In this extravagently exciting episode, we take a butcher’s at some choice cuts of David Mamet’s work. Find out what we make of House of Games, Glengarry Glen Ross, Oleanna, Heist, Spartan, and Redbelt by tuning in!
House of Games
The first feature Mamet wrote and directed sees him start down a path he’ll only infrequently stray from, as Lindsay Crouse’s psychiatrist Dr. Margaret Ford attempts to straighten out a patient’s gambling debt with Joe Mantegna’s hustler Mike Mancuso only to find herself drawn into his world of con artistry.
Intrigued by the personalities and schemes of Mike and his crew, she soon finds herself romantically attached to Mike and is seemingly accidentally included in part of one of the gang’s hustles, although if you have any familiarity with Mamet’s work you’ll probably already have figured out that there more to this than there would initially seem.
Proving himself to be an iconoclast even from the outset of his career, Mamet attempts a daring gambit for the first ten to fifteen minutes of the film, casting only people who exhibit no acting capability whatsoever. Not all that big of a deal in the case of the good doctor’s patients, but unfortunately this applies to Lindsay Crouse as well. Initially I supposed the stiff formality was just part of the characterisation but to be honest she never really loosens up apart, arguably, from the last scenes, which makes her a difficult character to care about. I’d expect better from an Oscar nominated supporting actress.
By comparison Joe Mantegna is amazing, although only by comparison. It’s a perfectly serviceable turn from an actor I think by and large got much better as he got older, and you can apply much the same thinking to the supporting cast full of typically dependable names like Ricky Jay, William H. Macy, and J. T. Walsh that are all fine, but not much more than that.
There’s a couple of films on here that I’d describe as good scripts with middling direction, naturally this being the prime example. Mamet is of course best known for his approach to dialogue, and on paper it should work for House of Games, but the cast doesn’t make it sing the way others covered in the episode do.
All of which is not to say that House of Games is an unpleasant experience, and in a lot of ways it’s a confident and assured debut feature film that lays a lot of the groundwork for what Mamet goes on to become renowned for. It’s just not completely essential viewing, but, well, I’ve seen less worthy entrants in the Criterion Collection.
Glengarry Glen Ross
“Grace? Grace? Can I get another more-quoted film that people haven’t seen? Grace?”
There’s a big step up in the writing in Glengarry Glen Ross compared to House of Games, and a quantum leap in terms of the quality of the cast, and, my, what a cast! And that’s just as well, as both top-quality performances and a top-quality screenplay are necessary to make the characters at the heart of this film, directed by James Foley from a screenplay by Mamet, based on his own stage play, in any way relatable or sympathetic. If you’re not familiar with Glengarry Glen Ross, you should know that the story is about cold callers. Yes, quite: I’ll give you a second or two to finish muttering imprecations beneath your breath. (I’d have called them lying cold callers, but that would be somewhat tautological.)
This group of reprobates work in an office in New York City (the play was set in Chicago, though I doubt either location is key to the action), where they try, by hook or by crook, to foist the sale of less than prime real estate on unwilling potential buyers, foolish enough to have filled out an unrelated form at some point in the past.
The group consists of Al Pacino’s sharp-talking Ricky Roma (using Scott’s patented “Scarface Performance Metric”, Pacino here rates about 0.1 of a Scarface, or “normal person”); Ed Harris’s all mouth and no trousers Dave Moss; Jack Lemmon’s washed-up Sheldon “The Machine” Levene; and Alan Arkin as Alan Arkin. Rounding things out are Kevin Spacey’s mediocre but malicious office manager, John Williamson; Jonathan Pryce as a brow-beaten and hapless mark; and, in a role specifically written both for the film adaptation and for him, Alec Baldwin as the corporate motivator Blake, sent from downtown by Mitch and Murray to, in simple terms, put the fear up them in order to increase sales.
Blake’s speech to the workforce, along with comically unsubtle brass balls prop, is the motivator for the action (as well as the source of a great many of the quotations that have slipped into popular culture among those who haven’t even seen the film), as he informs them that they’re all fired, but they have a week’s opportunity to regain their jobs, after which the top two salesmen will be retained. Sales leads are then portioned out to the group, with the tantalising prospect of the new “Glengarry” leads for a development in Florida the reward for those who can close a sale.
(I feel I must point out that absolutely none of this has anything to do with hats, which confused a much younger me for a long time, as a Glengarry in these parts is a hat what soldiers wear, and indeed was being worn by myself in the Army Cadets the same year this film was released. I assumed for some time before seeing this that there was a connection. There is not.)
