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June 30, 2012

8

Favorites Corner: Films of David Mamet

by HELEN GEIB, GEOFF GEIB and NIR SHALEV

An occasional feature where the writers compare their five favorite films by some of the greats of world cinema.

David Mamet (b. 1947)

HELEN’S TOP FIVE

5) The Untouchables (1987) (writer)

When I first wrote out my list I briefly hesitated over including The Untouchables. The script has never been the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about what I like about the movie (the first thing is the Union Station steps sequence, followed by Andy Garcia). But considering how good it is, maybe it should be.

4) State and Main (2000) (writer-director)

If I had to pick my number one favorite thing about David Mamet it’s that the man knows how to end a movie. Take a minute to review your favorite Mamet films. They all have great endings, don’t they? Just thinking about the last scene of State and Main makes me laugh. If you haven’t seen it, and you love movies, you owe it to yourself to pick up a copy today.

3) Redbelt (2008) (writer-director)

The familiar thematic concerns are on display in Redbelt: moral imperatives and ethical dilemmas; cons and misdirection; loyalty and betrayal. They play out in an unusually grounded and realistic story, which helps make Chiwetel Ejiofor’s beleaguered jiu jitsu master- and struggling small business owner- one of Mamet’s most sympathetic heroes. (More enthusiasm in my review.)

2) Ronin (1998) (writer)

Mamet may have taken his name off Ronin because of a credit dispute, but his fingerprints are all over it. Like The Untouchables, this is a total package Hollywood winner. Great writing, great direction, great acting, cool European locations, and a killer car chase. This would easily be my favorite Mamet film if not for…

1) The Winslow Boy (1999) (writer-director)

I love absolutely everything about The Winslow Boy. If you harbor any doubts about Mamet’s capabilities as a writer-director, watch this movie and then watch the 1948 adaptation of Terence Rattigan’s play.

GEOFF’S TOP FIVE

I had enjoyed his work immensely for years, but I’m not sure I really appreciated just how great a film director David Mamet was until I saw Spartan, a visual triumph that plays beautifully with light but rarely calls excessive attention to itself, a trait that is perhaps the hallmark of Mamet’s career as director. This seems somewhat ironic considering how stylish and flashy his writing often is, and not just in film, Mamet is less a last name than a brand at this point, really, but in pondering just why I love his movies so much, I think it might just be this apparent contradiction that makes his work so affecting.

As far as criteria in selecting my favorite films, I went for writer-director selections, save for numbers two and five. The latter, while undeniably a staple in my DVD collection, sadly bumped The Winslow Boy (“How little you know about men.”), The Spanish Prisoner (“I think you need to spend some time in your room.”) and the aforementioned Spartan (“But you had to put on your thinking cap!”). Since it’s a list of favorites, my favorite line of dialogue is also included from each film.

5) The Untouchables (1987) (writer)

There are many things the Hollywood machine routinely does to screw up movies, but when it works, it works beautifully, and there’s no better example than director Brian De Palma’s masterful recreation of Prohibition-era Chicago from a Mamet script whose best lines (“That’s the Chicago way!”) helped Sean Connery win his Oscar.

4) Redbelt (2008) (writer-director)

Deftly balances the rigors of an action movie with the labyrinth scheming that envelops so many of Mamet’s characters.* (“There’s always an escape.”)

*See excellent review in Commentary Track archives.

3) State and Main (2000) (writer-director)

Brutally funny as it bludgeons its way through the film industry with one painfully accurate barb after another. If there’s one lesson we can take from Mamet’s entire body of work, it comes from this movie: beware the Associate Producer credit. Also contains my favorite closing line from a Mamet film. (“Beats working.”)

2) Glengarry Glen Ross (1992) (writer)

I never saw the play, but if it matches even a fraction of the film’s suffocating sense of desperation and frustration, it must have been a hell of an experience. Impressive performances abound in this actor’s vehicle, especially Jack Lemmon’s pitch-perfect descent into oblivion, a high point in a deservedly lauded 40-year career. (“Coffee is for closers.”)

