“My problem is that I can have everything and anything that I want, but I don’t know what I want.”
—Frederick J. Frenger, Jr.
a.k.a. “Herman Gotlieb”
a.k.a. “Sgt. Hoke Moseley”
There’s a strikingly quiet moment near the halfway point of the otherwise raucous Miami Blues, a moment that passes through the nervy, tonally-jarring 1990 neo-noir like a cool breeze on a scorching Florida afternoon. The kind of breeze that caresses your sweat-sheened body before lingering just a little too long, making your slicked skin shudder despite the oppressive, mosquito buzzed swelter.
Con man/ex-con Freddy “Junior” Frenger (Alec Baldwin)—having already casually murdered an annoying Hare Krishna at Miami International Airport, identity-thieved his way into a swank hotel, and beguiled a young local prostitute named Susie (Jennifer Jason Leigh)—confidently strolls back to his Firebird Trans Am parked along the beach. He’s just viciously beaten and stolen the badge, gun, and even false teeth of Sgt. Hoke Moseley (Fred Ward), the Miami homicide cop assigned to the Krishna case.
In short, this spike-haired sociopath, with his blue-eyed menace, sharklike grin, and killer, dickswagger cool is living the life. But then:
Sliding into the car, Junior stops—in the distance, on the beach, silhouettes of three Floridians playing Frisbee with their dogs are framed against the silver-orange of a Miami sunrise. Beneath clouds that look slicked with golden mercury, the lives of these people halt Junior, and the livewire muscles of his face slack into a deeply contemplative, wonderstruck trance.
Something happens to him in this moment, and for once this motor-mouthed madman is deadly silent. As the Trans Am pulls away into the heat of the muggy Florida morning, Junior’s eyes remain moored on this peaceful image of happiness and contentment, and his lack of both are reflected in his empty mask of mute thoughtfulness.
~ ~ ~
“He was not a careful person,” Charles Willeford wrote of Junior in the 1984 novel upon which Miami Blues is based, “and a full hour was a long time for him to engage in any activity without his mind turning to something else.” Indeed, both the novel and the film open with Junior’s head quite literally in the clouds. He’s hopped a cross-country flight from California, and we see clouds streak across his devilish smile as he looks down from an airplane window to the Miami cityscape crosshatched into the boiling green murk of the Florida Everglades. It is as if all of this could be his, the entire city as his oyster.
Of note, however, is the film’s divergence from the novel. While Willeford’s book was the first in a series of hardboiled Hoke Moseley novels, the gunsight of writer/director George Armitage’s film remains trained squarely on Junior and his twisted connection with Susie. Despite top billing as Moseley, the excellent and affable Ward is edited down to the sidelines (imagine a The Long Goodbye adaptation that focuses primarily on Terry Lennox in Mexico, rather than Marlowe’s travails in Los Angeles). The reason why? As Junior, Alec Baldwin gives the finest, most nuanced and hypnotic performance of his career.
Miami Blues is Baldwin’s film. He and it vibrate at the same off-kilter atomic frequency, and its whiplashed gearshifts from dark comedy to relationship drama to hyper-violent crime thriller match his own mercurial shifts in mood and tone as he constructs a ferociously charming/charmingly ferocious character almost wholly without insight into the human condition beyond his own: He wants things, so he takes things, he wants more things, so he takes more things, and still he wants even more things. He is a sociopathic vortex of anger and need, desperate for something he cannot name because he can have everything in this world and none of it satisfies him.
Baldwin’s Junior is a force of crude and arrogant chaos that hits Miami like a frequently-shirtless human hurricane. Within minutes of landing, he snaps an incessant Hare Krishna’s finger back so far that the fracture sends the man into fatal shock. From there, he settles into a hotel and orders a sex worker, “Pepper” (a.k.a. Susie). Initially cruelly dismissive of her gee-whiz naivety (“The first thing they should have taught you at your hooker classes is you shouldn’t ask the clients so many fucking personal questions,” he growls), he then surprises her, and himself, when they fall into bed. Despite having been without a woman for years in lockup, he is tender and gentle, astonishing her with his kisses (“Nobody kisses us,” she whispers, before the two devolve into giggles and lovemaking). It’s an afternoon of casual carnage and sex that will pull both Hoke and Susie into Junior’s orbit, and his eventual collapse.
~ ~ ~
The lead trio of Miami Blues all have dreams. But more than that, these three are not only chasing after their own personal variants of the American Dream, but for the dream versions of their best selves. Susie longs to escape her life as “Pepper” by managing a Burger World, buying a nice house, and raising a few children. Hoke, living out of a junky, neon-flickered roach motel, sees himself as the toothy, capable dick that finally cracks the “The Dumbbell Killers” case he’s unsuccessfully worked for the last 15 months (and he’d like to get his fucking teeth back, too). And Junior wants any and everything at any given moment, as his unpredictable desires shapeshift with each new identity he steals and adopts:
Posing as “Herman Gotlieb,” the man Junior mugged and killed in San Francisco to finance his flight to Florida, Junior wants to be The Man with an empire of fast Porches and pricey speedboats. With the stolen identity of “Sgt. Hoke Moseley, Homicide,” he sees himself as a crooked Robin Hood, stealing from the thieves he busts and giving to himself with Miami as his own overheated Sherwood Forest. And as “Junior Gotlieb,” he tells Susie “I want to have a regular life. I want to go to work in the morning, sometimes at night. Come home to a clean house and a hot meal and a loving wife just like you.”
