Monday, March 19, 2012

the Directors: David Mamet

In my mind, there has been no greater influential voice to the contemporary, American written word (as it relates to pop culture) than that of David Mamet’s. I love everything about the method in which Mamet constructs a sentence. I love the tireless repetition, the overt profanity, the persistent soliloquies – everything.

Mamet is a writer (both for stage and screen) first, and a director second. So for this edition of the Directors, I’m not only going to highlight the films Mamet has directed, but the ones he has written as well. This is Part 1 of The Week with Mamet, and I hope it acts as a thorough introductory piece to the world of David Mamet. Deeper cuts to come.

(Notes: Bold titles are films Mamet has directed, titles in italics are films he has only written. Also, I have yet to see The Unit, the television show Mamet created in 2006. I’m told it speaks well to his style, but it will not be included in this post.)

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981)
Not nearly as iconic as the original Lana Turner-John Garfield vehicle, Bob Rafelson’s 1981 remake is no less twisty. And steamy. The film is best known for an extended love scene that encapsulates raw passion in the vein of Monster’s Ball, but there’s a lot more going on here. A drifter, a femme fatale, a wise investigator, a smart murder plot, double and triple crossings – all the makings of a great Mamet thriller. Memorable perhaps for the wrong reasons, but a healthy induction to the world of Mamet nonetheless. B

The Verdict (1982)
Sidney Lumet’s masterfully reserved film tells the story of Frank Galvin (Paul Newman), a washed up, alcoholic ambulance chaser who sees his current case as a way to atone for a life full of fuckups.

Frank is representing the family of a woman who has been given the wrong type of anesthetic, which has resulted in her laying comatose. Frank is offered a large sum of money from the Archdiocese of Boston (who is in charge of the Catholic hospital where the woman is), and much to the dismay of the family, he turns the money down so that he can argue his case in court.

Now, it must be said that, despite the film’s title, the case in this film is secondary to the man. As Frank, Newman is utterly flawless, with a tongue that is unexpectedly suited for Mamet-speak. Frank Galvin is nearly the best performance of Newman’s career (second only to Cool Hand Luke), and it is because of him, Mamet’s concise script, and Lumet’s terse direction, that the film is a success. A

House of Games (1987)
Mamet’s first-directed film is an ingenious little thriller about well-intentioned psychiatrist (Mamet’s then wife, Lindsay Crouse) who accidentally gets caught up with a bunch of shifty con men, lead by Joe Mantegna.

Initially roped in with cheap parlor tricks and flashy slight-of-hand illusions, the good Dr. Margaret Ford is quickly mixed up in grand larceny and murder, the mechanics of which are slowly revealed to shocking results. In all honestly, it is damn hard to go into detail about a great David Mamet film without giving too much away. Mamet has clearly spent hundreds of hours painstakingly plotting the cons that occur in House of Games and for me to ruin them here would be criminal. Let me just say that this is a very smart film, but never too smart for its own good. There’s a reason Roger Ebert not only called House of Games the best film of 1987, but one of the best films of the ‘80s as well. A

The Untouchables (1987)
Brian De Palma is a director I constantly find myself at odds with. I find much of his older work (Sisters, Carrie, Dressed to Kill, Blow Out, Body Double) to be laced with moments of genius, and much of his later work to be either too stylistic or downright boring.

Every De Palma film has its moments, there’s no denying that, and his recreation of the Odessa Steps massacre from Battleship Potemkin is by far the best scene of The Untouchables. Was it written that way? I have no idea. Point is, I enjoy a lot of this film, but at 119 minutes, The Untouchables feels much longer than it should. Pacing has always been a problem for De Palma. At least we have Mamet’s words to roll us right along. B-

Things Change (1988)
Taking a break from the heavy-handedness that found its way into most of his early work, Mamet directed this PG-rated comedy about Gino (Don Ameche), a humble shoe-shiner who agrees to cop to a murder rap in exchange for a large sum of money. In the days before he is set to confess, low-level gangster, Jerry (Mantegna) is instructed to guard Gino in a hotel before he goes away. Bored with standing still, Jerry takes Gino to Lake Tahoe for a final weekend of play, where things quickly get out of hand.

