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Tag: david mamet

Ranking the films of David Mamet: An Annotated Filmography

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.

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How is acting like homeopathic medicine?

In all ways, according to writer/director David Mamet.

On a 2007 commentary track for his 1987 film House of Games (Criterion edition), Mamet explains his minimalist philosophy of acting:

Acting is like homeopathic medicine. ‘In what way?’ you may ask.’ And I would answer, ‘In all ways.’ Next question.

No, I’m kidding. The whole idea of homeopathic medicine is that, the smaller the dose, the more effective it is. So what you don’t want actors to do is to narrate what they think the quote character is doing, what they think the quote character is feeling, how they think the story is unfolding.

What you want actors to do is to do is to be as simple as possible […] in achieving the small tasks, scene by scene, that the author has indicated. And, um, it’s not that less is more. Because that means more is better. But less is better.

Mamet, who began as an actor himself, was trained in the Meisner technique, which seeks to have actors manifest emotions simply by reacting ‘in the moment’. I guess acting theorists would categorize this as an “inside out” form of acting, just like The Method, which is another American derivative from Russian theater director Constantin Stanislavski’s principles. Classical acting training is “outside in” — embodied by Shakespeareans like Laurence Olivier, who once, when Dustin Hoffman told him he had stayed up all night before a scene because his character was supposed to be tired, condescendingly replied, “Try acting, dear boy.”

As the commentary for this story of confidence games inside of confidence games continues, Mamet applies his “less is better” method beyond acting to storytelling in general: Continue reading

What is David Mamet’s practical advice on movie wardrobes?

Writer/director David Mamet and actor Lindsay Crouse circa the shooting of House of GamesGet doubles of everything.

In a commentary track on the Criterion DVD of House of Games, the twisty con-man story that was David Mamet’s directorial debut, Mamet tells a great little story. It seems he learned a lesson about movie costumes the hard way. Over a scene where lead character, played by Lindsay Crouse in a killer pantsuit, walks down a dark alley at night, Mamet opines…

Now this is my first movie, and I put her in this wonderful […] jacket. Vintage. It’s a spectacular jacket and it fits her perfectly. She looks gorgeous. Vintage jacket.

Frame grab of the scene where Mamet says blood got on the jacketThe only problem is that later she gets blood on it. And because I was a first-time director, I didn’t realize, what do you do when you have to go back and do take two? A vintage jacket that cannot be cleaned and can’t be replaced and can’t be altered.

So we were screwed, and we had to go long way around the block in getting the blood off of the jacket. So, the point is: get doubles of everything.

By “go long way around the block” I presume that means he had to stop shooting of the blood-stained scene and wait for dry cleaning. Or maybe he just had to frame or light every shot for the rest of the shoot to hide that jacket was besmirched? Y’know, waist up, like they do sometimes when actresses are preggers but it would be out of continuity for the film.

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Who are David Mamet’s favorite filmmakers?

On the Criterion edition of Homicide (1991), there is a commentary track with writer/director David Mamet and actor William H. Macy. Among many topics in this conversation, recorded in 2009, they discuss some of the filmmakers who have influenced Mamet:

Mamet: I’ve always loved film noir. I always thought The Killing by Stanley Kubrick was one of the greatest films. So I love Kubrick’s films and, um, Powell & Pressburger, the Brits. And Kurosawa, Ozu and Jean Renoir. John Ford, I always loved John Ford.

Macy: I love John Ford movies.

Mamet: Spectacular. William Wellman and Preston Sturges. I mean there–

Macy: Sidney Lumet, you mention him a lot.

Mamet: Sidney, I love Sidney. I made a movie with Sidney, The Verdict. You start going through the films that Sidney did, one after the other — Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico and The Prince of the City, and The Anderson Tapes and The Hill. Twelve Angry Men. Just one after another.

Earlier in the commentary Mamet revealed that he had wanted Lumet to play a role in Homicide of an old Yiddish freedom fighter. (Schedules didn’t work out.)

Both Mamet and Lumet have written books on directing. Continue reading

What did Barry Levinson say is the worst thing a filmmaker could do?

Celebrate a laugh.

On the commentary track to the political satire Wag the Dog, director Barry Levinson talks about his approach to telling the story:

I always thought it needed to be very driven, that the dialogue would be the action in the sense that you had to move it, in a way. It had to be in motion all the time. You didn’t want to just sit there and take a kind of slow kind of rhythm to it, so that it was constantly muscular and always in forward gear in a sense.

It’s moving all the time so they’re talking very very quickly. And my feeling is that you’ll get the laughs that you get, and if you miss some, you miss some. And if you’re in a theater and you lost a few of the laughs, you’ll come back again. But there’s nothing worse than celebrating a laugh.

Better that we enjoy it in its context rather than celebrating any given laugh along the way. So the piece waits for no one.

Wag the Dog fits into a grand tradition of dark comedies at the intersection of media and politics like A Face in the Crowd and Network. The script, by David Mamet and Hilary Henkin, based on the novel American Hero by Larry Beinhart, is equally prescient. Shortly after the movie — Continue reading

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