Screenwriter and director David MametDavid Mamet has distinguished himself as a writer, director and cultural essayist for nearly four decades now. I’ve always loved his well-crafted screenwriting, and over time I’ve also come to appreciate his unadorned style as a director. Because he believes actors should “say the words” without “inflection,” he’s a bit of an acquired taste, I’ll admit. But well worth the trouble.

Where should the Mamet novice begin? Which films will endure? What follows is my own personal ranking of what will A (Always) B (Be) C (Classics) of D (David Mamet)…

The 1980’s

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981)
Mamet’s role: Screenwriter (based on the novel by James M. Cain)
Mamet tropes: False confessions, faithless spouses
John’s Rank: #22

Premise: A drifter (Jack Nicholson) falls in lust with a waitress at a roadside diner (Jessica Lange) and they plot to murder her husband. Adapted from the classic noir novel by James M. Cain, it is widely considered to be inferior to the 1946 film version starring James Garfield. Mamet’s then-wife Lindsay Crouse was trying out for a role and Mamet encouraged her to mention to director Bob Rafelson that Mamet was a fan of the novel. Rafelson and Nicholson had been attempting themselves to adapt it, unsuccessfully, and jumped at the chance to work with Mamet, by then an established playwright.

Filmmaker and writer John Ott on the set of independent film The Battle of Bunker Hill.John says: Not having read the original novel or seen the 1946 Garfield version, it is hard for me to judge Mamet’s work here. Certainly the script and the directing by Bob Rafelson create an environment for some excellent and sexy performances. I do know that the novel continues the story for an additional trial at the end. I’m not sure if it was Mamet or, more likely Rafelson, who decided to leave off the book’s ending. (Rafelson loves ambiguous endings.) But the movie feels incomplete. It also has an intrusive score. Worth watching for the performances and for the cinematography by Swedish master Sven Nykvist, but overall… unsatisfying.

The Verdict (1982)
Mamet’s role: Screenwriter (based on the novel by Barry Reed, a draft by Jay Presson Allen was apparently not used)
Mamet tropes: Noble lawyers, one-sided phone conversations, political incorrectness, nepotistic casting
John’s Rank: #2

Premise: Alcoholic, washed-up lawyer Frank Galvin (Paul Newman) lands a medical malpractice case that offers him a final shot at redemption.

Filmmaker and writer John Ott on the set of independent film The Battle of Bunker Hill.John says: Mamet’s first Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay, The Verdict is a deliberate (I won’t say slow) character study and legal drama. The script is as fantastic as is reputed — every moment is building character or moving the plot forward, with huge emotional payoffs. The story is greatly assisted by director Sidney Lumet, d.p. Andrzej Bartkowiak, and the performances of the actors, most notably Paul Newman, who imbues the character of Frank Galvin with real flaws and real hope.  This movie was well-acclaimed upon release, but I get the sense that it is not seen or discussed much of late. That’s a shame. This might be the best courtroom drama ever put on film.

Look for: Mamet’s first wife Lindsay Crouse in a small-but-crucial role.

The Untouchables (1987)
Mamet’s role: Screenwriter
Mamet tropes: Eloquent criminals, knife-based plot points, children in peril
John’s Rank: #4

Premise: Treasury agent Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) forms a group of “untouchable” cops (Sean Connery, Andy Garcia, Charles Martin Smith) to pursue the unofficial mayor of Prohibition Era Chicago, the gangster Al Capone (Robert DeNiro).

Filmmaker and writer John Ott on the set of independent film The Battle of Bunker Hill.John says: Mamet’s first major screen script after winning a Pulitzer for the stageplay Glengarry Glen Ross, Untouchables is a classic script and a classic movie. I’m sure it’s the reason Mamet ended up writing a number of other gangster movies for Hollywood. Scene after scene is a textbook of Mamet dialogue and mis-direction. Watching it again recently, not having seen it for probably 15 years, the famous (and largely dialogue-free) scene involving a baby buggy on a staircase seems a bit over-wrought under Brian De Palma’s direction, but the rest of the movie holds up better than I had remembered — largely due to Mamet’s tight and action-packed script. “They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue. That’s the Chicago way.” A definite favorite.

House of Games (1987)
Mamet’s role: Screenwriter (and co-story credit with Jonathan Katz), Director
Mamet tropes: Long cons, close-up magic, knife-based plot points, switched briefcases, metaphorical games of chance, eloquent criminals, nepotistic casting
John’s Rank: #6

Premise: David Mamet’s directorial debut finds eminent psychologist Dr. Margaret Ford (Mamet’s then-wife Lindsay Crouse) drawn into the world of a gang of confidence men (Joe Mantegna, Ricky Jay, Mike Nussbaum and more). Are they offering her the thrill her life needs, or is she just a pawn in one of their elaborate schemes?

