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Third Prize is You’re Fired: The Films of David Mamet

As I’ve mentioned once or twice in recent posts, over the past few weeks I’ve been making my way through a whole slew of films by one of the best writers working in the film industry today: David Mamet.  Mamet’s works are always known for their intricate plots — many of his films revolve around some sort of con.  He is also known for the distinct style of his dialogue — a fast-paced back-and-forth, rat-a-tat rhythm that, in the hands of a talented actor, is pure gold.

After purchasing Redbelt on DVD, I decided to go back and revisit several earlier Mamet works.  This is in no way a complete trip through Mamet’s work.  In fact, let me first start by telling you a bit about two films which I didn’t re-watch this past month.  Not because I didn’t care for them — quite the opposite.  These are two of my favorite films, and they’ve been in my DVD collection for years.

Glengarry Glenn Ross (1992) — Unlike all the other movies that I’m about to list, this film was written by Mamet but directed by someone else: James Foley.  But like all the Mamet-directed films, the appeal is not due to the directing.  Its the acting, and the beautiful, beautiful words.  (Can you believe I’ve just described as beautiful the incredibly curse-laden dialogue in this film??)  Take a gander at this cast:  Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, Kevin Spacey, Ed Harris, Alan Arkin, and let’s not forget Alec Baldwin.  Baldwin is in only one scene, but he gives possibly the greatest movie monologue of all time.  There are more memorable lines in his one scene than there are in most entire films.  (One of my favorites: “Only one thing counts in this world: get them to sign on the line that is dotted.”  And, of course, there’s the title of this piece.)  The film follows one night and one morning in the lives of a group of real-estate con men.  Many have described it as a modern Death of a Salesman, and I’m not one to disagree.  Jack Lemmon’s sad-sack Shelley “the machine” Levine is such an iconic character he’s even been written into The Simpsons (as the hapless loser Gil).  Al Pacino is the man that Shelley was twenty years ago — a young, slick salesman at the top of his game.  (“You ever take a dump made you feel like you’d just slept for twelve hours?”)  Ed Harris is the angry and profane Dave Moss.  (“What is this, courtesy class?”)  Alan Arkin is the quietly despairing George Aaronow.  (Are we just talking about this or are we talking about this?”)  And Kevin Spacey is the man in charge of the office.  (“Will you GO TO LUNCH?”)  Anyone who hasn’t seen this film is probably totally confused by the various quotations I’ve been inserting into my synopsis — while anyone who HAS seen the film is probably grinning at the amazing moments those quotes are from.  This film is a masterpiece, and anyone who calls themselves a fan of movies needs to have seen it.  One of the best.

House of Games (1987) — This is the first film Mamet directed, and its a doozy.  Psychologist Margaret Ford (Lindsay Crouse) tries to help a young patient get out of a gambling debt and winds up swept up in the world of petty con men by the charismatic and mysterious Mike (Joe Mantegna).  Like most Mamet films, this is a fairly small film.  Rather than large, explosive action scenes, Mamet is able to draw great tension and drama from just a few people in a small room, whether they’re sitting around a poker table or meeting in a hotel room.  There are some great scenes that demonstrate various “short” cons, such as the smooth way that Mike scams money out of a young military officer (William H. Macy).  (In the terrific Criterion Collection DVD, Mamet gives credit to Ricky Jay — who appears in this film and many others by Mamet — for helping him learn about these sorts of con games.)  And, of course, the entire film is an example of a “long” con.  Great stuff.

OK, so here now are the films that I did check out recently:

The Spanish Prisoner (1997) — Joe (Campbell Scott) has invented a “process” that he believes will make millions for his bosses, but he is beginning to feel like they’re going to cut him out of the financial windfalls that are around the corner.  He meets a wealthy stranger (Steve Martin), and though they come from very different worlds the two become friends.  Only this is a David Mamet film and so things are not quite what they seem, as all the characters in the film circle around Joe’s mysterious “process.”  Steve Martin is really terrific in this nefarious role, an unusual turn for him.  Rebecca Pidgeon plays a young secretary in Joe’s office who becomes smitten with him and quickly drawn into the situation.  Ricky Jay is Joe’s partner George Lang, and Felicity Huffman plays FBI agent Pat McCune.  Joe’s “process” is one of the most striking MacGuffins in all of Mamet’s films.  (A MacGuffin — a term either invented by or at least popularized by Alfred Hitchcock — is a plot device motivates the characters or advances the story, but about which the details are of little to no importance.)  We never learn anything about what the heck Joe’s “process” is, and it doesn’t matter one whit.  What matters is that everyone wants it, and our enjoyment of the various cons and mind-games the various characters around Joe employ in their attempts to get it.  Although I find the ending a bit abrupt, this is one of my favorite Mamet films, and it’ll keep you guessing right up until those closing moments.

State and Main (2000) — Hollywood invades a small town as the cast and crew of the movie-in-the-making “The Old Mill” come to a quaint little town in Vermont to shoot their big-budget movie.  A funny and biting story about a clash of cultures, this film thankfully doesn’t fall into the simplistic cliche of small-town USA good and Hollywood bad.  No, pretty much EVERYONE we meet is flawed in their own way!  William H. Macy is the director Walt Price, willing to do whatever it takes to get his movie made.  Alec Baldwin is his star, Bob Barrenger, a man with a taste for liquor and young girls.  David Paymer is producer Marty Rossen, brought in to knock heads when the ingenue Claire Wellesley, played by Sarah Jessica Parker, refuses to take her shirt off for a love scene.  Philip Seymour Hoffman is the idealistic writer watching his script get torn apart by the realities of movie-making.  (He is asked to find a way to make his movie, “The Old Mill,” work in a town without a mill of any kind, old or otherwise.)  On the part of the townspeople, there is Ann (Rebecca Pidgeon), who quickly falls for Philip Seymour’s Hoffman, and Doug Mackenzie (Clark Gregg), her former beau who sees these Hollywood interlopers as his ticket to a political career. State and Main is a very funny look at all the little sacrifices (moral and otherwise!) that go into making movies.  One of Mamet’s most comic films, its a real winner.

