Bombast: George Armitage
When Charles Willeford died, aged 69, in the spring of 1988, he’d been publishing fiction for 35 years. He’d only begun to be handsomely remunerated for his work in the final months of his life, an irony that he certainly would have appreciated were it not for the minor distraction of his failing body. Up to that point Willeford had supplemented his income by reviewing books (mostly mysteries) in the Miami Herald and teaching literature at Miami-Dade Community College, though before that his “day job” had been the U.S. Army and Air Force, in which he served in various capacities between 1935 and 1956.
The money came when Willeford, finally, created a franchise character—Miami PD detective Hoke Moseley—and starred him in a series of police procedural mystery novels: Miami Blues, New Hope for the Dead, Sideswipe, and The Way We Die Now. Moseley is a divorced father of two girls whose professional experience has equipped him with a pessimistic view of human affairs and a pragmatism which allowed him to negotiate the world as it is. Though only of middle age, Moseley wears dentures—he had a dentist pull all of his teeth before they had a chance to rot on their own. The first Moseley book appeared in 1984, and the last, posthumously, in 1988. A bit over two years after Willeford’s death, the first and to date sole Hoke Moseley film was released: George Armitage’s Miami Blues, starring Fred Ward as Moseley.*
Despite Willeford’s long struggle for recognition, Miami Blues wasn’t the first film adaptation of his work. That would be 1974’s Cockfighter, from Willeford’s screenplay of his 1962 novel, directed by Monte Hellman, starring Warren Oates, and distributed by Roger and Gene Corman’s New World Pictures, Ltd. At New World, as previously at American International Pictures, Corman had created an incubator for young talents, and his roll call of graduates includes Hellman, Jonathan Demme, and Joe Dante, to name but a few who went on to illustrious careers. George Armitage, also a product of the Corman system, was busy carving out his own career when Cockfighter was going before the camera, but would connect with Willeford himself in due time.
The available dossier of information on Armitage is next to non-existent. Insofar as I can tell, the only published survey of his work appears in a piece by Dave Kehr in the September/October 1977 issue of FILM COMMENT, titled “Four Auteurs in Search of an Audience.” (The others are fellow Corman veterans Jonathan Kaplan, Paul Bartel, and Demme, who would eventually produce Armitage’s Miami Blues.)
According to Kehr, Armitage worked as an associate producer in television in his twenties before racking up his first listed credit as screenwriter. This was on the Corman-directed Gas-s-s-s, or It Became Necessary to Destroy the World in Order to Save It (70), a counterculture cash-in of which I reserve a faint and not-very-fond memory. The following year Armitage graduated to the director’s chair with Private Duty Nurses, a rushed-into-production follow-up to New World’s The Student Nurses, directed by Stephanie Rothman, a standout as a female director within the Corman system, and herself a subject for further research.
Private Duty Nurses is concerned with the adventures of three nurses doing their internships, Spring (blonde Katherine Cannon), Lola (black Joyce Williams), and Lynn (brunette Pegi Boucher), and follows them from the operating table to the boudoir. They take a house together in a seaside neighborhood in Los Angeles’ South Bay area, work together at the hospital, and spend their downtime in a local bar where the house band, identified in the credits as “Sky,” are forever wanking away onstage. (Sky’s front man, Doug Fieger, would finally grab the brass ring in the late Seventies as lead vocalist for The Knack, with the hit “My Sharona.”) Sky specialize in leering, swaggery cock-rock—when they first appear they are performing a song called “How’s That Treatin’ Your Mouth.” This performance is immediately followed by a scene which illustrates the perils of free love and sex-god posturing, as Lynn allows a practiced lothario, Dewey (sandy-haired Paul Hampton, shamelessly skeevy and very funny), to take her back to his blacklight fuck pad for a spectacularly lousy lay and unceremonious brush-off. This very human, downbeat scene is not, unfortunately, the harbinger of what’s to come. The nurses pair up with matching paramours to enjoy the nearly motionless sex so popular during the period, and to confront burning questions of the day—limiting quotas for black doctors, pollution in the Santa Monica Bay, and the plight of the returning Vietnam vet—while Armitage toggles between the diverging plots without finding much of a rhythm.
Evidently, Private Duty Nurses performed well enough to keep the franchise afloat, and Armitage co-wrote the next entry, Night Call Nurses (72), though the directorial reins were handed to young Kaplan, who would go on something of a run through the Seventies with titles like The Slams, White Line Fever, and Over the Edge. Armitage would provide one more screenplay for a New World production, 1975’s Darktown Strutters. Directed by William Witney, a prolific director of low-budget serials famous for his knockabout action sequences, Strutters is a surreal whodunit featuring a lady biker gang which, depending on who you ask, is either the epitome or a parody of the Blaxploitation boom.