Filmmaker and writer John Ott on the set of independent film The Battle of Bunker Hill.John says: People think of Mamet as a macho director, but this is a movie that passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors. I liked this movie okay when I first saw it, but was a bit turned off by the ending. Watching it again, I see that Mamet and frequent d.p. Juan Ruiz Anchia have layered in a ton of Freudian imagery and provided some distinct clues for why Crouse’s character behaves how she does. Crouse, following Mamet’s direction, chose to play the character very close to the vest, which makes her more interesting to watch when you see the film a second time. But you don’t need to watch this film more than once to enjoy Joe Mantegna who, as the “honest” confidence man Mike Mancuso, steals the show.

Things Change (1988)
Mamet’s role: Director, Co-Screenwriter with Shel Silverstein
Mamet tropes: Collectible coins, a false confession, aspirational boats, metaphorical games of chance, eloquent criminals
John’s Rank: #16

Premise: An old Italian shoe repairman (Don Amece) agrees to take a fall for a mafia don. On his last weekend of freedom, the low-level flunky assigned to guard him (Joe Mantegna) takes him to Lake Tahoe and he is mistaken for a rich and powerful godfather. Antics ensue.

Filmmaker and writer John Ott on the set of independent film The Battle of Bunker Hill.John says: This is a really beautifully-made little film with some entertaining Mamet-speak. (“Babe, this is the guy behind the guy behind the guy.”) It’s not as out-and-out funny as Mamet’s best comedies nor as gripping as his best dramas. It does have maybe the best score of any Mamet film, a haunting old-world string theme by frequent Mamet composer Alaric Jans.

We’re No Angels (1989)
Mamet’s role: Screenwriter
Mamet tropes: Eloquent criminals, political incorrectness, children in peril
John’s Rank: #23

Premise: A remake of a 1955 classic, in turn based on a play by Albert Husson. Robert DeNiro and Sean Penn play escaped convicts who wind up posing as Catholic priests to evade the law and escape into Canada.

Filmmaker and writer John Ott on the set of independent film The Battle of Bunker Hill.John says: The movie is beautifully shot and production-designed, and it has a few nice moments of Mametty dialogue. However, the plot is dumb and the movie suffers from the filmmakers’ last-minute decision to change from an R-rating to aiming PG-13. If you like intensely-violent prison escapes mixed with Robert DeNiro’s worst tendencies toward making stupid faces, this is the movie for you.

The 1990’s

Homicide (1991)
Mamet’s role: Screenwriter, Director
Mamet tropes: Eloquent criminals, political incorrectness, nepotistic casting, conflicted Jewish heroes, one-word titles
John’s Rank: #3

Premise: Joe Mantegna plays a homicide detective who is forced to choose between doing his job and betraying his religion.

Filmmaker and writer John Ott on the set of independent film The Battle of Bunker Hill.John says: Although there’s plenty of the small acting that is Mamet’s trademark as a director, there are some big themes. The story here is an almost mythological parable about the dangers of relying upon faith over facts. Mamet would go on to make more successful ‘movie’ movies, but I don’t know that he has ever made a more powerful work of art. So, while I love many of his later films as writer/director, this would be my top choice of the “auteur” films where he is both writer and director.

Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)
Mamet’s role: Screenwriter, based on his play
Mamet trope: Macho salesmen
John’s Rank: #10

Premise:

Filmmaker and writer John Ott on the set of independent film The Battle of Bunker Hill.John says: A no frills cinematic adaptation of Mamet’s stage classic, I enjoy Glengarry for the eminently-quotable script some fine performances by the likes of Jack Lemmon, Alec Baldwin and Al Pacino. Director James Foley echoes Mamet’s straightforward style of directing but with none of the stilted acting. I recommend this movie to those who want the Mamet experience, but with ‘inflected’ performances.

Hoffa (1992)
Mamet’s role: Screenwriter
Mamet tropes: Knife-based plot points, one-sided phone conversations, macho salesmen, sleazy politicians, children in peril
, one-word titles
John’s Rank: #21

Premise: The rise and fall of Teamster leader Jimmy Hoffa (Jack Nicholson) and his fictional right-hand man (Danny DeVito, playing a composite of several real-life Hoffa associates). Hoffa’s disappearance remains unsolved, and this movie creates an ending that is not based on established facts.

