Thursday, July 16, 2015

Truer Detective: Revisiting Miami Blues (1990)

Alec Baldwin in Miami Blues.

Why are so many popular film noirs and hard-boiled TV dramas these days so fucking solemn? In the HBO series True Detective, which is about as brooding and humourless as television gets, there's enough lugubrious dialogue to sink David Fincher's Se7en. (Maybe True Detective is supposed be a straight-faced parody of James Ellroy's or James.M.Cain's pulpy prose. But I doubt it.) The writing is actually literary in the worst way – self-conscious neurosis always reflecting back on itself even as it wallows in its existential darkness.When Vince Vaughn's Frank remarked a couple of episodes ago that “there’s a certain stridency at work here,” I howled at the TV screen. He could be speaking for the series itself. True Detective strives for importance by layering on the dread and critics and viewers seem enthralled by all the tortured somnambulism. Could it be the tough-guy dialogue that tries to be smart, or is it possibly the story which affirms some knowing cynicism about the nature of corruption and our acquiescence towards it? Who knows? It could make for perfectly viable dramatic material if it were done without this ennui-on-the-sleeve pretension – in fact, Netflix's Bloodline does do corruption well, but nobody's writing about it. So despite the strong presence of a lot of good actors on True Detective, to paraphrase critic Paul Coates, they all end up moving like the drowned under water.

Speaking of good actors, when I saw Fred Ward wasted in a True Detective cameo a few weeks back as a cop in a hallucination, I was reminded of an infinitely better little crime thriller he starred in called Miami Blues where he was a truer detective. While the HBO drama tries for something deep and foreboding in every moment, as if it were terrified that revelations could sometimes be found in the most casual interplay, Miami Blues makes no such claim for depth. Yet it has plenty to say and with a cutting irony that springs plenty of surprises. While everything in the Los Angeles of True Detective is blighted – even the sun seems in too much of a funk to shine – the city of Miami Blues glows in bright and smudged pastel colours like a beacon calling to the id to come out and play. The picture keeps the hunger and the insatiable need to quench it always up front and reminds us that villains aren't always after the bling to nurse their pathology. In Miami Blues, people are constantly sacrificing things – clothes, guns, a badge, false teeth, and even their fingers – just to get some satisfaction. People's dreams here are pretty basic, but their means of fulfilling them in the end become costly. In that vain pursuit, violence and ironic comedy commingle in a manner that gives Miami Blues its own delectable bite.

Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alec Baldwin

To the strains of Norman Greenbaum's hideous late Sixties hit, "Spirit in the Sky," 'Junior' Frenger (Alec Baldwin), a psychopathic con man just released from prison in California, flies into Miami with a new stolen identity and a basic goal of getting rich. As he leaves the airport, however, he gets hustled by another kind of con artist – a Hare Krishna recruit who is trying to palm off a copy of the Bhagavad Gita – and Junior responds by breaking the guy's finger, sending him into shock, and giving him a fatal heart attack. Junior flees the scene and the murder is investigated by Sgt. Hoke Moseley (Fred Ward), a shaggy dog detective with false teeth, and his partner, Bill Henderson (Charles Napier), who take turns cracking each other up over whether you could define this crime as a homicide. Meanwhile Junior checks into a hotel and orders up a hooker, Susie Waggoner (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a girl with simple needs who's putting herself through school. Right away she sees that her goal is to domesticate the infantile Junior (no name could be better) and building for themselves a future. The Hare Krishna murder, though, leads Hoke to Junior's door, an apartment he eventually shares with Susie. It doesn't take Hoke long to size up Junior as a veteran criminal who has done some hard time. But he has no evidence to arrest him. Before he can come up with some, though, Junior finds his way to Hoke's run-down hotel residence, beats him, and robs him of his badge, gun and his false teeth. While the dazed Hoke recovers in the hospital, Junior goes about Miami, disguising himself as Hoke, solving all his open cases – and pocketing all the spoils for himself.

Back in 1990 Alec Baldwin was young and trim, not the sturdy-as-granite fellow we've come to know from 30 Rock. Baldwin plays Junior as an insatiable infant with a violent appetite who sees the world and wants what's in it – including the domestic simplicities that Susie offers him. You could say he resembles Al Pacino's Scarface, who also saw Miami as his own personal Eden, except that Junior is Tony Montana without all the over-baked machismo, which in Brian De Palma's film turned everything inadvertently into ridiculous camp. Baldwin is agile on his feet like Jimmy Cagney was in White Heat – actually almost as funny – and not as heavy-spirited as Pacino. Junior's tickled at how easy it is to play detective and be a criminal at the same time. He may be in perpetual arrested adolescence, but he's also quick-witted, and that gives the part some gravity. By contrast, Fred Ward's Hoke is sharp and sweet, but he's so grizzled that the people he needs most continually underestimate him. Hoke knows that he's become a joke within the department because he forgets to put his teeth in and his potbelly always hangs forlornly over his pants. But when Junior starts solving his cases and making a fool of him, the fox within awakens. Once he gets partnered with Ellita Sanchez (Nora Dunn), he even turns foxy. (Nora Dunn, who isn't given much to do unfortunately, is stunningly gorgeous in just about every shot.) Hoke earns Ellita's respect and admiration by the end.

Fred Ward and Nora Dunn.

Jennifer Jason Leigh gives the character of Susie ample consideration. Although Susie appears simple-minded and naive, she isn't. She may firmly believe in the family values concurrent with the post-Reagan years that the picture is set in, but she also believes that the straight life will ultimately redeem her. She knows that Junior abandoning his recidivist criminality would be as easy for Junior as her giving up prostitution and she's crushed when he continues to live the life. (She finds out that he's lying to her when she bakes him a horrid vinegar pie and pretends to eat it happily rather than reacting honestly.) Although in many pictures since, Leigh has played hollowed out versions of damaged souls, she fills Susie's structured role with a number of fascinating and funny contours. (Even when she tells Hoke that she stayed with Junior because he ate everything she cooked and never hit her, she makes that seem significant rather than a joke on her character.)

Miami Blues was made under the aegis of Jonathan Demme and you can feel his spirit of generosity throughout the picture. (He and George Armitage became friends when they both worked under the tutelage of Roger Corman in the Sixties and Seventies. Miami Blues also features a number of Demme regulars including the incomparable Tak Fujimoto who shot the picture.) While Armitage's script, based on a novel by Charles Willeford, is somewhat thinner than Demme's Something Wild or Married to the Mob, Miami Blues has a snaggle-tooth appeal. That may have something to do also with the intelligence underneath the pulp of the picture. Even the use of "Spirit in the Sky" isn't arbitrary. Norman Greenbaum's song pointed at the shift in Sixties idealism towards the morphing of hippies into the Jesus children of the early Seventies. At the beginning of the picture, Junior is morphing himself as well into a born again entrepreneur with a junk bonds mentality where his criminal psychopathy now seems almost commonplace. Armitage cleverly contrasts the amorality of Junior's outlook not only with Susie's earnest acceptance of American family values, but also with the predatory world of the recession decade he's been released into. If True Detective gives you the impression that its characters are so damaged they had nothing to lose to begin with, Miami Blues tells you that even getting your false teeth stolen can feel like a capital offense.                

– Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of ZappaRandy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.   

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