The Overlooked Sunshine Noir 'Miami Blues' Finally Hits Blu-Ray

Midway through 1990’s
“Miami Blues,” two montages happen near back-to-back. In the first, Alec
Baldwin’s ex-con Frederick J. “Junior” Frenger poses as a cop, only to rip off
the people ripping others off. (When a woman thanks him for stopping a purse
thief, he responds, “Yeah, that’s great, lady” and runs off.) In the second,
Junior and his ex-prostitute wife Susie (Jennifer Jason Leigh) live the
archetypical American Dream, with her hammering in a white picket fence and the
two dancing while eating cotton candy and playing Frisbee in their yard.
Individually, they’re both lively sequences. Together, they get at the heart of
what makes “Miami Blues” great: its ability to go from irreverent violence to sincere sweetness on a dime.

Directed by the
maddeningly non-prolific George Armitage (who’s since only made the cult hit
“Grosse Point Blank” in 1997 and the flop “The Big Bounce” in 2004), “Miami
Blues” makes its way to Blu-ray this week courtesy of Shout! Factory. The disc
is short on extras (just a trailer and a featurette with interviews from
Baldwin and Leigh), but it’s mostly just a pleasure to see the film in
high definition after years of being available only on DVD. A commercial
disappointment when it was released, Armitage’s spectacular day-glo gem is ripe
for re-discovery.

Baldwin’s “Junior” is a
thief from California with a penchant for stealing from other thieves. Posing
as retiree “Herman Gottlieb,” his first action after he gets off the plane in
Miami is breaking the fingers of a Hare Krishna who bugged him on the
escalator, sending him into a shock that kills him. That incident draws the
attention of Sgt. Hoke Moseley (Fred Ward), a denture-sporting cop who served
as the protagonist in a series of novels by original author Charles Willeford.
While he’s on Junior’s trail, the ex-con sets up a date and falls for Leigh’s overly-trusting
prostitute, to whom he promises he’s left the criminal life behind.

Produced by fellow Roger
Corman-graduate Jonathan Demme (who also lent Armitage his editor Craig McKay
and cinematographer Tak Fujimoto), the film plays a bit like what would happen
if Demme’s offbeat comedies hewed slightly closer to the kind of films Corman
originally commissioned him to make. It frequently employs the kind of graphic
violence Demme used sparingly in his comedies “Something Wild” and “Married to
the Mob,” with Baldwin doling out beatings for cops and criminals alike and
firing “warning shots” into people’s legs, but it’s also full of the kind of
offbeat details that made those films such consistent delights. When Junior
knocks Hoke around his motel room, he steals his gun, his badge, and, just for
good measure, his false teeth. He further embarrasses Hoke by solving a
homicide case he’d been working on for 15 months, and, in the film’s most
memorable scene, breaks into a house and composes a stream-of-consciousness
haiku while there: “Breaking. En-ter-ing. The dark and lonely places. Finding…a

Armitage isn’t as
naturally an expressive filmmaker as his producer, but there’s a
straight-ahead, unfussy beauty to “Miami Blues’” style. Leigh’s first scene in
particular is an impressive bit of framing: as Junior pulls out a dress for her
to try on, she asks him to turn around, and the camera pushes in as he does to
feature only her head and neckline in the background. We’re giving Susie her
privacy right along with Junior, while her face stays in frame because he’s
still keeping it in mind. It’s the first moment that suggests that Junior might
have something other than brutishness inside of him, and a clear indication
that Armitage knows when nudity would be a distraction (it also makes their
subsequent love scenes more tender and vulnerable).

“Miami Blues” is full of
memorable bit parts, from Demme regular Charles Napier and a memorably deadpan
Nora Dunn  as Hoke’s pals to Paul Vernon as a snide
crooked cop to Shirley Stoler as a brusque pawn shop clerk, but it’s also the
finest hour for Ward, Baldwin and Leigh as performers. A character actor
specializing in playing affable schmoes, Ward is perfect as an uncouth but
fundamentally decent guy who just can’t catch a break; he’s even better in his
scenes with Leigh, as he shows a real sympathy dealing with someone who’s in
for a world of hurt.

That hurt comes with
Baldwin’s Junior, a crook who vacillates between sweetness and cruelty with
little warning, giving the film its gloriously unpredictable rhythm. The key to
Baldwin’s performance is that while we can always see Junior ticking, we can’t
quite figure out what’s making him tick. He’s casually violent, but when he tries to talk a clearly inexperienced crook out of committing a crime, there’s a dash of sincerity in his voice. He shows little kindness towards Susie
initially, remarking that the first lesson in “hooker classes” is that “you
shouldn’t ask the clients so many fuckin’ personal questions,” only to
apologize for upsetting her almost immediately. He lies to her about getting
out of the life, but he does seem to really want to settle down with her. He
puts down her dreams for owning a Burger World franchise and having kids, but
every step of the way we see him thinking through his responses and peppering
in moments of genuine warmth. Most heartbreaking, when she begins to suspect
he’s no good and pours in a full bottle of vinegar into a pie, he eats it and
remarks that it’s terrific, his face scrunched up in “dear god this is awful” as he tries hard to avoid hurting her. It’s a performance that’s at once
playful, cruel, and sensitive, someone who lies constantly but seems to really
mean it. 

Leigh provides the
film’s heart as a sweet naïf who’s constantly processing how she’s being
treated and whether or not it’s OK. When Junior says he doesn’t want any kids
or remarks that he doesn’t see the point of working at a Burger World, she’s
cut, but we can see the gears turning in her head as she decides his plans for
her are fine, too. Susie isn’t smart, but Leigh never condescends to her,
working wonders with Susie’s rationalizations for why Junior isn’t all bad. “I gave
him the benefit of the doubt because he has some good qualities. He always ate
everything I ever cooked for him, and he never hit me.” It’s in her scenes and
in those final moments that “Miami Blues” morphs from a cool, caustically funny
neo-noir to a genuinely moving portrait of a bad relationship, its brighter
moments, and the wreckage it leaves behind for the good person caught in the
middle of it. That it manages to end a note that’s both deeply sad and sardonic
only further makes its case as one of the finest forgotten films of its time,
and one of the best, period.

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