Filmmaker and writer John Ott on the set of independent film The Battle of Bunker Hill.John says: This might be the biggest budget of any Mamet movie. There are some massive and amazing crowd scenes in the film, and director Danny DeVito and d.p. Stephen H. Burum (who also shot Untouchables) manage impressive widescreen visuals. There’s also a ton of great Mamet dialogue (“Don’t ask for something that’s a burden to ya if ya get it.”). But really, I think the film is failed by the periodic flashback structure (which Mamet would use again for the biopic Lansky) and poor pacing. Certain scenes, like Hoffa’s initial confrontation with Robert Kennedy and his Senate committee, really slow the story way down. I do like how the movie manages to be both sympathetic and critical of Hoffa at the same time. The story has all the dimensions of a tragedy, and someone could probably make a pretty good play by cutting out the speculative ending about his death (the dead body is shipped away in a truck, get it?) and make it more of a tragedy about a man who makes a bargain with the devil (the Italian mob) that eventually leads to his political downfall and murder.

Oleanna (1994)
Mamet’s role: Director, Screenwriter (based on his own original play)
Mamet tropes: One-sided phone calls, political incorrectness, one-word titles
John’s Rank: #24

Premise: A shy college student named Carol (Debra Eisenstadt) goes to see her professor (William H. Macy) after receiving a poor grade and, offended by his attitudes, files a series of complaints that threaten everything the professor holds dear. The title comes from a Norwegian folk song, popularized in English by Pete Seeger, about a magical land called Oleanna where corn grows without being sown and women who need beating by their husbands beat themselves. Strangely, the song is never mentioned or played, but the movie does feature songs by Mamet’s wife Rebecca Pidgeon.

Filmmaker and writer John Ott on the set of independent film The Battle of Bunker Hill.John says: Oleanna seems to me to be a great example of how not to bring a play to the screen. The stage play has two speaking roles. The movie has two speaking roles. Mamet has done almost nothing in the way of adaptation, right up to lighting and production design that make the sets looks like cheap stage imitations of a college professor’s study. The few times we do leave this set, it is always with the professor character and does little to deepen the story. When I saw the play performed (as a high-school student), I was very much on the side of the professor. Watching the movie, and despite Eisenstadt being far outmatched as an actor by Macy. I don’t think this is the famously anti-P.C. Mamet’s intention. (The most dramatically satisfying would be if you are constantly switching allegiance between them.) The concerns of the play seem to be of the era and have not aged well. Eminently skippable — if you must, read or see the play instead.

American Buffalo (1996)
Mamet’s role: Screenwriter
Mamet tropes: Collectible coins, games of chance, one-sided phone conversations, political incorrectness, eloquent criminals
John’s Rank: #11

Premise: Antiques dealer Donny (Dennis Franz) plots with a young neighborhood kid Bobby (Sean Nelson) and his excitable friend Teach (Dustin Hoffman) to steal man’s coin collection. The collection includes a buffalo-head nickel that Donny believes he was conned into selling the man at too low a price.

Filmmaker and writer John Ott on the set of independent film The Battle of Bunker Hill.John says: This is, in my opinion, the most successful of the adaptations of Mamet’s stageplays to film. Director Michael Corrente and editor Kate Sanford keep the pace hurtling non-stop and the performances by the actors are all outstanding. That said, Glen Gary Glen Ross is perhaps more fun to watch.

The Edge (1997)
Mamet’s role: Screenwriter
Mamet trope: Knife-based plot points, faithless spouses
John’s Rank: #5

Premise: Anthony Hopkins plays a genius billionaire who finds himself trapped in the wild with the young, handsome photographer who wants to steal his wife (Alec Baldwin) and a man-eating Kodiak bear (Bart the Bear).

Filmmaker and writer John Ott on the set of independent film The Battle of Bunker Hill.John says: I see this as Mamet’s version of a smart popcorn movie. While there isn’t a great deal of staccato dialogue, there are some good one-liners and the plot is airtight. Every little detail Mamet plants early on comes back with dramatic force later. This movie seems to encapsulate a lot of Mamet’s ideas about masculinity — victory goes to those who possess a keen mind and a keen blade. Hopkins and Baldwin are both great. This is a real under-rated entry in the Mamet canon.

