Top 5 Tuesday: David Mamet

As a devoted fan of the theater, I have long been a fan of the works of the prolific playwright David Mamet dating back to his edgy early works from the 1970’s. I always look forward to his new plays and books – and seeing productions penned by him whenever I can. Of course, it didn’t take very long for Hollywood to recognize his brilliant writing talents and he has been writing feature films since the 1981 remake of The Postman Always Rings Twice. He has since written over 20 screenplays and has proved himself to be a notable filmmaker as well, having written/directed ten movies, debuting with House of Games (which Roger Ebert called the best film of the year – this, when the venerable reviewer was still critical and on top of his game). While re-watching Sidney Lumet’s wonderful 1982 film The Verdict last week (which was written for the screen by Mr. Mamet), I was inspired to devote this week’s Top 5 Tuesday to the works of one of today’s greatest writers. Narrowing it down to only five proved to be very challenging, but here are the chosen ones that Mr. Mamet wrote or directed or both.

5. Wag the Dog (1997)

A truly witty, marvelous and affecting political satire. Directed by Oscar-winner Barry Levinson, the script here just bleeds one Mamet line after another (“We’re not gonna have a war, we’re gonna have the appearance of a war”) which is a delight to take in. It is nearing election time and the president of the United States is facing a career-destroying sex scandal. Conrad Brean (Robert DeNiro), one of his top advisors, hires a seasoned Hollywood producer (Dustin Hoffman) to create a war through the media so that the president can come out the hero. The producer asks, “I’m in show business, why come to me?” to which Conrad responds, “War is show business, that’s why we’re here.” Great stuff. The chosen country? Poor Albania. And what the two are able to stage in our fight against this little country is laugh-out-loud funny. DeNiro and Hoffman shine here — and they have a terrific supporting cast to work with. Though incredibly funny (especially Hoffman chewing up the scenery), there is a lot to frighten the viewer — and the film’s end is powerful and tragic. Mamet co-wrote the script with Hilary Henken — very intriguing to see him work with another.

4. Homicide (1991)

Perhaps this one may not rank among the favorites for fans of David Mamet, but it grows on me each time I see it. I think it is one of his strongest, most intelligent works — and for those familiar with Mamet’s script and prose, you can easily tell that the subject matter is a very close and personal one to him. Jewish homicide detective Bob Gold (Joe Mantegna) is trying to capture a murderer — until he is suddenly re-assigned to another case…one for him, that he wants no part of. Like a lot of Mamet’s works, a primary theme to this engaging, insightful and powerful film is the search for the self. Gold is a lost man, though he may not be aware of this at the onset of the film. But this new “minor” murder case takes him on a journey that opens his eyes to the world around him and to his very own roots. Mamet has always handled the issue of race head-on, but with tremendous authenticity — and he does the same here. Mantegna is incredible here and again, as in other works, the film goes in directions that you surely do not expect. This was Mamet’s third effort as a film director, and his growth and maturity in style are evident. His style is not at all flashy — he works only to tell his story. But this remains a great work — and it gets better with each viewing.

3. The Verdict (1982)

A remarkable film and one of the very best courtroom dramas of all-time. This was Mamet’s 2nd screenplay and his early style and rhythms are easily detectable here. Frank Galvin (a magnificent Paul Newman) is an ambulance chasing, alcoholic lawyer with a questionable past. He is given the opportunity to spiritually redeem himself and salvage a tarnished career when he takes on a medical malpractice case. Though his case is very strong, the forces working against him (and there are many, including a judge who acts way out of line) push him to the brink. Galvin is repeatedly offered to settle, but the case proves to be about much more than just dollars for him. Newman turns in one of his greatest performances here (which in itself is saying a hell of a lot), and Mamet’s dialogue rings genuine, gritty, and smart. The characters are beautifully woven and the arc he creates for his protagonist is the stuff of great screenwriting. There were many scripts being considered for this film adaptation — and it is easy to see why Lumet went with this one. And though Mamet initially kept the actual verdict out of his script, Lumet convinced him otherwise, which makes for a ending that keeps you on the edge of your seat. A triumph in every way.