1) House of Games (1987) (writer-director)

It’s ferocious and uncompromising, lulling the audience into a false sense of genre security with its pleasant conman tropes, only to have the rug pulled out from under us with an ice pick of an ending. Some movies are already forgotten five minutes before the credits roll, but for better or worse, that will never be this film’s problem. (“Thank you, sir, may I have another?”)

NIR’S TOP FIVE

5) The Spanish Prisoner (1997) (writer-director)

Mamet is mostly famous for writing heist and con stories. He tends to deliver expository dialogue that doesn’t appear to reveal any important information to the audience, but in fact does so in secret. For the most part the audience can never predict what is going to happen. The Spanish Prisoner is the first con film of his that I saw and I was enthralled by its web of intrigue and deceit even though it never exposed a discernible plot and I didn’t even know what the characters did for a living. Steve Martin spoke in tongues, Campbell Scott was befuddled throughout, Rebecca Pidgeon danced around ideals, and Ricky Jay played with my mind. At the end, everything made sense and on repeat viewings confusing, seemingly superfluous segments actually, truly mean something. That’s what Mamet does: he plays with our minds using verbal sleight of hand and at the end we love him for it.

4) Homicide (1991) (writer-director)

As can be seen from my review, I loved Homicide from my first viewing. Mamet utilizes his famous verbal sleight of hands tricks but within the context of a police procedural film; the movie also deals with religion. Joe Mantegna spouts Mamet’s dialogue like a professional and as a result had worked with him on several occasions, and the same goes for William H. Macy, who over the years has become a personal favorite of mine among Mamet-recurring actors. The script is tight, the dialogue is terrifically Mamet, and again, by the end we understand everything that has transpired. It’s a rather flawless screenplay and is thoroughly engaging because it takes itself seriously.

3) Spartan (2004) (writer-director)

Spartan is Mamet’s greatest magic trick and his best film to date. It shows people doing their jobs instead of caricatures performing random tasks, yet we don’t even know what their roles in society are. Val Kilmer plays an operative may or may not be working for the CIA or NSA (it’s never explained and doesn’t need to be). He needs to figure out the reason for the disappearance of a woman who may or may not be the president’s daughter (again, we’re strategically never told). In the event that she was kidnapped, he would need to assume several different personalities and identities in order to find her. How he does so is seamless and magnificent; spouting Mamet’s coded dialogue, Kilmer’s character ends up on another side of the planet and it isn’t until the very end of the film that we are told what’s been happening. Spartan is a perfect film because Mamet doesn’t feed the audience expository dialogue or any useful information (we’re in the dark just like the protagonist) and as a result we can’t predict where the film will take us. I have watched the film several times and am always amazed at how Mamet can write such outstanding coded messages for us to decipher; they’re both dialogue and metaphoric lore.

2) Glengarry Glen Ross (1992) (writer)

Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, Ed Harris, Alan Arkin, Kevin Spacey, Alec Baldwin, and Jonathan Pryce star in this brilliant film based on Mamet’s own Pulitzer Prize winning play. It places five real estate men, some much older than the others, in a fight for survival. Due to constant poor results their agency is cutting their funds and has started a contest that would reward the top two winners and fire the rest. The men nurture the idea that the Glengarry leads, the cream of the crop of golden leads, should be stolen and sold for hard cash. But when it actually happens, no one knows who did it. Mamet’s screenplay explores the human soul and exposes what makes man weak and what makes man strong. While existing in a capitalist society it’s every man for himself and we see how each man has a good (or bad) reason for committing the crime. It’s a showcase of tremendous talent, focusing on a before and after scenario and each actor is as good as the rest. Lemmon perhaps gives the most heartfelt performance because he plays a man of his age but Baldwin steals the show early on with his famous 10-15 minute monologue.

This is a respectable film, one that I have watched countless times, an entertaining film, and a great showcase for tremendous talent. I will never forget it.