The Spanish Prisoner (1997)
Mamet’s role: Screenwriter, Director
Mamet tropes: Long cons, knife-based plot points, switched notebooks, aspirational boats, nepotistic casting
John’s Rank: #17

Premise: Joe Ross, a finance wizard played by Campbell Scott finds himself the target of an elaborate con designed to get him to reveal a secret “process” that is worth billions. Steve Martin plays Jimmy Dell, a rich friend who wants to help Joe out of his predicament… or does he?

Filmmaker and writer John Ott on the set of independent film The Battle of Bunker Hill.John says: Another twisty confidence game story like House of Games. Note the return of the ‘false confession’ trope from The Postman Always Rings Twice — one which will re-appear again in State & Main. I find this film a little too slow and a little too pat, without the rewatchability of Mamet’s best work. Still, it’s a decent suspense story and, like a good magic trick, it’s always fun to let Mamet fool you.

Wag the Dog (1997)
Mamet’s role: Screenwriter
Mamet tropes: Sleazy politicians, one-sided phone calls
John’s Rank: #1

Premise: Spinmeister Conrad Black (Robert DeNiro) is called in by the president’s advisers (including Anne Heche) to help with damage control for a scandal that’s about to break on the eve of the election. With help from Hollywood producer Stanley Motss (Dustin Hoffman), they create a fake war in a distant country to distract the American public.

Filmmaker and writer John Ott on the set of independent film The Battle of Bunker Hill.John says: Robert DeNiro returns for another round of speaking Mamet. While the movie takes a tonal shift once Woody Harrelson enters the picture, it’s a great example of Mamet’s dry, biting sense of humor and cynical perspective. Like Network, it is a prescient film, seemingly predicting several elements of the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal. Barry Levinson directs the hell out of Mamet’s script and Dustin Hoffman leads a stellar cast. This is my personal favorite out of Mamet’s filmography, but on another day I might choose any of the next ten in the rankings. As a fully-realized film, The Verdict is better. But comedy is harder, so I give the edge to Wag the Dog.

Ronin (1998)
Mamet’s role: Screenwriter (under the pseudonym Richard Weisz)
Mamet trope: Switched containers, eloquent criminals, children in peril, one-word titles
John’s Rank: #15

Premise: Ex-spy Sam (Robert DeNiro) joins up with an international group of mercenaries hired by the mysterious Dierdre (Natascha McElhone) to steal a heavily-guarded briefcase. Double crosses, triple crosses and fast car chases through narrow European streets ensue.

Filmmaker and writer John Ott on the set of independent film The Battle of Bunker Hill.John says: While there are some witty dialogue exchanges that bear Mamet’s stamp (“lame” “cocked hat”), it’s clear this is a vehicle (no pun intended) for director John Frankenheimer’s car chases. Frankenheimer attempts to top the high water marks set by William Friedkin in The French Connection and To Live and Die in L.A. and definitely succeeded in recording some memorable automobile action. Sadly, the love story between McElhone and DeNiro’s characters is rather airless. It’s not helped by the fact that Dierdre’s denouement was cut from the ending of the film. Mamet must’ve agreed it didn’t represent his best work, taking the name of a Hungarian wrestler as his pseudonym. I had remembered the McGuffin of the case as much more mysterious than it is. The movie makes it clear it was material needed by Irish revolutionaries Sinn Fein to interrupt the peace process. Mamet does some nice things with spy movie archetypes, but as far as his genre work goes, this is near the bottom of the heap.

The Winslow Boy (1999)
Mamet’s role: Director, Screenwriter (adapting the play by Terrence Rattigan)
Mamet trope: Sleazy politicians, noble lawyers, nepotistic casting
John’s Rank: #14

Premise: In turn-of-the-century England, Arthur Winslow (Nigel Hawthorne) makes a decision to fight an accusation that his son is a thief. The ensuing publicity around the legal proceedings jeopardizes the hopes and happiness of his wife (Gemma Jones), his older son (Matthew Pidgeon) and his daughter (Rebecca Pidgeon). Jeremy Northam plays Sir Robert Morton, the sleazy lawyer upon who the family’s futures rest.

Filmmaker and writer John Ott on the set of independent film The Battle of Bunker Hill.John says: This is the first time we see Mamet the director really get to work with someone else’s material and he’s fantastic. Although the shape of the story feels very much like a play, with only a tiny bit of the political and legal drama actually on screen, Mamet works with production designer Gemma Jackson and d.p. Benoit Delhomme to provide great cinematic period detail.