The film’s night time-set first half concludes with the attempts of the salesmen to get sales on the board, and Dave Moss’s discussion with Arkin’s George of the idea of breaking into the office and stealing the Glengarry leads. The second portion begins, in the cold light of day (represented by a cool, unsaturated palette that contrasts with the warm, rich palette of the first half), with a burglary having taken place at the office, and the police in attendance, wishing to question all of the salesmen. Someone has something to hide.
Spending any length of time with these shysters and hucksters ought to be unpleasant and leaving you wanting to give your soul a good shower, but the characters, dialogue and interplay are all captivating and rewarding. Unlike some of the other films we’re covering in this episode, the dialogue isn’t simply there for the sake, or the sound, of the dialogue, with no substance beneath it – though the actors are clearly thoroughly enjoying delivering it, and it is great – but fleshes out character and motivation in a way that makes these people seem real.
That doesn’t work without great acting, though, and Glengarry Glen Ross is full of that, though its Jack Lemmon that takes home the plaudits: Shelly’s smooth, sickly sweet telephone voice is absolutely hateful, as is his “absolute utter lying bastard” sales pitch, yet it’s impossible not to feel sympathy for the past-his-prime salesman, even without the information that he’s desperately trying to find money to pay for his daughter’s medical care, and that’s thanks to Lemmon’s performance. It’s so distinctive it even spawned a recurring character in The Simpsons, ol’ Gil Gunderson: “Oh boy, your whole life you work and you slave and scrimp and you steal just enough to get a sweet, sweet lick of that shiny brass ring. Where’s Gil’s lick, doesn’t Old Gil get a lick?”
Less successful is James Foley’s direction, as it’s really hard to see much evidence of it. Glengarry Glen Ross is hardly alone in this selection of films in feeling stagey, but despite weather and establishing shots of New York City, the action feels apart from the world, small and self-contained, and leaves the feeling of this being a recorded play, rather than cinema.
Right off the bat I want to warn you of one thing: if you don’t like dialogue heavy movies Oleanna will not be your jam. Dialogue is almost always going to be the focus of a David Mamet movie, and even if that dissuades you I would still encourage you to seek out something like Glengarry for the enjoyment of seeing an ensemble of great actors operating at the peak of their craft and the pleasure that can provide. Oleanna, though, is different. Very different. And not because it doesn’t contain excellent performances (it does). Oleanna is different because it is a wall of dialogue, a wall of Mamet dialogue, a wall of arch Mamet dialogue, an insurmountable wall of arch Mamet dialogue that is built around you, the viewer, trapping you in a confined space alongside uncomfortable subject matter that seems purposefully tooled to start a fight in the proverbial empty room.
William H Macy is college professor John, Debra Eisenstadt his student Carol. The movie opens with Carol approaching John regarding her struggle to keep up with his course. There follows a prolonged conversation during which John disassembles the perceived artifice of the institution of higher education, calling into question it’s ultimate worth and deriding it as “a test of one’s ability to retain and spout back worthless misinformation,” as well as “an article of faith.” In what may now be considered one of life’s greatest and most satisfying ironies, John lambasts the perception of higher education among the middle classes as “a fashionable necessity…espoused as a matter of right,” a frankly unassailable argument starkly evidenced not least of all because these are words coming out of William H. Macy’s mouth. But I digress. I really, satisfyingly, wallowing-in-schadenfreude-ly digress.
The conversation in question leverages Mamet’s predisposition for interpretative dialogue to the Nth degree, purposefully doubling down on ambiguities both in words and their delivery, particularly on John’s part, and if it is baffling take comfort in knowing that it is by design. What John perceives, or perhaps more accurately sells as an attempt to remove “the artificial stricture of teacher and student” culminates in him guaranteeing Carol an A if she spends more time chatting with him in his office, circumventing the norms of an oppressive system of learning and engaging on a more personal level. Do you see where this is going? That’s interesting, because the whole point of Oleanna, as far as I can fathom it, lies in the interpretation, and what seems increasingly obvious now as I explain the basic outline of the conversation is not necessarily so obvious as we watch that dialogue play out on screen. Isn’t John just naively misguided in his innocent intention to help a student by engaging with them professionally, albeit out-with the aforementioned strictures? Or does he deserve the accusation of sexual harassment Carol subsequently levies against him?