He is none of those men…and all of them. He’s Frederick Frenger, Jr., and each of these personas—which Junior tries on as easily as he does the fluorescent tropicalia of turquoise blues, hot pinks, and neon greens that define the local attire—are all different shades of the same man. The heat of his madness, his rage, and his manic, sweaty energy stain through each before they’re torn to bloodied tatters by the brute force of his personality and the consequences it engenders.
It’s Junior’s lifelong unwillingness to even attempt rehabilitation (as opposed to what he does do: leap directly into the persona of someone else, someone potentially better) that ultimately undoes him, and it’s a weakness that both Susie and Hoke share as well. Early in the film, Hoke manages to track down Junior and Susie to her apartment. Posing as a clueless detective simply trying to track down “Herman Gotlieb” as a witness to the Krishna’s murder, Hoke sits down for dinner with the new couple. Each character attempts to play a role as they down beers and pork chops: “Herman” the innocent witness, “Susie” the dutiful fiancé, and “Sgt. Mosely, Homicide” the clueless cop. But face-to-face, the criminal and cop reveal themselves like weak poker players. Junior can’t help but guard his dinner plate like a con in a cafeteria, increasingly agitated with each new question, and Hoke can’t hide his eager, bloodhound nature as he sniffs out Junior’s murderous rage. Each character does their best to present a different version of themselves, and in doing so wholly gives themselves away. We are who we are, and some dentures just don’t fit, no matter how bright a smile they’d give.
~ ~ ~
After dinner, Junior tracks Hoke to his motel, surprising him with the aforementioned beating and robbery, and it’s here that the film takes the most hairpin of its many zigzagged turns (it’s no surprise that Jonathan Demme, King of the Gearshift Movies, produced the film): Junior steals Moseley’s identity, and Miami Blues lays down a series of hysterical and violent vignettes in which Junior burns through the city, falling deeper and deeper into his cop persona, making false arrests and robbing criminals he catches in the act. At one point, Junior fires a bullet deep into a café robber’s thigh before screaming “stop or I’ll shoot!” explaining that “I fired a warning shot and it hit you” before hilariously deadpanning to the café patrons, “Don’t worry. I’m gonna call an ambulance now. On the radio in my police car. Yeah.”
While played for laughs, it’s this unpredictable stretch of film finds Junior briefly trying on a new guise in an occasionally relative attempt to go straight. After stealing from a series of other crooks, he doesn’t try to steal from the café thief—he genuinely succeeds at stopping the crime and takes nothing for himself. Later, he ends an illegal betting racket by outright murdering the head bookie, and leaves all the money behind. Yet this quasi-transformation is through crooked and deeply heinous means, and it leads to the same mayhem and emptiness he always finds. Inevitably, in pursuit of any goal or dream, Junior lies, cheats, steals, and kills to get there, always undercutting the results, and what he gains simply isn’t real. It’s in that way that Junior, Susie, and Hoke are so similar—they all cheat, cut corners, and compromise to achieve their goals, never realizing that, ironically, in doing so they cheat, cut, and compromise the very goals themselves.
Hoke relies on others for nearly every advantage he has in life: He went toothless for a month while waiting for a forensic dentist to make his treasured dentures for free rather than paying a regular D.D.S. He begs and pleads with Blink Willie, a literally blind street informant, for the solution to the Dumbbell Killer case (which Junior manages to inadvertently solve during one of his fake arrests). He lets his new partner, Sanchez (Nora Dunn), do all the legwork in tracking down Susie and Junior through the local utility companies while he convalesces. And the now-weaponless cop even has to borrow a pistol from his deaf landlord at the motel before facing Junior again. Like Junior, the film version of Hoke is a man who cuts every corner and compromises whatever he can in order to arrive at the finish line of his goal.
Susie’s compromises are far more tragic. When she tells Junior her wish is to run her own Burger World, an utterly confounded Junior asks “Why? What’s the purpose?” As the slightly deflated Susie replies “to make a living, that’s all” and explains that the money from the business would finance “a nice little house with a white picket fence,” Junior proceeds to systemically take apart every aspect of her fantasy. “It’s stupid,” he explains, desecrating and destroying her hopes as so much of the light in her eyes dies. For Junior, working towards a happy ending is nonsense. “Let’s go straight to the ‘happily ever after’ part, OK?” he insists, unable to understand that for Susie, the idea of the journey to it is the “happily ever after part.” And it’s something she immediately sacrifices in order to stay with Junior after he reveals he’s already rented a lovely new house for them in a ritzy neighborhood.