While we are interested in the resolution of the case of ‘The Winslow Boy,’ we come to realize this film is more of a love story between the Rebecca Pidgeon and Jeremy Northam characters. I’m often sour on Pidgeon’s performances, but here she gives perhaps her best. The rest of the cast, too, rises to the material. I am not normally a fan of costume dramas, but this story has all the intrigue of something like Downton Abbey with none of the preposterous soap opera twists. You’ve gotta love it when a writer/director does something so out of left field and does it so well. I can’t recommend this film as typical of Mamet, but if you like period stories of repressed love, this is a good way in to his body of work.

Lansky (TV movie, 1999)
Mamet’s role: Screenwriter
Mamet tropes: Echoes of the holocaust, games of chance, knife-based plot points, conflicted Jewish heroes, one-word titles, switched containers
John’s Rank: #20

Premise: This made-for-HBO biopic of Jewish gangster Meyer Lansky (Richard Dreyfuss) is directed by John McNaughton (Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Wild Things).

Filmmaker and writer John Ott on the set of independent film The Battle of Bunker Hill.John says: If Once Upon a Time in America had never been made, I would be much more impressed with this story of an old Jewish gangster flashing back to his Lower East Side boyhood and his rise to power. Disappointingly, the story never goes very deep into Lansky’s psyche. Again and again, it lets Lansky off the hook for the mob violence and cruelty to his crippled son. There are some good Mamet lines (“For every quid pro… there’s a quo.”) and scenes (the truck switch) but the flashback structure mostly kills the momentum rather than builds it. Godfather II, Goodfellas and Once Upon… simply do the flashback gangster story better. One thing I’ll say, the production design and performances are good enough for a movie released in theaters. It’s definitely a cut above the average T.V. movie, and for that reason worth putting on your Mamet list, albeit at the very bottom. The ones that rank below it are skippers.

The 2000’s

Lakeboat (2000)
Mamet’s role: Screenwriter, based on his own original play
Mamet tropes: Games of chance, political incorrectness, faithless spouses, nepotistic casting, conflicted Jewish heroes, one-word titles
John’s Rank: #19

Premise: The directorial debut of longtime Mamet actor Joe Mantegna, this is Mamet’s semi-autobiographical dramatization of his own early summer job working a freighter in the Great Lakes. Dale (Tony Mamet), a young writer, is exposed the worldly philosophies of his crewmates played by George Wendt, Charles Durning, Peter Falk, Robert Forster, Dennis Leary et. al. Lakeboat was Mamet’s first play, written in 1970, then later revised when it was first performed in 1980. Mamet himself did the conversion for this film.

Filmmaker and writer John Ott on the set of independent film The Battle of Bunker Hill.John says: Mantegna proves himself a true disciple of David Mamet by directing much in Mamet’s style and even casting many Mamet regulars (and some actual Mamet relatives). Tony Mamet is miscast as the lead, in my opinion. He’s not a bad actor, but just looks too old to be 23. This movie still feels like a play, but there are plenty of great dialogues and diatribes to enjoy. Standouts for me are Dennis Leary on the importance of watching gauges, Jack Wallace on sex, Wendt and Durning talking perspective, Forster confessing he wanted to be a dancer. This is not a movie to watch if you want action. But put it on some slow afternoon and just luxuriate in the talk. By the end of the movie, you feel like you spent a summer on lakeboat, shooting the breeze with some colorful sailors.

State and Main (2000)
Mamet’s role: Screenwriter, Director
Mamet tropes: Sleazy politicians, switched briefcases, a false confession, one-sided phone calls, nepotistic casting
John’s Rank: #7

Premise: A film crew run by a manic director (William H. Macy) and smarmy producer (David Paymer) takes over a small Vermont town to shoot a movie called The Old Mill. Among other difficulties, they find that the town’s mill has burnt down and that their star (Alec Baldwin) can’t stop chasing underage girls (Julia Stiles). Meanwhile, earnest screenwriter Joseph Turner White (Philip Seymour Hoffman) finds himself falling in love with a local lass (Rebecca Pidgeon) who is engaged to a meddling politician (Clark Gregg) who could shut the whole show down.

Filmmaker and writer John Ott on the set of independent film The Battle of Bunker Hill.John says: Despite some wooden performances and unremarkable camerawork, this film is a personal favorite. Not only does Mamet nail the Hollywood satire, he also nails the satire of local politics and the genuine love-hate dynamic among members of a film crew on location. The movie is full of quotable quips, like: “If your memory was as long as your dick, you’d be in good shape.”

