Pastel Noir: George Armitage’s MIAMI BLUES

A hangout mystery that asks you to bathe in the Florida sun and enjoy a pork chop dinner with its toothless detective.

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When we first meet Hoke Moseley (Fred Ward), he’s haggling with a blind man inside of his own office. Hoke needs to borrow some money, but all he gets is some Stevie Wonder grins and a reminder to put his false teeth in before the Sergeant leaves the station. You see, Hoke’s not cool. He’s not zipping around in fast cars or donning a white blazer that flaps in the wind while he walks. This isn’t Miami Vice. This is Miami Blues – a dime store pulp adaptation that has way more in common with Elmore Leonard than Michael Mann.

Originally titled Kiss Your Ass Goodbye, Miami Blues was the first of five Hoke Moseley novels Charles Willeford wrote during the '80s (only four of which were legally published before the author’s death in ‘88). These were short tomes, sold on drug store racks with yellow pages that turned quickly due to Willeford’s plainspoken prose. There was no real melodrama to his tough guy dialect; just detective potboilers told with an editor’s precision. Get in, get out, solve the case, and probably not learn a damn thing.

Cinema would come calling after Charles in the form of Roger Corman, who in ‘74 financed the Monte Hellman (Two-Lane Blacktop) helmed adaptation of Cockfighter – his ‘62 story about a Southern gamesman (played by the inimitable Warren Oates) embarking upon his own odyssey in the deep fried backyard underworld of the titular blood-sport. The movie is a masterpiece, as Oates delivers a near silent performance (thanks to his character taking an oath), but nobody saw it. Corman once claimed Cockfighter was the only AIP production to ever lose money at the box office, and the B-Movie super-producer infamously recut it (under the new title Born to Kill), complete with a trailer that promised rampant violence and explosions. Willeford was even hired to write the screenplay for that picture. He’d never write another one again.

Hollywood wouldn’t adapt another one of Willeford’s novels until ‘90. Produced by Jonathan Demme (who was originally pitched to direct by Ward), Miami Blues was the first attempt to bring the Moseley series to a screen near you. The second would come in the form of an FX series starring Paul Giamatti as Hoke (with Scott Frank and Curtis Hanson acting as Executive Producers), which never made it past pilot. Demme suggested George Armitage to write and direct the movie, which was odd as Armitage hadn’t made a feature in over a decade (his last being the ’76 Jan Michael-Vincent soft exploitation romp, Vigilante Force). Being a notable Corman vet, Demme knew Armitage from the days when they both worked in cheap thrills, as Armitage wrote numerous lo-fi genre titles, like the bonkers Blax work of cartoonish surrealism, Darktown Strutters (’75). His jangly, bright, antiquated style works with Willeford’s no-nonsense storytelling to create a genuine neo noir – two artists emerging out of the past to try to communicate this violent mystery to a modern audience.

Fred Frenger “Junior” (Alec Baldwin) is up to no good. Fresh out of the clink, he’s on a plane to Florida, ripping off luggage and breaking a Hare Krishna’s fingers before jumping an airport shuttle to his hotel. This is a bad man, and Junior’s OK with people being afraid of him. His bleach blonde good looks barely hide the wild animal inside. Before even officially checking into his room, the smiling thug’s ordering up prostitutes from the bellhop. This is a beast, swallowing its first breaths of free air in quite some time. But what’s great about Miami Blues is that Junior isn’t some kind of criminal mastermind, looking to take down “one last score” before retiring, or seeking revenge on a similar foe. This is just a guy looking to have fun, only his idea of a great night out involves a little breaking and entering or aggravated assault. The kicker is Junior’s MO – he only likes to harass other miscreants and swipe their cash. When asked at one point if he’s like Robin Hood, he replies “yeah, only I don’t give the money to poor people.”

Junior’s dessert for his first evening in Miami is the tomboyish hooker, Susie (or "Pepper," her street name). Played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, the call girl’s an Alabama Worley prototype – green, naïve and near indescribably cute. Junior and Susie make for a sun and surf Bonnie and Clyde: she’s a coy toy for this overgrown child, and the devil may care recklessness with which they approach every hour together is infectious. Junior is able to be vulnerable around Susie, admitting that he hasn’t been with a woman for a very long time. Susie’s merely looking for a man who can relieve a deep seated loneliness she masks through chirpy quirks. Like Clarence and Alabama in True Romance (’93), they're engaged and living together in only a few short scenes, with Susie more than willing to keep this beer-swilling miscreant happy with her cooking and not ask too many questions about his nefarious activities.

It’s difficult to overstate just how much fun both Baldwin and Leigh are having here, as Armitage’s adaptation becomes a subversion of “white picket fence” Americana, replacing suburbia and garden sheers with tacky condos and a Desert Eagle in the freezer. Junior yearns to settle down with this Bambi-esque waif, as she gives her all to him and never really shows any desire to discover just what he’s up to at night. In Junior’s eyes, she’s the epitome of the perfect woman, and Baldwin can’t help but radiate a rather warm affection whenever he and Leigh share scenes together (which is quite often). On the flip side, Leigh is utterly lovable and vulnerable, letting us understand Susie’s attraction to this brutish oaf, even as we’re screaming at her to run for the door. There’s a caveman/woman thing going on where Susie just wants someone to love and provide for her, no matter the cost. It’s a heartbreaking relationship to witness, as Junior lulls her in with bullshit dreams of “investment security” that are tempered with, "I don't want to have any babies. This world's a shithole. Do you think you can handle that?" Having seemingly been fucked over her entire life by horrible men, Susie agrees to this compromise, even though Leigh allows us to see the desire for motherhood fading from Susie’s eyes as Junior utters these words.

To be fair, there’s a reason we didn’t get more Moseley movies beyond Miami Blues, and the lukewarm box office isn’t the main reason. The relationship between Junior and Susie is just so much more compelling than the murder investigation Moseley engages in (the aforementioned Hare Krishna dies of shock from the finger break). Once Junior beats the dick into submission, stealing his badge and gun in the process, it’s hard to take Willard’s boozy detective seriously. We know he’s outmatched, and feel bad for the toothless goof, but that’s also sort of the point. We want to drink with Hoke, not so much cheer him on after he wraps the murder case with a pork chop dinner and a savage ass-whooping. Really, this inversion of noir tropes is what makes Miami Blues fairly special – putting it in league with '70s hangout mysteries like The Long Goodbye (’73) or Darker Than Amber (’70). But none of these movies really gave you a “continuing adventures” vibe, instead feeling like a peek in on these never were misfits and their beachside follies.

Armitage crafts a visually beguiling picture, basking in the rays of the Florida sun before picking up a quart of beer at the fluorescent lit mini-marts Junior terrorizes. Regular Demme cinematographer Tak Fujimoto brings the same loose, immersive framing he did to Something Wild and Married to the Mob. Miami Blues isn’t a propulsive picture; you marinate in the locations and brush up close to the characters, as if you’re a hidden accomplice to Junior and Susie or partner to Hoke. That’s the biggest complement Armitage’s movie can be paid. By scripting it himself and retaining Willeford’s laid-back vibe, Miami Blues becomes more about essence captured than plot translated to screen. Like Grosse Pointe Blank (which Armitage directed over half a decade later in ‘97), we’re invited into these characters’ worlds for a bit before politely excusing ourselves, patiently awaiting a second chill session that will never come.

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