Heist (2001) — Joe Moore (Gene Hackman) has been working with Bobby (Delroy Lindo), “Pinky” (Ricky Jay) and his young wife Fran (Rebecca Pidgeon) pulling heists for years.  But when their fence Mickey (Danny DeVito) stiffs them on their latest job, they’re forced to take on the high-risk “Swiss Job” with Mickey’s nephew Jimmy Silk (the great Sam Rockwell, from Galaxy Quest and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind) along for the ride.  Needless to say, things don’t go smoothly, and a series of crosses and double-crosses quickly follow, as everyone scrambles to get away with the money.  There’s a lot of fun to be had here, and Gene Hackman is a terrific addition to Mamet’s regular ensemble.  But there are a few things in the story that don’t quite track.  (Such as what exactly is it that goes wrong that results in Pinky’s getting caught by Mickey’s men?  Why didn’t the otherwise brilliant Joe see that coming?)

Spartan (2004) — Val Kilmer plays Scott, a highly skilled and tough as nails black ops specialist who gets drawn into the shocking kidnapping of the daughter of a highly-ranked U.S. government official (possibly the President, although the movie never specifies exactly.)  Scott quickly discovers that there is a much larger, much uglier nasty story going on.  I sort of think of this movie as the dark-side companion piece to the kidnapping of the President’s daughter story that ended the fourth season of The West Wing!  Like Gene Hackman before him, this is Kilmer’s first and last foray into Mamet, but like Hackman he is terrific.  Kilmer is calm, cool, and incredibly dangerous.  Many familiar faces appear:  William H. Macy is the chief-of-staff to the non-named U.S. official; Clark Gregg is the agent heading the investigation when Scott is brought on board; and Ed O’Neill (Married… With Children, The Spanish Prisoner) makes a brief but important appearance as the head of the agency.  The film also stars Derek Luke (Antwone Fisher, Miracle at St. Anna) and Tia Texada as young, idealistic soldiers who get drawn into the mess along with Scott.  Like Heist, this is perhaps a “lesser” Mamet work, but its still rather terrific.  The twisty, turny tale really moves…and like most Mamet films, no punches are pulled.  This film also epitomizes the interesting way in which Mamet stages his action.  Or rather, in the way he DOESN’T stage it, as Mamet often cuts AROUND the action.  I took notice, on this re-watching, of an early scene in which Scott watches Derek Luke wrestle with another young soldier.  We see the two men lunge towards one another, but their bodies quickly carry them off-camera, and while we hear the sound effects of their struggle, the camera focuses on Scott and the other men watching.  Some might criticize Mamet from not actually showing us that action, but I found it to be almost Shakespearean the way much of the action takes place off-screen.  Mamet is more concerned with the AFTERMATH of action than with the action itself.

Redbelt (2008) — Mamet’s most recent film.  Chiwetel Ejiofor (Serenity, Inside Man, American Gangster) plays Mike Terry, a highly-skilled Martial Arts instructor who, because he refuses to fight in prize bouts, is having trouble finding the money to keep his instructional studio open.  When he comes to the aid of Hollywood star Chet Frank (Tim Allen) in a bar, things seem to start turning his way.  But not for long, of course!  Mamet regulars Joe Mantegna, Rebecca Pidgeon, David Paymer, and Ricky Jay are all on-hand, as are Emily Mortimer (fragile-boned Phoebe on 30 Rock) and Alice Braga (I Am Legend).  In contrast to his previous films, Mamet doesn’t shy away here from giving us, on-screen, some bone-crunching fights.  But, as always, it is the snappy dialogue and the intricate plot that are the real stars.  If the film has a flaw, its that the plot might be a bit TOO intricate.  I’ve seen the film twice now, and I am still mystified by some of the twists.  (Spoilers here… When exactly did Mike’s girlfriend (Alice Braga)  get in on the con?  Did Chet and his wife truly try to scam her out of her money, and that’s when she made the decision in order to try to get the money needed to pay off her debts?  OR were Chet and his wife not involved at all, and it was Joe Mantegna’s character who organized everything?  OR was everything she told Mike about Chet and his wife’s scam ITSELF a lie, a way to get Mike to agree to fight because he wouldn’t unless she was in jeopardy? I am confused.)

Whew!  That’s a lot of Mamet films!  But, as I wrote above, this is by no means a comprehensive coverage of all of his works.  I didn’t re-watch Homicide (one of Mamet’s greatest works, the story of Jewish cop Bobby Gold) because, believe it or not, it is NOT AVAILABLE on DVD.  What a crime.  I skipped a bunch of famous works that Mamet wrote but didn’t direct  such as The Untouchables, Wag the Dog, and The Edge.  (Although having just read What Just Happened?, which spends a lot of time dealing with the making of The Edge, I definitely want to go out and re-watch that one soon.)  There are also a bunch of Mamet movies that I don’t own and have never seen:  Things Change, Oleanna, and The Winslow Boy. Its not for lack of interest — I just haven’t gotten around to seeing those films yet.  But don’t worry, I’m sure I’ll get to them one of these days!  And I’ll tell you all about them when I do.

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