Hannibal (2001)
Mamet’s role: Co-Screenwriter (with Steve Zaillian), based on the novel by Thomas Harris
Mamet tropes: Knife-based plot points, one-word titles
John’s Rank: #18

Premise: This sequel to Silence of the Lambs finds agent Clarice Starling (now played by Julianne Moore) in disgrace at the FBI, and put back on the cold Hannibal Lecter (reprised by Anthony Hopkins) case. Ray Liotta plays Starling’s asshole colleague and Gary Oldman plays the rich, disfigured former victim of Hannibal who is intent upon revenge.

Filmmaker and writer John Ott on the set of independent film The Battle of Bunker Hill.John says: I remember liking this movie when it came out. Watching it again just after watching Silence of the Lambs, I was disappointed in it. It seems like great casting to re-team Mamet with Anthony Hopkins, especially since his character in The Edge displays a similar erudition and cunning to the Lecter character. The end of Silence left it open for a continuation of the story with the Hannibal and Starling characters.

But Hannibal‘s overmatched. I don’t blame Mamet for this. It seems Mamet did not have the final pass on the script, Steve Zailian (Schindler’s List) did. (You can read Mamet’s rejected draft here.) In the final balance, Silence of the Lambs, with its Ted Tally script, Jonathan Demme direction and Jodie Foster performance is too much of a precedent to overcome. Hannibal‘s not a bad film, but it suffers from the inevitable comparison. Mamet tourists can safely skip.

Heist (2001)
Mamet’s role: Director, Screenwriter
Mamet tropes: Long cons, switched containers, aspirational boats, nepotistic casting, faithless spouses (possibly), knife-based plot points, one-word titles
John’s Rank: #8

Premise: Professional thief (Joe Moore) is looking to make one last score before he sails with his young wife (Rebecca Pidgeon) to a sunny place. But a crooked mob boss (Danny DeVito) draws him back in for “The Swiss Job” – planting his shifty nephew (Sam Rockwell) on Joe’s team. Will Joe and the team (which also includes Delroy Lindo and Ricky Jay) get away with the gold?

Filmmaker and writer John Ott on the set of independent film The Battle of Bunker Hill.John says: This is one of those genre films that makes you wonder if anyone can make another in that genre. I have a hard time watching any other heist movie without comparing it to this one, which manages to hit all the obligatory scenes and characters and yet remains surprising. It’s also purely Mamet. “I’ll be as quiet as an ant pissing on cotton.” “My motherfucker is so cool, when he goes to bed, sheep count him.” It also features the famously dissected line “Everybody needs money. That’s why they call it money.” Gene Hackman is a natural at Mamet’s dialogue and Sam Rockwell is great too. Of course, Danny DeVito and Delroy Lindo steal the scenes they are in, and Patti Lupone has a nice cameo. The score, by Theodore Shapiro, is excellent. If you like heist movies, this is a perfect introduction to the style of Mamet.

Spartan (2004)
Mamet’s role: Director, Screenwriter
Mamet tropes: Knife-based plot points, sleazy politicians, nepotistic casting, one-word titles
John’s Rank: #9

Premise: Elite special forces operative Scott (Val Kilmer) is tasked with finding the daughter of the President after she mysteriously disappears. With help from some trainees (Derek Luke, Tia Texada), he uncovers a conspiracy that leaves him no choice but to go “off the reservation.”

Filmmaker and writer John Ott on the set of independent film The Battle of Bunker Hill.John says: This is the film where Mamet really comes into his own as a director. It’s airtight from top to bottom. He crafts a killer action/suspense story with several clever ‘uses of the knife.’ In fact, I read the moment Kilmer’s character stabs his knife into a table near the end of the movie as Mamet’s confident assertion of his own abilities. This is also the film that launched Mamet’s T.V. show The Unit, which is why his filmography gaps after this film. According to Val Kilmer’s unreliable commentary on the DVD, Mamet cut many scenes that were shot and did a lot of re-writing on set. Whatever he did, it works. This is a coiled jungle cat of a film and one of my personal favorites. Because the main character is such a cipher, and because after you know the answers to the mysteries in the film, it is not as interesting to re-watch, I rank it a bit further down. Still, it’s one of my favorites and a great one to start with if you want to explore Mamet.

Edmond (2005)
Mamet’s role: Screenwriter, based on his original play
Mamet tropes: Knife-based plot points, close-up magic/games of chance (3 card monte), faithless spouses, political incorrectness, nepotistic casting, one-word titles
John’s Rank: #25

Premise: A depressed businessman (William H. Macy) leaves his wife (Rebecca Pidgeon) and goes on a dark journey through the city at night, meeting hustlers, thieves, prostitutes and eventually murdering an innocent waitress (Julia Stiles), landing him in prison where he finds his true fortune.