Things Change is like a delightful, senior citizen version of The Last Detail. And although it becomes unexpectedly heavy late in the third act, the film is a welcome change of pace and manners from the mind of a twisted genius. B

Homicide (1991)
In Homicide, ace Detective Bobby Gold (Joe Mantegna, in the best performance of his career) is infuriated when he is taken off a high-profile case and ordered to solve a homicide of an elderly Jewish woman.  And what starts off as a typical police procedural slowly morphs into a tale of mortality, faith, racism and classism.

I’m not sure if Homicide is Mamet’s best film, but I do think it’s his most evolved. There are seemingly random twists and turns in this film that appear to have nothing to do with anything, but, this being Mamet, that certainly isn’t the case. William H Macy, Ving Rhames and the future Mrs. Mamet, Rebecca Pidgeon, all contribute more-than-notable roles here. Homicide ultimately goes places that you never see coming, resulting in a true Mamet marvel. A-

Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)
Glengarry Glen Ross, about a handful of gummy, desperate real estate salesmen, contains one of my very favorite screenplays of all time. The film, based on Mamet’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, is extremely restrained in its settings and photography – instead relying on the ingenuity of its actors to do wonders with the brilliant material they're given. And do they ever.

From its early, infamous sequence in which Alec Baldwin gives the pep talk from hell, Glengarry Glen Ross immediately immerses (and enthralls) us in another one of Mamet’s trademark seedy underworlds. Why Mamet chose to draft a story about such a seemingly dull topic is beyond me, but anyone who has a moderate interest in language as art is all the better for it.

Glengarry Glen Ross is a case of screenwriting and acting working perfectly in synch with one another. The all-male cast (including Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, Ed Harris, Kevin Spacey and Alan Arkin) are all top notch.  It’s impossible to pick a favorite performance from the bunch, let alone a single-best scene. There is simply nothing I do not like about this film. A+

Hoffa (1992)
In retelling the life of Jimmy Hoffa, Mamet, director Danny DeVito and star Jack Nicholson all contribute what is necessary to get a full understanding of what made the man tick, but the film is, by most accounts, a slight misfire. Nicholson has a good time hamming it up, bellowing long speeches while hiding behind a giant fake nose, but in terms of script and execution, Hoffa feels very unMamet, which certainly isn’t a good thing. C-

Oleanna (1994)
Oleanna is based on a two-act play in which a male professor and his female student engage in two laborious conversations about studies, gender relations, class equality, and more.

In the first segment, a professor (William H. Macy) remains mostly amicable, willing to hear the argument of his student (Debra Eisenstadt), but unwilling to change her failing grade. The next time they speak, the student has accused her teacher of sexual harassment for statements (in my opinion) that were taken out of context. And that’s where the beauty of this film lies: who’s in the wrong, who’s in the right? I’ve watched it three times in the past two weeks and I’m still not sure. The two conversations in Oleanna are bound to spark debate, which is part of its charm. The shocking ending, however, is a whole different story. I’m not even going to hint at what happens, but to say it makes the preceding 85 minutes “worth it” is to seriously understate things. A-

American Buffalo (1996)
Dustin Hoffman, as pathetic here as his Midnight Cowboy character, Ritzo Ratzo, dreams of one big score (haven't we heard that before) as he idles the time away with Dennis Franz in the latter's store - he'd like to call it an antiques shop, but in truth, it's full of junk. Perhaps he makes his money elsewhere. Word reaches the pair that a valuable coin collection can be purloined nearby, and the big score is planned...and planned...and planned some more. Are these two AmeriCANs or AmeriCAN'Ts? (Review written by Colin Harris)

The Spanish Prisoner (1997)
More often than not, a great Mamet con involves an intelligent mark who gets in way over his or her head, and is soon screwed out of thousands (or potential millions) before they even realize it. Such is the case for Joe Ross (Campbell Scott), an astute businessman who befriends Jimmy Dell (Steve Martin, delivering the best performance of his career), a mysterious millionaire who is not who he says he is.

