Mamet, David: Director Profile

The Con Artist–David Mamet

David Mamet's spare, gritty work is inspired by the rhythms of British playwright Harold Pinter and the harsh urban realities of his native Chicago. Like Pinter, he pares down his one-upmanship tales in the name of precision and austerity. Mamet's obscenely poetic plays, such as American Buffalo and Glengarry Glen Ross, reveal him to be a master of intensely muscular wordplay. His work shows fascination with conmen, probably the only artists he respects, because they are smarter than anyone else. His heroes are petty criminals with a bizarre penchant for feverish yet eloquent outbursts of temper and words. Mamet expresses a paranoid view of reality and deep despair about human nature.

Mamet's Unique Sensibility

Set in a cluttered junk shop, American Buffalo (the 1977 play that put Mamet on the map and was made into a 1996 movie by Michael Corrente) is a character study of three small-time crooks planning to burglarize a collector who has purchased a valuable American Buffalo coin. Through gutter dialogue of profanity, the men reveal their idiosyncracies, inadequacies, and failures. In the end, unable to agree upon a plan, the inept thieves call the thing off. The play is an attack on the American business ethos, with the hoodlums standing-in for the corporate class based on Mamet's belief that there's no difference between the lumpenproletraiat and stockbrokers or corporate lawyers. For Mamet, the essence of American business is ethical betrayals and compromises.

Mamet's first scripts were for the noir remake, The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981), adapted from James Cain's novel, and for Sidney Lumet's court drama, The Verdict (1982). Arguably, his most exciting screenplays, Wag the Dog (with Hilary Hinkin, directed by Barry Levinson) and Glengarry Glen Ross, have succeeded because other directors have staged them.

Mamet made his directorial debut in House of Games (1987), a slick study of deceit, followed by Things Change (1988), Homicide (1991), Oleanna (1994), and The Spanish Prisoner (1998), his most accomplished and commercial film. The specific locale of his movies may vary, though they always center on themes of loyalty and always exhibit a noir sensibility.

With an eavesdropper ear for everyday speech that can turn mundane conversations into poetry, Mamet relies on verbal acrobatics at the expense of plot. “If it's solely serving the interest of plot, I'm not interested,” he said, “as a consequence, I go overboard the other way.” Mamet has traced his acute awareness of language and rhythm to his father, an amateur semanticist. His flair for exact expression, compelling silences, and terse dialogue underscores how little is really communicated when people exchange half-digested scraps of information.

Mamet's problems as a filmmaker stem from the nature of his writing rather than directing–his films are more evasive than his plays. Still a product of the theater, Mamet is not attuned to the possibilities of the camera–every apsect in his films is dominated by language. His arch speeches are more effective on stage than on screen, where close-ups, inter-cutting and editing break up verbal rhythms whose emotional impact largely depends on continuity.

Mamet's minimalism, like that of Jarmusch, suggests snobbish knowingness and disdain for giving viewers conventional stories and fully-developed characters. His hermetic narratives take the form of elaborate, elegant puzzles that are never made entirely clear. Like his characters, Mamet operates as a con artist, afraid that once cynicism is stripped away, the audience will be able to detect the implausibility of his plots.

Glengarry Glen Ross represents Mamet's vision of a uniquely American hell. In portraying the real estate world as cruel yet funny, Mamet critiques as well as celebrates the aggressive American business ethos, its desperation, lies, and gimmickry. Like a magician, Mamet tricks his audience into at once deploring and enjoying the greed and venality of his con men. His method is to pile on improbabilities in a matter-of-fact style, with minimum narrative and emotionalism. The strategy is to seduce the audience, bring it into hip complicity with his games.

House of Games

Both fascinating and inept, House of Games is a conceptual movie about poker skills and con artists. In this deadpan, deviously comic melodrama, the players don't withdraw. The script, which proceeds with twists and reversals, builds like a poker game in which the stakes get higher and higher. Mamet is obsessed with insidiously addictive game, in which the pot accumulates, tensions mount and tempers shorten.