Armitage’s sophomore directorial outing, 1972’s Hit Man, fits a bit more comfortably within the limits of Blaxploitation, but only just. Written and directed by Armitage and produced by Gene Corman in his B-unit at MGM, Hit Man is an adaptation of Manchester-born Ted Lewis’s novel Jack’s Return Home, also the source of the previous year’s Get Carter. Armitage’s treatment transposes the novel’s action from northern England to the underworld of black California: a heavy dude named Tyrone Tackett (Bernie Casey) arrives at LAX from Oakland, with the intention of investigating his brother Cornell’s suspicious death. A big man with a touch of steel gray in his hair and a long athletic stride, Tyrone doesn’t snoop so much as strut on the trail of his brother’s killers. His mission takes him between a Sunset Boulevard motel, the Watts Towers, a downtown Los Angeles porno theater—in which bad news babe Pam Grier’s planetoid-sized afro is backlit by a projector beam—and a safari-experience park (“AFRICA-america”) where he feeds Miss Grier to the lions after having confirmed her role in his brother’s death and the corruption of his niece. Nearly everyone Tackett meets in the course of his investigation will be similarly implicated, and similarly dealt with; he engineers a war between the black mob and La Cosa Nostra, and emerges as the last man standing. This is the sort of thing that Kehr was thinking about when he wrote that “George Armitage is a man with an obsession,” that obsession being “a peculiar vision of the American Armageddon.”
Armitage’s next project, a spectacular study in our national tradition of might-makes-right called Vigilante Force (76), arrived just in time for the Bicentennial. The title card, emblazoned in red, white, and blue, appears over a montage of anarchic violence: barroom brawls that end with shots fired, a police cruiser being pumped full of lead. If feels like a wide-open Wild West frontier town, but in fact it’s Elk Hills, California, 1976—a sleepy backwater that’s been booming since the oil reserves were opened during the energy crisis, bringing in workers, grifters, hookers, and lots and lots of dirty money. “If this is God’s country, he’s using it as a hideout” says young Paul (Massacre at Central High’s Andrew Stevens) to his boss at the tractor shop, Ben Arnold (Jan-Michael Vincent, fresh off White Line Fever). This is shortly before Ben has the bright idea of encouraging the town sheriff to deputize his brother, Aaron (Kris Kristofferson), who was cast off by Elk Hills after he came back from multiple tours in Vietnam a little bit cracked, only to be called home when his particular war-zone skill set is needed. Understandably, Aaron doesn’t feel any particular loyalty to his hometown, and after laying down law and order backed by brute force with a cabal of fellow vets and ex-cop cronies, he begins to plan his own putsch which will unburden the full-to-bursting bank of its new cash.
The elevator pitch might’ve gone “It’s Walking Tall meets East of Eden.” There’s an uneasy truce between the frequently-shirtless brothers, and the memory of an old contest over a girl rankles them both. Aaron’s easygoing demeanor is revealed as the hiding-in-plain-sight proof of a completely deadened moral sense, and Kristofferson’s squint has never been so malevolent as when he prepares to execute his brother’s pretty schoolteacher girlfriend (Victoria Principal) with a bullet in the back of the head. (“I don’t wanna talk about it, and I don’t wanna hear about it. I’ve seen and heard it all.”)
In the final showdown, Ben and his hunting club, the “Green Mountain Boys,” get the drop on Aaron’s gang. The Green Mountain Boys favor muzzle-loading rifles and coonskin or tri-corner headgear; when they hit Aaron and his boys on the morning of the 4th of July parade, the enemy are wearing red marching band togs with gold braid, and look like nothing so much as British Redcoats. As if the Revolutionary War motif wasn’t enough, Armitage throws in associations from movie lore—the gun-down blowout was one of the last scenes shot in Simi Valley’s Corriganville Movie Ranch, a much-used location for studio Westerns. The final firefight is a succession of suicidal stuntman swan dives and big Bigger BIGGEST explosions; as Kehr writes: “It’s a film that doesn’t play so much as it burns itself out, like a case of malaria, burning from one violent episode to the next with little or no regard for the niceties of narrative structure or character development.” As in Hit Man, Armitage shows an eye for off-the-main-highway spaces, and he’s not hurt one bit by having legend-in-the-making Jack Fisk—also designer of Darktown Strutters’ many psychedelic touches—as his art director. (One of the film’s most memorable locations, however, didn’t need to be improved: John Ehn’s Old Trapper's Lodge, which Bernadette Peters’ tuneless saloon chanteuse/ call girl operates from.)