Without going into too much detail, The Spanish Prisoner is a sleek, trendy thriller that, like all of Mamet’s best cons, is never overshadowed by its intellect. The numerous exchanges of rapid-fire dialogue make this film breeze by, and its PG rating adds a new, unsuspecting depth to the wonders that Mamet-speak can behold. A-

The Edge (1997)
As Alec Baldwin (boasting the Alec Baldwin snob persona to perfection) and Anthony Hopkins (boasting the dignified Anthony Hopkins persona to perfection) try to outwit a massive Kodiak bear while stranded in the freezing wilderness, we are privy to sheer Mamet bliss, including numerous amusing anecdotes and plentiful sharp one-liners. The Edge is nothing much in the way of classic cinema, but it’s goddamned entertaining. Really, what’s better than hearing Hopkins declare that, “I’m not gonna die, today, I’m a gonna kill the mothafucka”? B

Wag the Dog (1997)
Barry Levinson’s Wag the Dog is Hollywood moviemaking at its pulpy best. In the film, a renowned political “fixer” (Robert De Niro), hires a flamboyant Hollywood producer (Dustin Hoffman) to cover up a Presidential sex scandal by creating a fictional war. Absurd, yes, but one of Wag the Dog’s best aspects is that it completely owns how utterly satirical it is. Sure, it occasionally shifts into subtle dramatics (with the perfect Mamet balance of uneasiness), but it is mostly a gut-busting comedy that goes for broke and nails it.

In additional to De Niro and Hoffman (who were both featured in Levinson’s masterful Sleepers the year before), Anne Heche, Denis Leary, William H. Macy and especially Woody Harrelson, are all superb. An inventive political satire that showcases the best that everyone involved has to offer. A-

Ronin (1998)
I’ve never been a fan of John Frankenheimer’s Ronin. Its plot is far too complicated and its acting is needlessly stuffy. Sure, it contains a killer car chase sequence, but nothing about it has ever grabbed me. There are certainly enough twists and turns to identify it as a Mamet story, but Ronin simply does not highlight the best attributes of anyone involved. D

The Winslow Boy (1999)
If House of Games is Mamet’s most elaborate trick, and Homicide is his most evolved, then The Winslow Boy is certainly his most mature. I can just see Mamet sitting in his office, staring at the wall, thinking, “Well, fuck ‘em,” because with this G-rated film, Mamet bucked back at his critics who said he was nothing more than a profanity-laden misogynist. 

Set in London directly before World War I, Arthur (Nigel Hawthorne), a wealthy, retired banker, is stunned when is 13-year-old son, Ronnie, is expelled from school for stealing.  Ronnie continually maintains his innocence, which eventually causes Arthur to take the school to court. What follows is a simple, clean film that is as effective as anything Mamet has done. There are no twists or turns, no cons to be had or marks to be made – The Winslow Boy is a straight story of captivating drama and powerful acting. By far the most surprising film of Mamet’s career. A-

State and Main (2000)
State and Main is a wondrous little R-rated comedy in which a huge Hollywood movie production invades a small Vermont town, ultimately pitting the townspeople against the A-listers.