Filmmaker and writer John Ott on the set of independent film The Battle of Bunker Hill.John says: This is supposedly one of the money-losingest movies ever made. Hate to say it, but I think deservingly. A vile, racist, homophobic character finds comfort in a gay (in the prison sense) relationship with a black man. I think this is Mamet and director Stuart Gordon’s idea of a cosmic joke. It’s not funny. The acting is generally terrible — even the great William H. Macy turns in an uneven performance. Avoid.

Redbelt (2008)
Mamet’s role: Director, Screenwriter
Mamet tropes: Close-up magic, knife-based plot points, faithless spouses, nepotistic casting, one-word titles, noble lawyers
John’s Rank: #12

Premise: Jiu-jitsu instructor Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor) finds his life turned upside down after he saves a Hollywood action star (Tim Allen) in a bar fight — students, business partners and even his wife will abandon him as he single-handedly attempts to prevail.

Filmmaker and writer John Ott on the set of independent film The Battle of Bunker Hill.John says: Mamet is a true student of jiu-jitsu and the fights in this film are all authentic to MMA-style moves. Ejiofor is probably one of the best performers of Mamet dialogue, giving a truly charismatic performance. I find the plot to this film a bit baroque, but Mamet does build it to an incredible climax where, contra perhaps every fight movie ever made, the main battle is not in the ring. Also, unexpectedly for a master of dialogue, he plays the denouement wordlessly. The filmmaking here is phenomenal, and I include the work of d.p. Robert Elswitt and the editing by Barbara Tulliver.

The 2010’s

Phil Spector (HBO movie – 2013)
Mamet’s role: Director, Screenwriter
Mamet tropes: Noble lawyers, faithless spouses, nepotistic casting, conflicted Jewish heroes
John’s Rank: #13

Premise: Helen Mirren and Jeffrey Tambor play defense attorneys trying every avenue they can to help legendary record producer Phil Spector (Al Pacino) beat a seemingly impossible murder charge.

Filmmaker and writer John Ott on the set of independent film The Battle of Bunker Hill.John says: Helen Mirren, despite a few dodgy American accent moments, is really fantastic as a lawyer who is won over by Spector and the evidence. While there are many long scenes (as in a play), they are directed with a fluid camera that is new to Mamet. The result is a great legal procedural full of lots of Mametty moments. (Love to hear Spector spout off about how Freud was a con man!) It seems clear that Mamet himself has a reasonable doubt about Spector’s guilt. Is it the sympathy of one artist for another?

Come Back to Sorrento (unmade)
Mamet’s role: Co-Screenwriter with Rebecca Pidgeon (adapting the 1932 novel by Dawn Powell)
Mamet tropes: Unknown
John’s Rank: Unranked, not yet released

Premise: According to Amazon’s capsule of the book: “Connie Benjamin, the village shoemaker’s wife, always wanted an operatic career. Blaine Decker, the new high school music teacher, once spent time abroad studying piano. The two are drawn together into a powerful friendship of dependence, each sustaining the other and translating the surface monotony of their lives into drama richer than reality.”

MORE MAMET ON SCREEN:
A Life in the Theater (TV Movie – 1979)
Mamet’s role: Based on his original play
John’s Rank: Unranked, haven’t seen

Premise: Mamet’s 1977 play about a veteran actor and an up-and-comer has been adapted for television at least twice, and was revived on Broadway in 2010 with Patrick Stewart in the veteran role. Starring Peter Evans and Ellis Rabb, this is has the distinction of being Mamet’s first screen credit.

About Last Night… (1986)
Mamet’s role: Based on his original play Sexual Perversity in Chicago
John’s Rank: Unranked

Premise: Demi Moore and Rob Lowe star as a couple whose one-night-stand turns into a real relationship. They are constantly getting bad advice from their best friends, played by Jim Belushi and Elizabeth Perkins. Mamet’s play had been filtered through several other screenwriters before it landed on screen, but director Ed Zwick did insist that the famous ‘flak jacket’ monologue be inserted back in.

Filmmaker and writer John Ott on the set of independent film The Battle of Bunker Hill.John says: There’s not much here that’s Mamet, and in fact the flak jacket monologue sticks out like a sore thumb as being more mannered and less grounded in reality than the rest of the script. I guess in some circles this movie is considered a romantic comedy classic, and I really enjoyed how frank it was about modern relationships, but it’s not very Mamet.

