Charles Willeford’ s signature style—the depths of vice, violence, and perversion, observed with an observational comic’s eye and described with the same deadpan delivery devoted elsewhere to To-do List banalities—developed away from the light of an appreciative public. Publishing since the pulp days, Willeford was never able earn a living from fiction until, shortly before his death, he received fat advances and a measure of fame. Willeford was even asked to write a script for Miami Vice; he submitted a storyline where Crockett came out of the closet.
That Very Special Episode shelved, Willeford’s Miami would be realized on-screen when an adaptation of his Miami Blues began filming in fall, 1988. The author had died that spring.
Miami Blues, published in 1984, introduced the character of Hoke Moseley, a divorced, lumpen, middle-aged Miami detective with a mouthful of false teeth, on the trail of a fresh-from-the-slammer sociopath, “Junior” Frenger. The book was a surprise hit, followed by three more Moseley adventures which took full advantage of all-access badge of the police procedural to cut satirical cross-sections through the ethnic and social strata of an absolutely of-the-moment Miami and its supermarkets, timeshares, and residential hotels. His “mystery” plots are festooned with miscellaneous, mundane details that finally emerge as elements in a vast panorama hellscape, teeming with the taken-for-granted absurdities intrinsic to contemporary American life—an au courant quality parodied by the title of his last Moseley book, The Way We Die Now. Willeford’s matter-of-fact, shrugged-out humor makes more upmarket farces (Don DeLillo’s White Noise, for example) seem labored.
There had been one since-forgotten movie from Willeford’s work made before, 1974’s Cockfighter, directed by Monte Hellman. In it, the author played a significant role: he’s the elder trainer with the W.C. Fields nose atop a cavalryman’s mustache. George Armitage, who eventually wrote and directed Miami Blues, was grinding out product at Roger Corman’s AIP when Cockfighter came through (Jonathan Demme, his former Corman stablemate, has a producer credit on Miami Blues).
Armitage’s screenplay adaptation is a model of smart streamlining (his 2004 The Big Bounce, from Elmore Leonard—who learned a thing or two from Willeford—also finds a détente between the properties of its cast and source material). Playing Frenger, Alec Baldwin has one of the few opportunities of his ill-fitting leading man period to practice a seething comic talent. Jennifer Jason Leigh is Susie, the lost girl from Okeechobee who Junior meets as she’s hooking her way through Dade Junior College—where she might’ve taken classes from the English department’s Prof. Willeford, who loved writing this kind of ding-dong dame. Fred Ward plays Moseley, in a somewhat reduced role here, though the character couldn’t have asked for a better interpreter than Ward, whose working-class veracity is so great he might have been manufactured by Dickies (Miami Blues was the center of Ward’s Triple Crown of 1990 releases, bookended by Tremors and Henry & June).
It’s a great movie for mouths, those telltale indicators of class: Leigh’s uncorrected lisp and overbit frown, Ward’s denture routines, Baldwin’s put-‘er’-there come-on smile, a rehearsed-from-TV-infomercials cover barely concealing impatient ex-con wariness (Junior is only sincere when first seen, gaping out the window on what’s presumably his first airplane ride). Never acquiring the social graces corresponding to his ambition, Junior drags Susie into his white-trash fantasy of upward mobility, financed by banditry—paralleling another superb Reagan/Bush I-era snapshot, Raising Arizona. There is an early scene where they meet for a terraced-dining brunch, overlooking a water ballet. Junior shows up in a pastel Coogi sweater and lemon-colored slacks, asks for separate checks, enthuses over the Spencer’s Gifts t-shirt she’s bought him (“Life’s a Bitch When You Party Naked”), then spits up the yogurt on his salad (“This ice-cream dressing is sour as shit”). Following Willeford’s lead, Armitage never leans on the comedy; a rumored adaptation by Neil LaBute of Willeford’s art-world jape, The Burnt-Orange Heresy, will likely not fare so well.
The excellent supporting cast includes the monumental jawline of Charles Napier, Nora Dunn playing Cuban, and Shirley Stoller from The Honeymoon Killers wielding a meat cleaver behind a pawn shop counter. Armitage’s film has since acquired deserved Employee Picks fame, though its halfhearted theatrical release from flat-broke Orion Pictures returned the name of “Willeford” to obscurity… where the high master of marginal American probably belongs.