What’s best about the film (beyond its faultless acting, witty script, and hilarious scene scenarios) is that it perfectly encapsulates just how similar small town arrogance and Hollywood self-entitlement can be. William H. Macy as the director, Alec Baldwin as the star, David Paymer as the financier, Sarah Jessica Parker as the insecure actress, and Philip Seymour Hoffman as the screenwriter… with a cast like this, State and Main is simply as good as you expect it to be. A-

Lakeboat (2000)
A practically plotless tale set on a merchant ship that ferries across the Great Lakes, Lakeboat is a compilation of sailors' tales all rolled up in a bite-sized 85 minute bundle. It's not about what happens, for very little does; it's about the recounting of things that DID happen (or, at least may have happened) in the past. Sailors reliving glory days, talking about the women they've met, the bars they've drunk in, the drinks they've imbibed, and whatever the hell happened to Guigliani. Absolutely delightful. (Review written by Colin Harris)

Heist (2001)
In Mamet's only real out-and-out heist thriller, Gene Hackman stars as Joe Moore, an aging thief forced to commit a final job before he retires with his wife (Rebecca Pidgeon). Joe doesn't liked to be pushed, and because Mickey Bergman (Danny DeVito), a pigmy yet ruthless criminal, is the man strong-arming him, Joe has every intention of coning the con man. But, this being a Mamet flick, it's far more complicated than that. Joe isn't necessarily planning to con Mickey out of money, but he knows Mickey is planning to con him out of his fair share. This back and forth preparation of every possible contingency plan helps propel Heist to a smooth, steely little thriller.

One of the marvels of Heist is that the titular theft occurs roughly halfway into the movie. Goes to show you that committing the crime isn't necessarily difficult, it's getting away that's the bitch of the thing. A great watch for anyone who enjoys heist films, Mamet's style, and searing dialogue that practically flies off the screen. B+

Hannibal (2001)
In the same vein as Ronin and Hoffa, Hannibal doesn’t feel like it has been spawned from the mind of Mamet in any capacity. The violence is certainly higher than it ever is in the Hannibal Lecture franchise, but there’s nothing inherently great about this film (which doesn’t speak too highly for director Ridley Scott either, I suppose). A rather unnecessary sequel that spawned a wholly unnecessary prequel. Although, the brain-eating bit was a nice touch. C+

Spartan (2004)
In Spartan, the girl is missing. And because this girl is The Girl (I'm not being cute, this is literally how everyone refers to her), a high-level government operative played by Val Kilmer is sent to find her. Instructed to "go off the meter" and do whatever is necessary to get The Girl back, Spartan opens itself up to a new kind of Mamet underworld, that within the corruption of the U.S. government.

Spartan was released in theaters at the exact same time as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and I'll never forget everyone and their mom ranting and raving about Michel Gondry's modern day masterpiece, when all's I wanted to do was rewatch Ed O'Neil calmly barking orders at Val Kilmer. Although Spartan isn't the most critically revered film of Mamet's career (many, including my Mamet collaborator, Colin Harris, think Kilmer ranks among the most awkward Mamet speakers), I find it to be a worthy inclusion to a remarkable career. A-

The Shield – Strays (2004)
Never have I highlighted a film director’s work in television in this series, but this is one hell of a special occasion.  The Shield is one of my favorite shows of all time. It was a brilliant, effective cop drama that is forever printed in my mind. So it’s saying a lot that Strays is my favorite episode in the entire series.

In the episode, Det. “Dutch” Wagenbach (Jay Karnes) has finally caught the serial rapist that he’s been chasing throughout the entire third season. Once Dutch has him in the interrogation room, the scene becomes quintessential Mamet in all the best ways.

The rapist (played by Mamet regular Clark Gregg) not only immediately admits to every crime he has committed, but he’s willing to fully indulge Dutch on all the gory details. Now I ask, when the hell was the last time you saw a movie or television show in which a criminal openly admits every wrongdoing they’ve ever committed, without any trace of deceitfulness?  But that ain’t all. To add a new layer of depth, we soon find out why the rapist is being so open with the cop: he wants the officer to tell him why he has committed these crimes.  Dutch rattles off a few psychological explanations – wrong, the rapist says. After a quick exchange, the criminal, unsatisfied with the officer’s reasoning, asks the cop to leave. The cop doesn’t know why he did it, the criminal doesn’t know why he did it, and we’re left in a state of dumbfounded awe. A+

Edmond (2005)
What a hidden little wonder Edmond is. The film tells the very basic story of Edmond Burke (William H. Macy), a chummy businessman who, for reasons unbeknownst to us, loses his shit one evening and sets out for a night of raucous debauchery. After abruptly leaving his wife, Edmond cruises from bar to bar, strip joint to strip joint in search of… what? Sex? Morality? Innocence? Understanding? Probably all four, and then some.

