's classic 1974 Southern actioner Cockfighter and Robinson Devor's stark, underrated 1999 indie The Woman Chaser.) Contemporary filmmakers are always looking for fresh ways to resuscitate picked-over genres like Westerns or noirs, and in Willeford, writer-director George Armitage found the perfect author to send up the '80s South Beach scene without getting too cute about it. Funny as it is, Miami Blues has a baseline of sheer malevolence, too, and it keeps the tension from going slack.

True of any great piece of poetry, that haiku packs the essence of the movie into 17 compact syllables: The first and third lines are a thief's playfully self-conscious description of his own actions, as he slips off into a neighbor's apartment looking for valuables to fence, and finds a coin collection, some nice-looking pork chops for dinner, and, of course, a big handgun. In his fantasy world, which is vast and ever-expanding, haiku is just another silly little tic to add to the repertoire; when his hooker girlfriend introduces him to it as part of a homework assignment for community college, he's all too eager to make poetry out of the first thing that pops into his head. The second line is the kicker, though: "The dark and lonely places" is what noir is all about, and the darkest and loneliest place in Miami Blues is this guy's head. I've seen the movie several times, and I'm no closer to understanding exactly what dark impulse makes him tick, and why he commits crimes with such restless, compulsive abandon.

The man in question is Fred Frenger (Alec Baldwin), a.k.a. "Junior," an ex-con who resumes a life of petty thievery in Miami under the name Herman Gottlieb, which makes him sound like one of the city's retirees. (And when he dons a pair of colorful plaid pants, he looks the part, too.) Right off the plane, he scoops up the first stray piece of luggage he can find, descends an escalator, and snaps back the fingers of a Krishna who asked him too many questions. ("My name's Ravindra. What's your name?" "Trouble.") The Krishna dies, mainly of shock, and immediately, Junior is up on a potential homicide charge—before even leaving the airport. His chief adversary is Sgt. Hoke Moseley, played by the loveably irascible Fred Ward, a homicide detective whose calling card is a set of dentures forged by a forensic dentist. Hoke likes to take his teeth out when he drinks, which is often, and he lays them to bed at night in a splash of brandy.

Once in his hotel room, Junior's first order of business is to order up a prostitute from the bellhop. Moments later, in strolls the boyish Susie (or "Pepper," her hooker name), an inexperienced, sweetly blinkered spitfire played by Jennifer Jason Leigh. The two of them make an odd love connection: She's a naïve, submissive plaything, and the combination of her innocence and his childlike nature creates instant chemistry. When he admits that he hasn't been with a woman in a long time, the relationship suddenly shifts from businesslike and desultory to something more serious and lasting. A couple of scenes later, they're engaged and living together, with Susie playing happy homemaker to the shirtless, beer-swilling mystery man who compliments her cooking and keeps his nefarious activities a secret.

The funny thing about Miami Blues is that the homicide investigation is over before it starts: Hoke only has a shake a couple of trees before he finds out where "Herman Gottlieb" lives, and he spends a delicious pork-chop dinner toying with poor Junior like a cat with a ball of thread. But Junior isn't one to be toyed with: Rather than wait for the hammer to drop, he hunts down Hoke at his apartment, beats him within an inch of his life, and takes Hoke's badge, gun, and precious chompers for good measure. Now this thug is not only on the loose, he's also out on the streets impersonating a police officer. And for added humiliation, Junior inadvertently solves a murder case that Hoke had been working for 15 months!

Setting a crook with a badge loose on the streets of Miami is a juicy enough premise, but Junior's unusual M.O. makes it even juicier. Though Junior isn't averse to random crimes, like "break-ing and ent-er-ing" or snapping a Krishna's fingers, he prefers to target other crooks. As he puts it to Susie, who wants to know about his "former" life, he was sent to prison for robbing people who robbed people. ("Like Robin Hood?" she asks. "Yeah, except I didn't give the money to the poor people.") It's hard to fathom exactly why Junior shakes down pickpockets and stick-up men. He doesn't do it out of civic duty, or else he'd give the money back, like a good citizen. Maybe he wants to feel superior to the other lowlifes, or maybe he feels that once a crime has been committed, the spoils might as well go to him. Whatever the case, the badge makes him giddy with power and stokes his childish desire to play pretend, as he does in this scene:

At the same time, there's a part of Junior that really does want to get domestic with a sweet girl like Susie. She's one of those women who gives everything and asks for little in return. So long as Junior provides for her through his sketchy "investments" and shows a little appreciation for the home-cooked meals she turns out for him every night, that's all she needs. Susie's trusting obliviousness and lack of expectations becomes heartbreaking to watch: When she tells Junior her clichéd dreams of having a house with a white picket fence and raising children, he makes it clear that the house is fine, but kids are out of the question. "I don't want to have any babies," he says. "This world's a shithole. Do you think you can handle that?" And sadly enough, she can, because she can't imagine doing any better.

Not enough can be said about how good Jennifer Jason Leigh is in this movie. It's easy to toss out flippant jokes about how often Leigh has played hookers, from Last Exit To Brooklyn to The Machinist to her phone-sex operator in Short Cuts. But there's a world of difference between her bedraggled whore in Last Exit To Brooklyn and the bubbly naïf she plays here. Leigh gives the impression of a young woman who's so accustomed to being around dangerous, abusive men that she doesn't think twice about it. Watching Leigh and Baldwin together is a bit like that Bambi Vs. Godzilla cartoon: She's destined to get stomped by him, but she makes us feel every disappointment along the way, from the piercing "no kids" rebuff to a scene where she ignites his rage by failing to hand over her life's savings to him. (If she kept the account open, she was just eight days away from a free teapot.) Leigh plays her like a child, and with regard to her character, the movie evolves into a cruel coming-of-age story.

Miami Blues was produced by Jonathan Demme, who knew Armitage back when they were making cheapo movies for Roger Corman in the early to mid-'70s; Armitage appeared as an actor in Demme's women-in-prison staple Caged Heat, scripted the Corman-directed satire Gas-s-s-s, and wrote and directed Private Duty Nurses. Miami Blues could be described as a cross between Demme's buoyant Married To The Mob, which takes a third-act detour to Miami at its most delightfully tacky, and Something Wild, which seems like a quirkfest until Ray Liotta's hair-trigger psychopath shifts it in another direction. Given the added presence of Demme players like Charles Napier (as Ward's cackling, soon-to-be-retired Homicide cohort) and Kenneth Utt (as a non-speaking Krishna), it certainly feels like a close collaboration.

Still, that should take nothing away from what Armitage pulls off here. The director went on to make Grosse Pointe Blank, a witty black comedy about a hitman (John Cusack) who goes home for his high-school reunion, and the two films have a similar matter-of-fact, irreverent tone. (Though Miami Blues is much darker, and the better of the two films in my view.) Making noir relevant in the '90s wasn't easy, but Armitage zags where other, more self-conscious modern noirs have zigged, exposing the genre to the bright Florida sunlight while injecting it with quirky humor and shocking psychosis in equal measure. It makes for one hell of cocktail.

And for those like me who think the therapy session with Tracy Morgan on 30 Rock is one of the funniest things they've ever seen on TV, I leave you with the many voices of Alec Baldwin:

Coming up:

Next week: Babe: Pig In The City

March 27: They Live

Cult On The Cheap Month

April 3: Clerks

April 10: Primer

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