That name has haunted me for the past 30 years. Could it really be 30 years since I first saw "Miracle Mile"? Steve DeJarnatt wrote and directed this rapturous film and, as a working movie critic, I always wanted to meet him. But he's remained teasingly elusive for the same number of years.
"Miracle Mile" is DeJarnatt's second film, a follow-up to his debut feature, "Cherry 2000," of 1987. It is also the last theatrical film that he directed before heading into television where he apparently worked until 2006.
I couldn't even find a photo of him for this essay. Yes, elusive is the word.
"Miracle Mile," if you are among the uninitiated, is drop-dead beautiful and with an intense sense of style that's matched by its excellent, legendary script. DeJarnatt's original screenplay, which he wrote in 1978, was chosen in by American Film magazine in a 1983 issue as "one of the 10 best unmade scripts." And it remained unmade for another five years.
Its originality and lack of compromise must have frightened Hollywood because DeJarnatt spent the next decade working on other people's films.
DeJarnatt made his directorial debut with the much-touted premiere episode of the "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" revival - "The Man From the South," starring John Huston, Melanie Griffith, Steven Bauer and Tippi Hedren - and then made his big-screen bow directing Griffith in "Cherry 2000" (which was delayed and barely released theatrically by Orion).
In the meantime, he persisted and finally persuaded John Daly of Hemdale to let him make "Miracle Mile." And his small movie is just about perfect.
DeJarnatt's plot is a boy-meets-girl romance that's threatened to be aborted by a nuclear catastrophe. And the situation that cleverly sets it all in motion is what happens when the wrong person answers a phone.
Harry Washello (Anthony Edwards) is a traveling jazz musician (he plays the trombone) - single and shy - who meets the woman of his dreams in a natural history museum near the La Brea Tar Pits in L.A.
Julie Peters (Mare Winningham) is a waitress who works the night shift at Johnie’s Coffee Shop, a 24-hour diner in the Park Brea district. (The movie's title comes from the famous strip along Los Angeles' Wilshire Boulevard that connects the preserved fossils of the tar pits to the area's contemporary skyscrapers, and Johnie's, now gone, was fabulous.)
Anyway, they make plans for a big date - at one in the morning, after Julie gets off from work. Well, Harry gets there three hours late - Julie, brokenhearted, is long gone, having headed home to sleep off her depression, with the help of some pills. How Harry manages to stand her up provides a good example of the movie's details and ricocheting quality: He's on the balcony of his apartment, smoking, when he flicks away his butt. A pigeon picks it up and takes it to the electrical wire where it's nesting. A fire breaks out, blacking out Harry's apartment and thereby cutting off his alarm clock. Hence, he's three hours late for the date.
Harry is about to call Julie on the pay phone outside Johnie's when ... it rings: The voice on the other end is calling from a North Dakota missile silo. He's hysterical and has obviously misdialed. He wanted to talk to his father, to apologize for something and to warn him that the base's warhead has been locked into countdown: "We shoot our wad in 50 minutes!"
Then there's the sound of a gunshot and another voice comes on.
"Forget everything you just heard."
In a scene reminiscent of the one in Hitchcock's "The Birds," Harry tries to tell Johnie's motley assortment of night crawlers - a transvestite, two truck drivers and a yuppie stockbroker named Landa, who is speed-reading "Gravity's Rainbow" - what's about to happen. Is it real or a sick joke?
Incredibly, she lines up a helicopter to transport everyone to where the air apparently will be clear of radioactivity. But if he's only got a little time left, Harry wants to spend it with Julie and embarks on an impetuous, romantic chase to find her.
For this moment, DeJarnatt comes up with another zany touch: Julie is still in a deep sleep, zonked out, and so Harry just plops her in a shopping cart and races through a deserted, very noir-ish L.A. in the dead of night.
"Miracle Mile," with its ripe camera work (courtesy of Holland's Theo Van de Sande), is over-the-top filmmaking, all twisty and quirky and bizarrely funny - like a fever dream. And visually, it's like a love poem to a very special time - the hours between darkness and dawn, as neon signs blink on/off and the morning light gradually seeps through buildings and alleys.
DVD in 2015. To paraphrase a line from Ernest Dowson's poem, "Miracle Mile" emerged "from a misty dream, for a while, and then closed, within a dream." I'm glad it's back. But where, oh where, is Steve DeJarnatt?
I'd still like to meet him.
Note in Passing: The title of the Dowson poem is, of course, "The Days of Wine and Roses."
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~Edwards transports Winningham throughout a noir-ish L.A.
~ photography: Hemdale 1988©
~The "Fat Boy" logo for the legendary Johnie's