Removing ourselves from the thematic for a moment, it is worth noting that Oleanna is, within the boundaries it sets itself, something of a Swiss watch. Not a cuckoo clock, mind you (we’ll perhaps talk about those later). Macy and Eisenstadt’s back and forth, all mid-breath interruptions, truncated clauses and scattershot “but”s is at times like an olympic level table tennis match in it’s timing, accuracy and speed, and I despair to think of the rehearsal required to operate at this level. I’d say Macy’s performance is at a level beyond, however it’s often hard to tell with Mamet, given that his precision of prose is often only matched by the affectation of it’s delivery, often rendering debate as to “who was best” effectively redundant, and at the very least Eisenstadt can be said to be holding her own.
Ultimately though the star of any Mamet work is Mamet, and here one gets the impression of an artist coming dangerously close to disappearing up his own arse. That Oleanna may ultimately be “enjoyed” in a dissociative, technical sense is evident, but it certainly need not necessarily be considered “enjoyable” in the traditional. I’d argue there’s a great deal of craft on display, raging from very good to exceptional, but I might reasonably ask to what end we are employing that craft in a movie which has the stated aim (check the tag line in the promotional material) of making everybody wrong. Very clever, David. I’d say “go to the top of the class,” but we’ve already established that the class is a lie.
I want to like Oleanna, I really do, and I think there is a great deal of value to be had in the conversation around those topics it presents; I’m just not sure that I want it to be a movie. Or, perhaps more accurately, I don’t want it to be this movie. But the fact of one not liking something does not preclude the state of one respecting it, and I guess that’s probably where I sit.
Gene Hackman’s Joe Moore is coming to the end of his life of crime, and not just because an unexpected wrinkle in a jewellery store robbery means he’s finally been caught on camera. Before he can sail off into the sunset with his co-conspirator wife, Rebecca Pidgeon’s Fran, his fence, Danny DeVito’s Mickey Bergman is rather insistent that Joe and the gang pull off one last job that he’s already been setting up.
And so Joe, Fran, Delroy Lindo’s Bobby Blane and Ricky Jay’s Don ‘Pinky’ Pinkus start readying themselves to pull off an audacious gold heist from a transport plane, accompanied to their distaste by Mickey’s nephew, Sam Rockwell’s Jimmy Silk, whose inexperience and differing agendas soon complicates things.
And indeed, complicating things is very much the theme of the piece, as plans go astray, as do the backup plans, and the backup backup plans, either through bad luck or nefarious design on the parts of the various players involved in this web of deceit.
There is a school of though, it seems, that because Heist is not advancing a flashy or pyrotechnical agenda it’s not advancing the state of the art of crime capers. That’s as maybe, but what it certainly does advance is a damned entertaining film with the sort of multilayered con job plot that by this point Mamet’s honed to an art-form.
Gene Hackman is, of course, excellent, and it’s his wily performance as a man who’s always a couple of steps ahead of everyone else anchors the film, alongside solid support from Delroy Lindo. Curiously I found myself somewhat disappointed with Sam Rockwell’s turn, and I don’t think Devito quite gets his teeth properly in to his performance.
Those are minor niggles though, and overall it’s a hyper-competent and very enjoyable watch. Perhaps it doesn’t quite blow the doors off, but it certainly shouldn’t be driven into the sea.
She’s missing. Where is the girl? Yes. I’m glad you’re here. I heard the TV and I came inside. I came inside and you weren’t here. Why would you do that? Why would you leave the TV on? Where is the girl? You’ve had your whole life to prepare for this moment. Why aren’t you ready? Where is the girl?
I freaking love Spartan. I love it because it is Tom Clancy with Mamet dialogue and that’s all I really ask for in this life. I get to hear military speak with every possible extraneous syllable cast out. I get to see arms dispassionately broken in the pursuit of intel. I get to see people being shot in the head without knowing whether it’s because of plot machinations or simply out of confusion arising from the fact that nobody can possibly understand a word that’s coming out of Val Kilmer’s mouth. Val Kilmer who is, by the way, really great as a former Force Recon Master Gunnery Sergeant, whatever the fuck one of those is. I think it’s a soldier who gets to walk around talking like they’re on methamphetamine, but looking like they’re on PCP. Doesn’t matter. His name is Bobby Scott. It’s great. Where is the girl?
Ostensibly involved in recruit selection, Smash Sneak Gunhand Officer Scott is somewhat sidetracked by the kidnapping of a young college student who everybody in this film refuses to refer to as the President’s daughter. Due to some recent creative choices in hairstyling on this young lady’s part it becomes apparent that her kidnappers, part of a sex trafficking operation, do not realise who they have taken. The problem is that when they do, there is but one likely outcome. Only this will not be a problem, as Scott has a knife, a gun, a particular set of skills and a very definite affectation in his loose interpretation of conversation, courtesy of David Mamet; an affectation that means he gets to say things like “you have to set your motherfucker to receive” instead of “listen.” I love it. Where is the girl?