It’s a pattern of behavior we see in Susie throughout the film—while watching a water ballet act, she tells Junior she wanted to be in the show, but couldn’t bother with the training. When reminiscing about her days working the counter at a Burger World, she explains that she quit because hooking simply paid too much to turn down. And finally, after they’ve moved into their new home, when she tells Junior she’s looking forward to raising their children, he explains “I don’t want to have any babies. This world’s a shithole. You think you can handle that?” The last of the light dies in her eyes as she whispers “I do,” and Junior whispers “I do” back—a marriage of one-sided compromise, in which Susie sells off the final remnants of her dream in order to not be alone. Theirs is a connection that, despite its warmth, despite the idyllic montages of dancing, eating cotton candy together, and finally playing Frisbee like the perfect people on that perfect beach, is built upon a foundation of Junior’s lies and her concessions, a happily ever after assembled atop thin air. It is indeed a dream—something from which one always has to wake up.
~ ~ ~
Junior can only be Junior. No matter how many names he steals, or personas he adopts, he is still Frederick J. Frenger, Jr., sociopath and murderer. When he confronts a gunman during a convenience store robbery, Junior—armed only with a heavy jar of spaghetti sauce—has a brief moment of empathy for another desperate criminal, and it costs him. “I know what it’s like to be on the other end of that gun,” he growls…before the gunman hops into a giant pickup truck and drives it straight into Junior’s body.
Despite his best attempts to leapfrog into a persona better than his own, Junior has not tried to improve the very real maniac behind his many masks. He is the furthest thing from a decent lawman, and his lack of skills, training, or even basic respect for society’s laws leave him sprawled out on Formica with a broken body and cratered face. He was never a Dirty Harry standing tall with a .44 Magnum, or even a Hoke Moseley with his snub-nosed .38—he’s just a con holding a jar of spaghetti sauce. That’s all Junior ever was.
It’s a truth that cuts deep into his self-delusion, one that he reveals to Susie that night: “This straight life that we’ve been living has been giving me a misplaced sense of security. I thought for a minute there I was some kind of solid citizen or something.” Junior’s half-assed, compromised efforts to merely act like a better man have not only cost him far more than he is willing to spend, but shown him who and what he truly is—and what he resigns himself to be. He abandons his goals of becoming “Herman Gotlieb,” “Junior Gotlieb,” and “Sgt. Hoke Moseley” like the collapsed tissues of a dream, and only Frederick “Junior” Frenger—the desperately empty thief, liar, and murderer—remains.
Junior’s resignation haunts Susie, weakening her faith in his promises never to lie to her, or to return to his “prior” life of crime that he’s hinted at, and so she presents a truth test: she bakes a pie sabotaged with half a bottle of vinegar. When Junior chokes through it, forkful after vile forkful, his throat working it down while gasping out lies between frantic bites—“This is really great. It’s great! Great. One of your best!”—she knows her dream of a real life with “Junior Gotlieb” is at an end.
Junior soon spirals out of control as he returns to old habits, and the film climaxes during an explosively hot Miami afternoon with a pawn shop heist-gone-wrong. Susie, realizing he’ll always be a liar and a criminal, takes Junior’s getaway car while the shop owner hacks off three of his fingers with a machete. Hoke, having tailed Junior thanks to Sanchez’s detective work, arrives during Junior’s escape, just in time for both men to scream “Freeze, police!” at each other before trading bullets.
A bloody chase back to the house ensues, with a final confrontation in the kitchen. Dizzy and bleeding out, Junior notes that “everything’s turning all orange and silver”—the same colors of the sky during the heavenly Frisbee tableau on the beach, the one that so entranced him just days earlier. He then attempts a final, futile attempt to kill Hoke, who relies on the hair trigger of his landlord’s gun to put Junior down permanently.
Susie returns to the house to find her man dead and Hoke waiting, having finally recovered his stolen dentures. Through tears, she offers her heart-crushing reasons for trading in so many of her dreams in order to live with Junior:
“I had to give him the benefit of the doubt because he had some good qualities. He always ate everything I ever cooked for him. And he never hit me. There were lots of good things about Junior.”
Later, as he is wheeled out of the house on a cart, things return to the way they were before the nightmare of Hurricane Junior arrived. Susie sits on a patio chair, watching the body roll away as she cradles a Frisbee they once tossed together, looking as lost and alone as she did the day she first walked into his hotel room. Hoke ambles outside to find Sanchez cleaning up the “jurisdictional trouble” of his chaotic shootout (of course) and ready with instructions on what he’s to tell investigators. As for Susie’s fate, Hoke is typically Hoke about it, muttering “She’s been through hell. Leave her alone…Let’s get the fuck out of here,” before offering a half-hearted smile: “Got my teeth back.”
Susie then tosses Hoke the Frisbee, the spinning fragment of a dream once shared by three people on a Florida beach, a dream that Junior sensed the outermost edges of, but, like so many, could never articulate for himself. It’s a melancholy end for such a rowdy story, but at the very least, another brutally hot Miami day has finally come to a close…yet that only leads to another in a lifelong series of sweltering nights for these characters, tossing and turning over crumpled, body-warmed sheets, noisy fans blowing hot air on their skin, as they sink deeper and deeper into the dreams that keep them.