Armitage’s fondness for playing fast and loose with American iconography is on full display in his next film, Hot Rod, a 1979 TV movie made for ABC. Gregg Henry, soon to become a De Palma favorite, stars as Brian Edison, a Brooklyn-bred racer who shows up two weeks before the Munn’s National Drag Racing Championship with the intention of entering his HEMI-charged 1965 Plymouth Belvedere. Almost as soon as Edison arrives in town, his car is totaled when he’s run off the road by a ’69 Oldsmobile Cutlass painted up like a Matchbox car, whose driver, Sonny (Grant Goodeve), happens to have the last name Munn—the son of the local root beer magnate (Robert Culp), who has every intention of fixing the race in Sonny’s favor. Edison salvages the engine block, shoehorns it into the chassis of a gray primer ’41 Willys Speedway Coupé, and starts taking Sonny’s girl (Robin Mattson) out for moonlit drives, while collecting trumped-up tickets from the local bought-and-paid-for sheriff (Pernell Roberts).
An air of nostalgia for an uncorrupted past hangs over the proceedings—in this case, that longed-for Eden is the dawn of rock ’n’ roll, presumably before fences were put up to delimit American individualism. Henry is introduced wearing a James Dean Rebel red windbreaker, and when Edison picks up hitchhiking rock ’n’ roll DJ Johnny Hurricane (Royce D. Applegate) as he’s thumbing on the roadside, his passenger announces: “I don’t care where you’re going. I’ve been standing here since 1959.” The showdown between the Munns and Edison is framed as a confrontation between creeping corporate stooge-ism and core throwback American values of privateer self-sufficiency. “There's nothing like building up an old automobile from scratch and wiping out one of those Detroit machines,” as Warren Oates’s cliché-spouting “GTO” has it in Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop—but Hot Rod really believes the clichés.
Munn buys off his help, while Edison’s comes on a volunteer basis, from a back-to-the-land hippie gas station owner (Ed Begley, Jr.) and Sonny’s ex-, Jenny. Edison and Jenny’s romance is kicked into next gear in a lovely scene where he lets her take the wheel of the Willys—Sonny would never let her drive—and she really opens it up to the tune of Ritchie Valens’ “Dooby Dooby Wah.” “Classic” rock is the pulse of the film, used in a way that’s both on-the-nose and quite resourceful: when Edison and friends decide to strike back against the Munns’ incessant sabotage by clandestinely harvesting new parts from police cruisers and Sonny’s car, the action is scored to the Bobby Fuller Four’s ringing rendition of “I Fought the Law,” drawn out with a long purpose-built instrumental break.
For the filmmaker and critic Dan Sallitt, a fan of Armitage, the director “works out of a laconic, laid-back posture that is redolent of the Sixties, of Zen masters,” and through his films he “projects an ideal of how to live in the world.” Edison certainly appears to be a philosopher in the mold of Robert M. Pirsig, and lays out his worldview to Jenny thusly: “See, the secret of street racing’s a mystery to most people, but I got it figured out… When it breaks you build it again. It blows up with a four-barrel carb, go dual quads. That blows up, inject it. Gotta fix it faster.”
Edison is a font of such wisdom, in monologue or aphoristic form. “They take all the fun and try to sell it back to ya,” he says of the Munns, whose sponsorship decal he refuses to paste on his car (“I’m not a comic book”). Armitage’s mise en scène, however, has a kind of comic-book impact, and the premise of Hot Rod is put across with a clarity that comes across as purity. As Kehr notes, the director has the ability to elevate cliché to archetype, “condens[ing] his peripheral characters into animated icons.” Sadly, the opportunities to join the phone-booth-small Armitage Fan Club are presently limited. Hot Rod enjoys a very high reputation among enthusiasts of the automobile movie, not least for its vintage footage of Fremont Drag Strip in northern California, but has never received an adequate home video release, while Vigilante Force is only available in a manufactured-on-demand DVD from 20th Century Fox/MGM.
Given the unease with encroaching corporatization evident in Hot Rod, it should perhaps come as no great surprise that Armitage went missing during the 1980s, when the B-level action picture lost a great deal of market share to the John McTiernans and Scotts of the world. There is no trace of Armitage through the Reagan years, which doesn’t necessarily imply that anything sinister or even particularly interesting had befallen him. Sometimes projects fail to come together year after year until a decade has passed, just like that, and you get in the habit of paying your bills by doing uncredited punch-ups on demand until that’s who you are. Sometimes another one never does come together—thus has many an interesting career (Larry Yust, Robert Kaylor) petered out.
