On screen, the truth about Miami is often complicated. Amid the visual signatures of a city like no other — the high-rise Art Deco and Atlantic sunsets — directors have always been drawn to Miami as the backdrop for tales of elaborate crimes and volatile romances.
Of course, it is also a working city of almost half a million people. But you don’t put your movie in Miami without also putting Miami in your movie. In cinema at least, it is a symbol of good times and uncertain motives — the place a story gets to at the edge of America.
Where else to begin but with gangster kingpin Tony Montana, the character forever associated with a certain, infamous vision of Miami? “The World Is Yours” read the slogan on the Pan Am blimp that Al Pacino’s Tony watched cross the night sky — and first and last that world was the city. The 1983 film — one that aside from the violence lets you feel the buzz of nightlife and humid crackle in the air — was both a definitive Miami movie and an artful fake (shot in part on the west coast). But only the real city could provide the scenes of Ocean Drive, and Tony’s leering presence at the Fontainebleau hotel.
If Scarface was a fever dream of Miami, Chef (2014) felt much closer to the real thing. Star and director Jon Favreau played a successful high-end chef caught in a crisis of confidence, journeying back to his hometown to rediscover his roots and the food that first prompted him to cook. Favreau is a native New Yorker, and his research involved multiple visits to the fruiterias and coffee stands of Calle Ocho in Little Havana. A particular mainstay of Latin life duly offered inspiration and appeared on screen — the fabled Versailles restaurant, whose Cuban sandwich also became a plot point.
A knowing step away from the cheap-and-churned-out 1980s TV series, the 2006 Miami Vice movie was directed by arch-stylist Michael Mann. The result was a plot as tangled as any 1940s noir, but also a dazzling postcard in motion. Clearly seduced by his location, Mann came up with a sleek digital panaroma of pink-blue sunsets, neon and the black ocean by night, set ablaze by endless lightning on the horizon.
Some Like It Hot
Movies are always sleights of hand. So it is that one of the great Miami movies — Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (1959) — was shot in California. The Seminole Ritz in which Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis hide out in drag with Marilyn Monroe for company? Actually the Hotel del Coronado, San Diego. I know — the subterfuge. But isn’t there something fitting too, that this of all movies would itself be a grand act of impersonation? And somehow it still registers as a timeless example of Miami on film. After all, what was the line? Nobody’s perfect.
The Heartbreak Kid
Where to watch: available on DVD
The storyline of Some Like It Hot started out in Chicago; in The Heartbreak Kid (1972), the journey south began in New York. But this time — in another glorious comedy, directed by Elaine May and written by Neil Simon — the waiting Miami was real, a honeymoon venue of fierce sun and wandering attention. The story tapped into a sense of the city as a bottle full of potential genies — a bored newly-wed finding all America gathered on the beach, the future changed before he even heads back to the Doral Hotel.
Alfred Hitchcock was never going to be able to resist a place as filled with intrigue as Miami. The first act of his heady thriller Notorious (1946) duly co-starred the city, introduced directly after Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant: a scene of the skyline as viewed from out at sea. “Miami, Florida” reads the caption.“ Three Twenty PM, April the Twenty Fourth, Nineteen Hundred and Forty Six.” Such precision soon gave way to courthouse scandal and then — of course — a wild party.
The Miami of the Oscar-winning Moonlight (2016) is one unseen in any of the other movies on this list — or anywhere in cinema. The sea and sunset are the same elemental presences. But the location is Liberty City, the hardscrabble neighbourhood far from Ocean Drive. This is where director Barry Jenkins was born and raised, and his breakthrough movie is the story of a boy growing up here in three indelible acts. The result is a revelation, a movie wholly bound up with Miami — but a Miami suddenly and unforgettably free of typecasting.
Any great Miami movies we’ve missed? Share them in the comments below