2. House of Games (1986)

There are those who would argue that The Sting is the greatest con film ever made. I would make one strong case for this dark, twisting, brilliant film that marked Mamet’s directorial debut from his very own ingenious script. A famous psychiatrist (Lindsay Crouse) decides to help one of her patients who is in grave danger for incurring gambling debts with the wrong people. By doing so, she is introduced to a shadowy and seedy underworld inhabited by con men. She is befriended by Mike (a perfectly cast Joe Mantegna) who shows her the ins and outs of getting other people’s money. The film is dark and makes for a wonderful modern film noir. You never know what the next move will be and the numerous twist-and-turns keep you forever guessing. Mamet has also brilliantly captured the nuances of speech of these diabolical people (“It’s called a confidence game. Why? Because you give me your confidence? No. Because I give you mine”). What’s fascinating to note is that he makes Mike and his merry men very likable people and in a way, we kind of root for them. Their small bits and witty banter show their strong comraderie and their affection for one another. Ricky Jay and the late J.T. Walsh are standouts here. But the story revolves around Crouse’s doctor — she is finding out about herself throughout the course of the movie. And what she ends up discovering might be more frightening than getting conned out of all your life savings. This is a superb achievement in filmmaking — and Mamet truly made a remarkable splash as a director here. If you haven’t seen it and you are into dark, stylized noirs — this is a must-see.

1. Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)

The play was monumental and to make a successful transition to film can be very challenging. Some make the transition seamlessly (like this one), while others (like Mamet’s American Buffalo) aren’t nearly as successful. It is also an oddity that the film’s classic scene where Blake (an impressive Alec Baldwin) comes in to berate all of the salesmen present wasn’t even in the actual play. The all-star cast here are all on the top of their respective games, making this one of the greatest ensemble turns in film history. The mostly interior settings take place in the real estate office and the chinese restaurant across the street. The salesmen are all experiencing tough times and are given great incentive by Blake to produce — or else. Remember? A-I-D-A. Blake proclaims, “A-I-D-A. Attention, Interest, Decision, Action. Attention – Do I have you attention? Interest – Are you interested? I know you are, because it’s fuck or walk. You close or you hit the bricks. Decision – Have you made your decision for Christ? And Action.” The golden “glengarry leads” are stolen in the middle of the night and the 2nd act of the film is devoted to discovering who in fact could have swiped them. The dialogue is rapid-fire, obscene and pure Mamet.  Al Pacino, Ed Harris, Alan Arkin, and Kevin Spacey do a tremendous job at nailing down the cadence and rhythm of the dialogue — and Jack Lemmon gives (in my estimation) his finest performance. These are not likable men — and this is surely not a film for everyone. But those who do appreciate it can recite lines verbatim like they would any other cult classic. James Foley directed this film, which Mamet adapted for the screen — and as much as I admire House of Games, this had to be number one.  For those who have seen it, you know why. And always remember — coffee is for closers only.

Honorable Mentions

I know this is cheating, but any fan of the above-mentioned films or David Mamet himself, should do themselves a favor and watch a few of his other great works such as: the very funny State and Main (2000), the wonderfully woven The Spanish Prisoner (1997), his terrific Chicago-based dialogue in The Untouchables (1987), and the thought-provoking/controversial Oleanna (1994).

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6 Responses to Top 5 Tuesday: David Mamet

  1. Ashley Clark says:

    Great read – and I’ve just bought House of Games from Amazon off the back of reading this. I haven’t seen it years, and I can’t wait to see it again. I think it’s in those category of films that you want to watch with another person for their first time, so you see can their reaction to it.

    Oh, and GROFAZT!

    • very true. The Criterion DVD is amazing. A worthy investment. And yes, it truly is a movie where you want to see someone react/respond to it for the first time. Thanks for sharing!!! Love the Homicide hint here too.

  2. Colin says:

    Oh, I could write about him for hours, and actually have… I’m afraid I did something I was ashamed of in Oleanna and cheered when he belted her one. I also loved everything about Spartan except for the last minute or two, but it’s got some of his best dialogue. Incidentally, talking of dialogue, the only youtube video I ever posted was of Mamet’s SECOND best speech (after the GGR one), which was from Lakeboat. http://youtu.be/fnsCki3DN4A Hope you like!

    • I wouldn’t be ashamed of that response at all. I remember when it first played in NY (I think ’92) — and how much press it received because of audiences mixed reactions to it — which I think is part of what makes it so good. The student takes it way too far — and pushes him so much…the guy loses everything, so I too was glad. Too many students have far too much power and don’t realize the consequences of their reckless actions. And as much of a mamet fan as I am, I could not stand Spartan! Sorry. We disagree on that one. Love the Lakeboat scene. No one saw the movie, but I enjoy it very much.

  3. Colin says:

    I absolutely adore Mamet, so thanks for putting this list together. I’d have House of Games at one, easily, and State & Main over Homicide, but this is a pretty solid list!

    • I wanted to put House of Games at #1 — between that and Glengarry it is really splitting hairs. House of Games is a marvel though and I can watch that anytime. Thanks for the feedback. I totally love State and Main too…glad to hear more love for Homicide too! Thanks!

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