Armitage would eventually get another shot, with Demme’s help, and when he finally did re-emerge, it was with his very finest film: 1990’s Miami Blues. The movie might seem to belong to the wave of crime thrillers that followed in the wake of Quentin Tarantino’s breakthrough, save for the fact that it was released a couple of years in advance of Reservoir Dogs; it can never be overstated that Tarantino was more the critical mass dam-burst of several certain tendencies in crime fiction and cinema than a catalyst in and of himself. The popular nomenclature for these movies through the Eighties was “neo-noir,” a label Tarantino rejected: “I don’t do neo-noir,” he said, “I see Pulp Fiction as closer to modern-day crime fiction, a little closer to Charles Willeford.”
Miami Blues is about as close as a film can get to the spirit of Willeford, though Armitage’s script does some smart streamlining of the novel. For example, California sociopath Freddie Frenger, Jr. (Alec Baldwin) still bumps off a Hare Krishna at the Miami airport in the film, but the Dickensian coincidence of that Hare Krishna turning out to be the brother of Susie (Jennifer Jason Leigh, who grounds the movie emotionally), the call-girl/Miami-Dade Community College student who “Junior” Frenger shacks up with shortly thereafter, has been omitted.
Junior is an American bad man of the sort that’s as old as Jamestown colony, but he’s infected with an entirely contemporary spirit: he’s a maniac who thinks he’s an entrepreneur. Junior gets the drop on Hoke, makes off with his shield and gun and, with the power of assumed officialdom behind him, starts shaking down Miami’s criminals for all they’re worth, presumably cribbing his dialogue from episodes of Miami Vice. (Willeford had been asked to write for the show, and submitted a script where Crockett came out of the closet.) Willeford could write suspense scenes with the best of them, but he was also a brilliant social satirist, taking full advantage of the all-access badge of the police procedural to cut 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 hellscape panorama, 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.
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-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.) While never acquiring the social graces to correspond to his ambition, Junior drags Susie into his white-trash fantasy of upward mobility financed by banditry. (In fact, Miami Blues parallels another superb Reagan/Bush I–era snapshot, Raising Arizona.) The film contains a marvelous scene where Junior and Susie, play-acting at being yuppies, meet for a terrace 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 (“Shit Happens When You Party Naked”), then spits up the yogurt on his salad (“This ice-cream dressing is sour as shit”). The “Party Naked” bit, I should add, is Armitage’s invention.
Miami Blues re-established 47-year-old born-again tyro Armitage at the top of his game, but his next project, 1997’s Grosse Pointe Blank, was decidedly retrograde, a bald-faced attempt to capitalize on the Q.T. craze. (At one point, during a shootout at a convenience store, a cardboard display advertising Pulp Fiction is even caught in the crossfire.) For the first time Armitage isn’t directing from his own screenplay, but from one assembled by a crew headed by John Cusack, who also stars as Martin Blank, a contract killer pursuing a target while attending his 10-year high school reunion in Grosse Pointe, Michigan. The location, a posh and very exclusive suburb of Detroit, seems to have been chosen for no reason other than the access it provides to a staggeringly lame title pun—get it?—and Armitage’s usually keen sense for class has been smothered so as not to harsh the fun of Cusack’s exercise in “all-Eighties, all-vinyl” Gen X nostalgia. When Blank is reunited with his old HS sweetheart, Debi (Minnie Driver), and she casually mentions her “$700 prom dress,” I heard the voice of Tackett in Hit Man, about to eliminate a target: “Chicks like your bullshit bourgeois daughter can do anything they wanna do, ’cause you got the bread to make it cool.”
Grosse Pointe Blank
Grosse Pointe Blank isn’t a badly made movie by any means—if anything, it’s remarkable how Armitage consistently managed to keep the rust off with such long breaks between projects—but I must confess that certain temperamental distastes render me almost entirely unable to appreciate what qualities it does have. The Nineties, an almost obscenely frontloaded decade, got ugly in a hurry, with dedicated “Alternative” FM radio forgetting Nirvana’s culture-shock to play on the Marcy Playground, and the vitality of Hong Kong action vitiated into movies featuring the exchange of tart, sarcastic asides in the midst of gunfire, and the cheap irony which one critic correctly identified as “the ideological white noise” of the decade. (It is not insignificant that Marvel comics gave motormouth wiseass Deadpool his own glossy in ’97.) Like Martin Blank, Armitage may have had a sense that he had some lost time to make up for, but this was not the way.