The film, based on Mamet's play from the early '80s, contains a stellar cast, a lacerating script, and a devilish climax.  It's like Eyes Wide Shut meets Falling Down meets House of Games. As Edmond, William H. Macy delivers the finest, most ferocious performance of his remarkable career. The fact that he is so incredibly angry isn't necessarily frightening. Neither is the fact that we have no idea why he is so angry. No, the fact that HE has no idea why he is currently being driven to commit psychopathic acts of violence is what makes this such a remarkable character study. Oh and that ending… well, yeah, just watch and be floored. A

Redbelt (2008)
Redbelt takes place on the familiar rainy streets on the wrong-side-of-town setting that Mamet has made famous. Gulf War veteran Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor) owns and instructs a jiu-jitsu dojo where he teaches a strict code of proper moral behavior. "There is no situation you cannot escape from," Terry often asserts.

After a series of unfortunate events involving a desperate lawyer (Emily Mortimer), a Hollywood superstar (Tim Allen, never better), a friendly cop, and more, Terry soon finds himself the lame of a plot that will make a few rich people richer, and a few kind people dead. Because Redbelt is one of the most meticulously crafted films of Mamet’s career, the plot summaries are best left sparse. But know that a film as good as Redbelt makes Mamet fans like myself pine for something new. He hasn’t written or directed a feature since, so, for now, we’ll have to make do with what we’ve got. Which, fair being fair, ain’t half bad. A

In Summation
House of Games
Glengarry Glen Ross
The Shield – Strays

The Verdict
The Spanish Prisoner
Wag the Dog
State and Main

The Postman Always Rings Twice
The Untouchables
Things Change
The Edge


Previous Director Profiles include:

Next on The Week of Mamet:
Tuesday March 20
My Favorite Scene: House of Games

Wednesday March 21
In Character: ???

Thursday March 22
My Favorite Scene: Redbelt

Friday March 23
The Mamet Awards

Sunday March 25 
Reader Idea Post


  1. Thanks God for the Verdict and The Untouchables that I don't feel like complete Idiot. Hopefully, I will get around to more stuff.

    To tell you the truth, I did not care much about The Untouchables. De Palma's exuberance often turns me off but The Verdict is something else. I saw it for Lumet but definitely noticed an amazing screenplay.

    The Shield has been on my mind for some time. I hear it is as good as The Wire, pretty high expectation to meet. Glengary Glen Ross and House of Games too have been in my list. Might get around to them based on your word.
    Great Stuff once again Alex !!

  2. @SDG Thanks man! First off: I loved The Shield, loved it, but in no way is it, or any another show created for television, better than The Wire. TV simply does not get better than that. Fucking LOVE The Wire.

    Now for Mamet, glad we agree on The Untouchables, I definitely think De Palma is far too exuberant. And yeah, The Verdict, solid flick.

    Obviously I love GGR - can't recommend that one enough. Let me know when you watch more Mamet!

  3. Holy crap until reading this, I've always assumed Mamet directed Glengary Glen Ross. Really? Who the hell made it?

  4. @Pat Oh that's such an easy mistake to make, it just feels like Mamet. James Foley actually directed it. It's by far his best film, but he's also known for At Close Range, Fear and Confidence.

  5. There are two scenes that prove that Mamet is a damn good writer: Paul Newman's closing statement in The Verdict (one of my favorite scenes of Newman's) and Alec Baldwin's lone scene in Glengarry Glen Ross. Anyone that doesn't agree with me is an idiot.

  6. @MovieNut14 Ha. Yes, yes they are. I love that the Baldwin scene was written specifically for the movie (wasn't even in the play). Ingenious dialogue.