The Water Engine (TV Movie – 1992)
Mamet’s role: Screenwriter, based on his own play
John’s Rank: Unranked, haven’t seen

Premise: Mamet’s 1977 play about an inventor who creates a disruptive energy technology. The television version features many of Mamet’s stock company: William H. Macy, Joe Mantegna, Patti Lupone, Rebecca Pigeon, Felicity Huffman and Ricky Jay

A Life in the Theater (TV Movie 1993)
Mamet’s role: Screenwriter, based on his original play
John’s Rank: Unranked, haven’t seen

Premise: The second time Mamet’s 1977 backstage play was adapted for television. This time starring Jack Lemmon and Matthew Broderick.

Vanya on 42nd Street (1994)
Mamet’s role: Uses Mamet’s stage translation of Checkov’s Uncle Vanya
John’s Rank: Unranked

Premise: A documentation of director André Gregory’s long-running rehearsals of Chekov’s Uncle Vanya with a group of New York theater actors, including Wallace Shawn, Julianne Moore, Brooke Smith and Larry Pine.

Filmmaker and writer John Ott on the set of independent film The Battle of Bunker Hill.John says: This is a must-see for theater lovers, Chekov fans and aspiring actors. Criterion makes a beautiful Blu-ray edition. That said, I don’t think Mamet’s translation (from a literal translation by Vlada Chernomordik) is particularly good. It’s mostly idiomatic American English, but it still has enough archaisms (“prate” “his excellency” “We’ll have no more of that.”) to make it feel awkwardly converted from the Russian.

“Texan” (TV short – 1994)
Mamet’s role: Screenwriter
John’s Rank: Unranked, haven’t seen

Premise: A short film about a man who suspects his younger wife may be cheating on him. The movie is directed by Broadway star Treat Williams.

The Unit (TV Series 2006-2009)
Mamet’s role: Director (4 episodes), Writer (67 episodes), Producer (66 episodes)
John’s Rank: Unranked, stopped watching during 3rd season

Premise: A show about a secret team of elite military operatives and their wives. This seems to have emerged from Mamet’s research into special forces culture for Spartan, but is officially based on the book Inside Delta Force by Eric L. Haney.

John says: There is one episode, “SERE”, that is among the best things I ever saw on television. I kept watching the show hoping for more of the same, but gradually became disenchanted with it. The show did bring Max Martini into the Mamet universe, which lead to his great tragic turn in Redbelt.

“The Dog” (Short, 2010)
Mamet’s role: Screenwriter
John’s Rank: Unranked

Premise: A man extolls the virtues of his dog in a direct-to-camera monologue. Watch it here. The text can be found in Mamet’s A Collection of Dramatic Sketches and Monologues or Goldberg Street: Short Plays and Monologues.

Filmmaker and writer John Ott on the set of independent film The Battle of Bunker Hill.John says: Apparently this one won a David Mamet video contest. There are many more videos of would-be actors performing this monologue out there on the internet, but I’m willing to trust the judges of the contest that this is the best one.

Funny or Die shorts (2010)
Mamet’s role: Director, Screenwriter
John’s Rank: Unranked

Premise: “Two Painters” “The Marquee” “Inside the Actor’s Workshop” “Our Valley” “Lost Masterpieces of Pornography” are all comedy shorts created for FunnyorDie.com, many of them using Mamet regulars in front of and behind the camera. Watch them all at this link.

Filmmaker and writer John Ott on the set of independent film The Battle of Bunker Hill.John says: “Lost Masterpieces” is the best of a bad bunch. Unless you like extremely esoteric, oblique humor, these ‘tossed off’ shorts will probably not do much for you. Certainly, putting them on a site like Funny or Die makes them suffer from the inevitable comparison. But I’d take any five minutes of Mamet’s comedies — State and Main, Wag the Dog or even Heist for that matter — over any of these goofs.

READ MAMET ON THE MOVIE BIZ:

Mamet’s short book On Directing Film, written after he himself had only directed two films, lays out his principles of screen storytelling, including his ideas on acting with “no inflection.”

In 2007, Mamet published Bambi vs. Godzilla: On the Nature, Purpose and Practice of the Movie Business, where he reflects on his career in the movies up to Spartan. The book takes its name from “Bambi Meets Godzilla”, a crude 1969 cartoon that circulated at underground animation festivals during the 1970’s and 80’s. The cartoon is not long because, needless to say, Bambi does not stand a chance.

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Which are your own favorite Mamet movies? Do you agree or disagree with these rankings? Leave your thoughts in the comments.