By this point we’d been through Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford and Ben Affleck as incarnations of Jack Ryan, and the whole “military intrigue and skullduggery” genre looked like it was going to have to give way for Jason Bourne, so I’d have been sad to see it go entirely. What I wasn’t expecting was for the King of Con to turn his hand to it, but clearly I’m glad he did. I find Spartan to be a really interesting movie for a number of reasons, not least in it’s attempt to marry high art with a more overtly steroid-fuelled masculine genre that can quite often be the stomping ground of low budget macho dreck. Not that Spartan doesn’t have those moments: Scott’s enquiry into a young female cadet’s teaching of edged weapons leads to a rare line that could just easily come from the mouth of Steven Seagal as it does the pen of Mamet.
The plotting isn’t perhaps as solid as they come, with a couple of sharks lining up in the hopes of being jumped, but Spartan never quite throws logic completely out of the pram, even if it does skirt pretty close. That “scarecrow on a pitchfork” thing? Mah, don’t worry about it. What’s important is that Spartan is unique, it is weird, and it was out there doing it’s thing at a time when I needed some comfort food in my life. I’m not going to make some foolhardy attempt at arguing this is the best movie we’ve spoken about tonight, but it is my favourite.
She’s in Dubai, by the way.
2008’s Redbelt, again directed by Mamet, brings our total of likeable, good (morally, that is) characters for the podcast up to one, in this case Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Mike Terry, the master of a Brazilian Jiu-jitsu school in Los Angeles.
A former soldier, with a never more than hinted at experience of dark or questionable things done while serving, he now spends his time trying to help and teach people to better themselves through the instruction of martial arts, far more concerned with honour and integrity than mundane matters like making enough money to pay the rent, a point of contention for his Brazilian wife, Sondra (Alice Braga).
The calamitous arrival into his dojo one night of a distressed woman, Laura (Emily Mortimer), sets in motion a chain of events that will see Mike’s belief in his warrior’s code, and his desire not to fight competitively, sorely tested, as a tale of stolen goods, stolen ideas, suicide, dodgy boxing promoters (though I’m pretty sure this is another tautology) and difficult in-laws harshes the shit out of his beatific mellow.
There are two inciting events, in fact, that will end up connecting, with the other being Mike saving Tim Allen’s drunken action hero (he’s reasonable in the role to be fair to him, but Tim Allen as an ageing action movie star is a tough sell) from a bar fight, something that will send him into the orbit of Joe Mantegna’s shifty movie producer, with everything coming to a head during the “I Can’t Believe It’s Not UFC” contest between Mike’s brother in law, Ricardo Silva, and Japanese challenger, Taketa Morisaki (real-life martial artists John Machado and Enson Inoue).
David Mamet cannot write, or certainly cannot direct, a satisfying or surprising twist (a problem, then, when so much of his cinematic output seems stuffed to the gunwales with twists), and such is the case here, particularly when we are, presumably, supposed to be blindsided by the revelation that the old Asian man behind the mask, who is clearly a young Asian man walking very stupidly, is in fact the young Asian man we met earlier in the film, portraying his trick of “transforming” a small black object into a small white object.
He can undermine expectations, though, as the film spends a lot of time with the undercard of the Silva vs Morisaki fight looming in the background, like Chekhov’s “Pay Off Your Debts Quickly Plan”, and when it seems that it’s actually going to happen I was deeply disappointed, as it seemed to be unfitting to Mike’s beliefs and philosophy, enforced by circumstance as it may have been, and it would have been far more interesting for this fight film to not actually have a fight. The manner in which a physical contest does provide the film’s climax, then, is much more satisfactory than I feared it would be, even if, despite the upbeat if credulity-busting ending, there’s no way once the cameras stop rolling that Mike’s not going to prison for many, many years.
As Mike, Chiwetel Ejiofor is the film’s main draw and saving grace, the serene, noble, honour-bound, if perhaps self-delusional, warrior feeling believable and engaging in his hands, and not as preachy as it could otherwise have been (it’s something Ejiofor has done multiple times, in fact, if in somewhat different takes, in the likes of Serenity and Doctor Strange), and simply as a character it’s also refreshing to find a decent person in one of these films.
In the end, though, Redbelt is another film in this selection that rises at best to “fine”. I enjoyed my time with it, but like David Mamet himself, it’s made little impact on me, and I’m quite confident I’ll never return to it, or any of these films bar one, again.
Thanks to everyone who has got in touch with us on this, or said kind words about the show – it’s all very much appreciated.
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