Grosse Pointe Blank’s chic obliviousness is compensated for in the first five minutes of Armitage’s next and to-date final film, 2004’s The Big Bounce, which delineates stark divisions of race and class in paradisiacal Hawaii. Native protestors have shut down work on a construction site. The foreman menaces one of his workers for goofing off and playing softball during the downtime, and for his trouble the foreman takes an aluminum bat to his face.
Because the worker is played by Owen Wilson, the bat to the face is delivered amiably, almost apologetically. Wilson is Jack Ryan, a beach bum who supplements his income with occasional B&E jobs—because he comes off as such a sweet-natured mensch, no one seems to have the heart to keep him in jail for any amount of time. After Ryan’s latest trouble with the law, district judge Walter Crewes (Morgan Freeman) takes the lad under his wing, giving him some work to do around the cluster of beachfront rental cabins that Crewes owns. It’s here that Ryan hooks up with lithe white-trash sylph Nancy (Sara Foster), the mistress of the millionaire prick running the construction job that he was fired from, who recruits Ryan to her scheme to screw over said prick for a few hundred thousand of his millions. A great many twists and turns ensue, but the only thing that demands attention is the interplay between Wilson and Foster, both bronzed and slim-waisted, with blonde hair forever in a saltwater tangle. They are golden children of the sun running amok in paradise, without a care and without scruples, and just to watch these scheming savages is a justification of the film’s existence.
The Big Bounce
The Big Bounce belongs to a vogue for screen adaptations of the novels Elmore Leonard which is inextricable from the “Pulp Fiction moment,” beginning with 1995’s Get Shorty (starring a Tarantino-resuscitated John Travolta) and including, of course, Jackie Brown two years later. It’s based on Leonard’s first crime novel, published in 1969 under the same name and made that same year into a universally despised Ryan O’Neal vehicle. The action has been moved from Leonard’s home state of Michigan to Oahu, to allow for plenty of establishing helicopter shots rolling in with the clear surf and interstitial views of adults at play, which may seem to be fulfilling some kind of tourist board quota, though they are actually the glue that holds the movie together. Larceny is just another of the hobbies bred by idleness here—like body-surfing and cliff-diving.
This particular vision of utopia didn’t resonate. The Big Bounce was shunned by audiences, lambasted by critics, and, most damningly, by Elmore Leonard, who in a 2004 interview with The Guardian kvetched at some length about Armitage’s adaptation. (“It’s a mystery to me why people buy one of my books and then take out everything that made them buy it in the first place.”) It came with a $50 million price tag, and failed to bring back more than a fraction of that. Armitage hasn’t had a directing credit since, and his current inactive streak is now nearly as long as his stretch between Hot Rod and Miami Blues.
I’m not here to argue that The Big Bounce was a perfect movie. The setup isn’t laid out cleanly enough to allow the payoff resolution to snap into place satisfactorily, and sometimes it feels like a leisurely Hawksian hangout that’s been forced to keep to the timetable of a “taut” caper—you want to kick back and watch the dominos game between Freeman, Willie Nelson, and Harry Dean Stanton for a full 15 minutes at minimum. But it is an insidious element of contemporary criticism that, in order to be heard over the din, we increasingly speak of films outside the current release cycle only in terms of lost masterpieces or edifices marked “overrated” that are fit to be torn down. Armitage is a middle-range director with real camera sense—his strategically deployed handheld work is particularly spry, and he does marvelous short-lens work on busy action scenes that lends them a rare verisimilitude. When circumstances aligned in his favor, he could by very good indeed. By my count, he has one film of the first rate (Miami Blues), two that are nearly there (Vigilante Force, Hot Rod), two that are more to be recommended for moments more than for their whole (Hit Man, The Big Bounce), and then the rest. I have no idea if he’s looking to add to that total, but if so, some enterprising producer at, say, WWE Studios should take note. A good B director is an American classic, like a ’41 Willys, and shouldn’t be left to gather rust.
* Shameless self-promotional aside: I and co-programmer Nicolas Rapold, of FILM COMMENT fame, recently introduced Miami Blues at BAMcinématek, in a Floridian sidebar to their “Sunshine Noir” series, alongside 1970’s Darker Than Amber, an adaptation of one of John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee books, which Willeford would likely have reviewed during his time at the Herald.