Writer/Director George Armitage is kind of a contemporary version of Albert Lewin: a filmmaker who pops up on the scene every few years to makes his little movie, and then disappears into some kind of creative hibernation until the elements are just right again.
A graduate from the Roger Corman school of low budget/sexploitation filmmaking, Armitage's first films as director were mostly exploitation productions as writer and/or director, and included Private Duty Nurses (1971) and the Get Carter blaxploitation rehash, Hit Man (1972). After the TV movie Hot Rod (1979), Armitage disappeared as a director until 1990, when he made the brisk and tonally faithful adaptation of Charles Willeford's superb novel, Miami Blues.
Willeford died in 1988, and sadly missed the release of Miami Blues (co-produced by Jonathan Demme), although between 1984-1988, the author had penned four novels starring the irritable-but-affable detective Hoke Moseley. One gets the impression actor Fred Ward had hoped to spin the first film into a series, and while his influence as co-executive producer may have emphasized the script's focus on Mosely vs. baddie Freddie 'Junior' Frenger, Armitage's adaptation is definitely faithful to the novel's beautifully crafted style of smart-ass humour, and the violent realities of being a con with no experience in living a regular, honest life.
[SPOILER ALERT FOR FILM + BOOK]
In adapting the novel, Armitage removed the brother-sister relationship between the murdered Hare Krishna in the opening airport scene, and Frenger's girlfriend, hooker Susan Waggoner. Certain conversations and encounters were also telescoped into different locales to keep the pacing tight for cinema audiences, but without the relationship, the reason for Susan's arrival in Miami is no longer germane: victimized by her over-protective and incestuous brother, the two siblings left their father and sought an abortion in Miami, after which brother Marty had Susan turn tricks for money, while he skimmed cash while begging for the Krishnas at the local airport.
In the film, Susan still plans on opening a burger franchise from her hooking money, but gone is the motivation that prompts her to ditch Frenger at the coin store at the end of the story. In the novel, Frenger becomes aware that he killed Susan's brother when Hoke Mosely first meets the couple at a Portuguese restaurant to tell Susan that her brother was murdered; fed up with her nattering and incessant questions in the getaway car, Frenger deliberately torments her by admitting he was the one who broke Marty's finger and caused him to die of massive shock, only to her gone after he emerges from the coin store.
Armitage's modification still works: early in the film, Susan (Jennifer Jason Leigh) makes Frenger (Alec Baldwin) promise to give up his criminal ways, and he plays up her naivete and somewhat daft nature in the script. To avoid making Susan a total “Princess Not-so-bright,” though, Armitage gives both characters brief scenes that show a genuine shared affection, thereby making it more logical that she's not turning a blind eye to Frenger's thieving, but just a young woman whose own emotions are as extreme and overpowering as a child who veers from crying to laughing within a few minutes. When Frenger runs to the car after the robbery, Susan leaves because he's broken his promise to stay clean, and it's a deeply penetrating hurt for the emotionally vulnerable woman-child. Armitage also added a preceding sequence on the eve of the coin robbery, where Hoke (Fred Ward) sets up an encounter at a nearby supermarket, and tells her Frenger's true identity and other murderous deeds.
One problem the script couldn't lick was Hoke's new partner, Cuban-American Ellita Sanchez. In the novel, Hoke's boss breaks up his partnership with Henderson to balance the ethnic makeup in the homicide department, and so experienced detectives can act as mentors and better serve the community with Latin-speaking partners. In the book, Sanchez' late introduction also functions to upset Hoke's anti-Cuban prejudices, and to sort out the jurisdictional problems at the end, after Hoke shoots Frenger in his rented home.
Dropping a hot female partner in the film's final third would've upset the cop thriller formula, so the screenplay has Sanchez appearing first as another detective after Hoke's hospital admission, and her professional relationship is inferred as Hoke's imminent new partner - an intended replacement of a retiring Henderson. In the novel, it's another cop that retires, while Henderson remains in the story right to the final scene that was dropped from Armitage's adaptation. (Both Henderson and Sanchez return in Willeford's second Hoke Moseley novel, New Hope for the Dead.)
Sanchez next appearance in the film, however, doesn't happen for another stretch of scenes, and it's clear her hospital desk scene is insurance so that audiences aren't confused when she becomes a more active character in the film's middle section. Nora Dunn, in her third film role, has little to do except play out the 'new partner' friction with Hoke that Armitage extrapolated from the novel (although in the book, she's more proactive, and is the one who actually discovers where Susan and Frenger are hiding out).
[END OF SPOILERS]
Armitage's calling card of late is Grosse Point Blanke, and fans of the film will find the same level of offbeat moments in Miami Blues, plus a number of moments inspired by and faithful to Willeford's solid characters. The film's violence - the finger and arm breaking, along with the coin shop dealer (now a woman) hacking off Frenger's fingers with a machete - are straight from the book, although in the film, Frenger scoops up his finger bits - something his character regrets having missed in Willeford's novel.
The violence, and a prolonged sequence of neighbour Mrs. Damrosche sewing up Frenger's torn eyebrow, were elements that made the film an uneven mix for audiences looking for something more predictable & fun, but these extremes are also prevalent in the better film adaptations of Elmore Leonard's own books, including Get Shorty, Gold Coast, and Out of Sight. (Perhaps it's unsurprising then, that Armitage would follow the less nasty but darkly funny hitman conflict of Grosse Point Blanke with his offbeat version of Leonard's The Big Bounce, in 2004.)
MGM's DVD offers a nice transfer of the film, with Tak Fujimoto's brilliant, glowing colour palette; the reds are a bit too hot - almost neon - in the last reel, but the colour design and costumes ensure the period's indulgent style don't distract from what's aged into a slick, well-directed crime film. Even Gary Chang's hyper-rhythmic score suits the production, although much of the music soundtrack uses source and source-like cues, including Norman Greenbaum's "Spirit in the Sky" to effectively bookend the film.
The film's cast includes buffed and youthful Alec Baldwin, then enjoying a career high; and Jennifer Jason Leigh, who was slowly moving away from brutalized ingénues and token babes into more gritty characters. (Susan Waggoner isn't the brightest bulb in the chandelier, but Jason Leigh's measured expressions add a lot of vital subtext to her character.) Paul Gleason has a great cameo as another ethically challenged human, and ex-exploitation babe Martine Beswick has a short scene playing an unimpressed waitress.
Pity MGM didn't bother with a special edition - it would've opened the opportunity for a short doc on author Willeford - but given most labels love to trumpet anniversary editions, Miami Blues is a perfect candidate for a special edition.
Armitage's other works include the script for The Last of the Finest (1990) and The Late Shift (1996), and if the seven year rule applies to his current output, he's due for another film by 2011.
Willeford's other Hoke Mosely adventures are New Hope for the Dead, Sideswipe, and The Way We Die Now, while other Willeford novels made into films are The Woman Chaser (1999), and Cockfighter (1974), which he adapted himself.
© 2006 Mark R. Hasan