David 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)…
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.
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.
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.
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).
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?
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.