1) Heist (2001) (writer-director)

Heist is my favorite Mamet film because of its ingenious concept (conning people with a fake heist); its terrific ensemble cast (Gene Hackman, Danny DeVitto, Delroy Lindo, Sam Rockwell, Rebecca Pidgeon, and Ricky Jay) and their performances; and the fact that every other line of dialogue, by any of the actors, is comic gold. Mamet utilizes his verbal sleight of hand, yet again, and everyone speaks in code. But the outcome is breathtakingly fresh and Hackman’s and Lindo’s deliveries are magnificent. If it wasn’t for the constant coarse language (another Mamet trademark), Heist could pass for a screwball comedy.

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Share your favorite Mamet films in the comments.

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8 Comments Post a comment
  1. Jul 1 2012

    This is going to sound strange and shocking: 1) I have never heard of The Winslow Boy, and 2) I have predicted House of Games‘ ending within the first 20 minutes of my initial viewing of it and as a result I have never rewatched it since, and that was, roughly 6 or 7 years ago. There’s also an Argentinian film called Nine Queens which is a remake of House of Games. It does contain the same huge plot twist in its third act but is sort of a completely different film.

    And perhaps I should revisit The Untouchables because I’ve only watched it once, a long time ago, and found it to be pretty good, at best. I didn’t even know that Sean Connery won an Oscar. *sigh*

  2. Jul 1 2012

    I think The Spanish Prisoner is probably my favorite.

  3. Jul 1 2012

    @Dave, awesome!

  4. Jul 1 2012

    @Nir: “The Winslow Boy” is an adaptation of a mid-1940s play by Terence Rattigan, a very successful English playwright of the 1940s/50s; several of his plays have been made into movies (“The Browning Version”, “Separate Tables”, the in-theaters-now “The Deep Blue Sea”). It has an Edwardian (pre-WWI) London setting and was inspired by a real-life court case. It isn’t a courtroom drama though, but rather a character study around the theme, “how much are you willing to sacrifice in a just cause?”. The Mamet film stars Nigel Hawthorne, Jeremy Northam, Rebecca Pidgeon, and Gemma Jones.

    @Dave: Talk about a great ending… the last few minutes completely changed my opinion of the movie.

  5. Miriam
    Jul 1 2012

    I love The Winslow Boy, one of my very favorite movies not just favorite Mamet movies. I have more mixed enthusiasm for his work, though looking at your lists I’ve not seen several of them.

    Redbelt is excellent and, like TWB, played only a week or two in theaters. Sadly underappreciated. I never tire of watching Ronin and am only surprised that the dialogue didn’t clue me that he was the author. There’s a better balance of warmth and wit than I see in some of his films.

    @Nir, I remember that I really enjoyed watching Spartan but now I can’t remember much of anything about it. I’ll have to see it again. But I don’t think you can persuade me to watch Heist again. I saw the end of that one coming and was disappointed by what felt like a very cold and artificial story dressed up with some clever dialogue.

  6. Jul 1 2012

    @Helen, now that I have been made aware of The Winslow Boy I will watch it sometime in the future. And I have watched The Browning Version (1951), I own Separate Tables on DVD, and have heard of The Deep Blue Sea but I have never heard the name Terence Rattigan. Hmm…

    @Miram, very clever dialogue! But is Fran still loyal to Joe at the end? 0_<

    And Redbelt is an awesome film. I own it and have watched it several times. It’s also terrific proof that Tim Allen could act but aside from that and Galaxy Quest he’s done nothing of interest.

  7. Jul 2 2012

    @Nir: The 1951 “The Browning Version” is another movie I dearly love, while the modern (1990s) remake was forgettable; the reverse of my verdict on the two “Winslow Boy” movies. (BTW I forgot to list “The Princess and the Showgirl”, the other famous movie from a Rattigan play.)

    Au contraire on Tim Allen: “To infinity… and beyond!” But otherwise, yes, sadly true.

  8. Jul 2 2012

    I forgot about Buzz! And no matter what anyone says, the first Toy Story is still the best one. :O)

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