  7. Wow, amazing and very informative article! I agree about the pacing in Untouchable it has moments of greatness, but it drags in many parts of the movie. Glengary Glenn Ross is splendidly written, I love it when its the dialogues that create the tension and keep you on the edge of the seat and the last scenes of this movie are just incredible.

  8. @Sati. Seriously, if you put a gun to my head and told me to pick a best scene from GGR, I doubt I could. Every damn exchange is so thought out and miraculous. Love that damn movie.

  9. You say there is simply nothing you do not like about Glengary Glen Ross - I completely agree with you. It has one of the best observed scripts I have ever had the pleasure of witnessing thanks to some mighty fine performances.

  10. @Dan You have no idea how happy it makes me that people love GGR as much as I do. Love it.

  11. It's great to see Mamet's fine work on The Shield being spotlighted. I'm a big fan of that show, and Strays is one of the best episodes. Clark Gregg is superb in it.

    Despite his strange move to conservative politics lately, Mamet has still delivered some fine work. State and Main is a fun gem, and The Spanish Prisoner is so intriguing. I am really surprised you hate Ronin so much. I enjoyed it even more on the second viewing. The plot is super thin, but I think it works as a spare chase film. I also really enjoyed Heist and Redbelt.

    I'm sad to admit I haven't seen House of Games, Homicide, or Oleanna. I think a marathon is in order. Adding it to the list!

  12. @Dan YES, another Shield fan. Love it. I enthusiastically agree with everything you said (his recent ├╝ber conservatism is rather odd, isn't it? I'm not knocking conservatives, but it just seems out of sorts for Mamet).

    It sounds like you're a real fan of his, so you'll definitely love House of Games and Homicide. Oleanna is up for debate, people either love it or hate it or forget it.

    Ronin. (sigh). I do suppose another viewing is in order. It's been many years since I've seen it. Couldn't hurt.

  13. I saw yesterday my first Mamet film: State and Main. I was very great. Philip Seymour Hoffman was great. Alec Balwin delivering the best quote Bob Barrenger "I know my lines", Walt Price "You do?", Bob Barrenger "I just don't know what order they come in". Rebecca Pidgeon looks gorgeous. It was damn great.
    1.Do you recommend to me to see others Mamet films? In which order?
    2.What do you think about Phil Spector? (and a grade)
    3.Which are the Best to Worst Mamet's directed films?

    1. Happy to hear you enjoyed it, I love State and Main. I only wish Mamet would tackle more straight-up comedy.

      1, 2, 3- Yes, I recommend many of his films. He's one of my favorite filmmakers. My rankings:

      House of Games – A
      Things Change – B
      Homicide – A-
      Oleanna – B+
      The Spanish Prisoner – A-
      The Winslow Boy – B+
      State and Main – A-
      Heist – B+
      Spartan – A-
      Redbelt – A-
      Phil Spector – D

  14. I saw The Postman Always Rings Twice and Hannibal. The Postman Always Rings Twice was good-ish (I liked Jack Nicholson's and Jessica Lange's performace), but the film wasn't for me.
    Hannibal was boring and non-horror. Isn't feel like a BAD film, but it doesn't live up to The Silence of the Lambs.

  15. I saw The Edge. It was awesome, entertaining, cool and fun. A over the top and exaggerated film but it was a fun ride. In that day when I saw, I first got to saw The Grey which was a little bad but this film made me want to kill a bear. That much of a great film. Alec Baldwin and Anthony Hopkins were fantastic together using perfectly the Mamet speaking.

    1. Nice man, I love that movie. The writing is so strong and Baldwin and Hopkins absolutely kill it.

  16. I'm with you most of the way here...

    I'd bump up Heist. I just love capers, and this is the best one since, what, Rififi? And I'd drop Edmond through the floor. It really seemed like a gratuitous chaotic mess.

    We're not always 100% aligned, but at least we're usually pretty close.

    1. I still love Edmond, but I'd definitely bump up Heist now too.