Forgotten gems: Miami Blues

(This is the first in an occasional series on movies that never got the recognition they deserved)

1990 was a landmark year for one of my favorite genres — the crime film. Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, the Coen Brothers’ Miller’s Crossing, Luc Besson’s La Femme Nikita and Stephen Frears’ The Grifters all hit screens that year to massive critical acclaim.

But lost in the pack was George Armitage’s stylish, funny and violent Miami Blues, an adaptation of Charles Willeford’s novel and one of the very best films of the 90s.

Alec Baldwin plays Freddie Frenger Jr., a dangerous ex-con who arrives in Miami as the film begins. Approached by a persistent Hare Krishna in the airport, he snaps the man’s fingers back and hops on a hotel shuttle. The Krishna dies, and Sgt. Hoke Moseley (Fred Ward) gets the case.

Junior is a thief by trade, looking to play any angle. When he calls hooker Susie Waggoner (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to his hotel room, he’s as interested in selling her a stolen dress as he is in sleeping with her. But they bond quickly — Susie is a sweet, dim girl who’s never been treated well by a man; Junior sees a shortcut to the good life, with a pretty wife and a house with a white picket fence in Coral Gables. And he’ll rob anybody he can to get it.

The film plays out as a cat and mouse game between Moseley and Junior, with Susie caught in the middle. Baldwin is alternately hilarious and psychotic in his best big screen role. Fred Ward gives Moseley the gruff weariness of a classic noir hero. And Jennifer Jason Leigh, who was basically unknown at the time, delivers her finest ever performance… a scene where she shares her recipe for vinegar pie is award-worthy all by itself.

The film is violent but comical, sometimes simultaneously, as when Junior calmly says to Susie “I want you to sew my eyebrow back on.” Baldwin’s anti-hero is one of those characters you can’t help but love, despite his actions, and his dialogue is priceless. I spent much of my twenties quoting this movie incessantly.

If you’ve never seen this film, rent it immediately! As an added bonus, it was filmed throughout South Florida, so those of you who (like me) live or have lived in that area will recognize many of the locations.

12 thoughts on “Forgotten gems: Miami Blues

  1. Amy says:

    By never having gotten “the recognition they deserve,” do you mean by audiences, critics, the academy or some other entity? I ask because I recall Miami Blues being critically well-received when it came out, and I think the film even received some nominations. So are you looking specifically for films that never found an audience?

    I remember little about this film except that I enjoyed it very much. Not sure what that says about its quality. Probably just that I hid my eyes through much of it for fear of the violence.

    If you’re taking suggestions, I nominate Talk to Me for a future spot in your series.

  2. Clay says:

    I’m primarily talking about audience response, with award recognition as a consideration as well. Miami Blues did receive rave reviews but aside from a couple critics’ group awards for Jennifer Jason Leigh it was ignored in awards season. And it disappeared at the box office.

  3. Amy says:

    And are you taking suggestions? Or is your list already too long for this not to become a full-time blogging exercise?

  4. Clay says:

    Suggestions are certainly welcome.

  5. Amy says:

    ONCE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  6. Clay says:

    I think that one is still a little new to fit this category… plus I wasn’t as floored by it as some.

  7. Amy says:

    So now there is a date requirement? Or is this just another way to deny the little film that could its rightful due? Not floored by it? 😛

  8. Clay says:

    Well, it’s hard for a film to be forgotten when it came out last year!

  9. Amy says:

    When it’s overlooked by all major critics groups, Golden Globes and the Academy awards, and when, according to your own criteria, it has been largely unseen by “Joe Moviegoer” than it could be a fair candidate for your series. Of course, you would have to believe it warrants such recognition, which, apparently, you do not.
    So just look for a future blog entry over at Whosvaguely.com. Maybe future Design Star Heather will do a Once inspired redo of my play/guest room for her audition tape.

  10. Clay says:

    Well, it did win an Academy award, if only in the song category.

  11. Amy says:

    Okay, then how about featuring it on your Song of the Day series? Is it worth one of 365 slots?

  12. Clay says:

    That’s a fine idea, though I’ll have to do it 40-50 down the road now so it doesn’t look like I’m bowing to pressure! 🙂

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