Psychoanalyst Margaret Ford (Lindsay Crouse) has just written a new best-seller, Driven, based on studies of obsessive behavior. “You need joy,” says a colleague to the needy Margaret, as if she were prescribing medication. Through her compulsive gambler-patient, who's suicidal, Margaret decides to investigate the world of crooked gamblers and swindlers–possibly for a new book. She does that with Mike (Joe Mantegna), a smooth-talker whose cool and anger she finds charming–he is an invaluable source of information, a perceptive reader of character.
House of Games is devoid of joy on the part of the actors. Pauline Kael noted that through his cool distance, Mamet gives the audience the blueprint rather than the plot or feelings that go with it. A control freak, Mamet dominates the actors–the flat performances are a stylistic statement. By turns comic, scary and bizarre, the dialogue is spoken in an intensely monotonous, self-conscious manner, and the harsh lighting emphasizes the deliberately artificial, theatrical nature. Though shot on location, in Seattle, there are no identifiable places–the physicality of the place is almost irrelevant to its characters.


In Homicide, Mamet's simplistic morality play, Bobby Gold (Joe Mantegna), an exemplary Jewish detective, defines himself in terms of his work–a tough cop. When Bobby stumbles onto a shooting of an elderly shopkeeper in the Jewish ghetto, his boss assigns him to investigate it. Removed off an important case to handle a minor one, he's offended. “I'm 'his people” Bobby tells his boss, “I thought I was your people.” Clearly, Bobby's reference group is his overwhelmingly gentile fellow cops; his partner is Irish.

The victim's relatives pull strings at City Hall to keep Bobby on the case, hoping that a Jew will take it more seriously. Utterly assimilated, Bobby resents their efforts to define him by race. At first, Bobby thinks they are hysterical, lacking any ground for the suspicion the crime was motivated by racial hatred, but then he comes across evidence that validates their claim. Gradually, Bobby's resentment yields to curiosity about his Jewish roots, and in due course, his value system shifts, leading him to betray everything he has believed in, including loss of professionalism and a conversion that's psychologically unconvincing.
Mamet teaches a truism of urban survival, showing, as John Sayles did in City of Hope and John Guare in Six Degrees of Separation (directed as a movie by Fred Schepisi in 1993), how in the big city, everyone is related to everyone else and yet everyone is alone. Mamet's examination of Bobby's tormented identity is sincere, but he turns earnest, making Bobby and the other Jewish characters self-righteous. Sloppy, contrived plotting and a pat resolution might explain why the film failed commercially.

The Spanish Prisoner

In The Spanish Prisoner, a seductive movie that revisits the turf of House of Games and Homicide, Mamet creates another controlled situation, though the movie is closer to psychological realism than either the schematic House of Games or preachy Homicide. “Who in this world is what they seem,” secretary Susan Ricci (Rebecca Pidgeon) says. “You never know who anybody is.” True, the characters change identities often, reinforcing a smooth buildup of paranoia, the feeling that nothing is what it appears to be and no one can be trusted.

The protagonist, Joe Ross (Campbell Scott), is a brilliant, self-made scientist-inventor who places high value on integrity and respect. Though uneasy among the rich and famous, he is eager to join their raks. Mamet never reveals Joe's invention–it's called “the process,” an item it will earn billions for his parent company. Asked by his boss, Klein (Ben Gazzara), to make a presentation to the investors at a Caribbean island resort, he feels that his invention is exploited without proper compensation. A mysterious businessman, Jimmy Dell (Steve Martin), shows up at the resort and addresses Joe in a way that tests his values, and upon returning to New York, they strike up a friendship.

In theme, The Spanish Prisoner borrows from Mamet's radio drama, The Water Engine, a Depression-era fable about a naive inventor who designs an automobile water engine, only to have it stolen away from him by corrupt industrialists. As expected, Mamet builds an intricately shaky elegant puzzle. The movie, whose title derives from the name of “the oldest confidence game on the books,” is set in a pre-determined world, full of fatalism and coincidences, in which each participant is suspect. Over the years, Mamet's technical skills have improved: Spanish Prisoner is his most entertaining charade. He keeps the settings simple, breeding mistrust in every encounter. It's Jimmy's smooth, cool manner that reflects Mamet's notion of how the world works. As Joe gets more isolated, he sinks deeper and deeper into fear.

In Mamet's previous movies, the actors were misguided: In House of Games, Mamet cast first wife Lindsay Crouse in a dislikable role, and in Spanish Prisoner, he similarly cast his current wife, Rebecca Pidgeon, as a duplicious secretary who claims to be Joe's friend. Mamet demands that actors recite their dialogue with distancing emotional rhythms, which makes it sound stif. If The Spanish Prisoner is more involving than Mamet's other puzzles, it's because the central actors (Scott and Martin) play their roles straight.

If you want to know more about this issue, please read my book Cinema of Outsiders: The Rise of American Independent Film(NYU Press, paperback 2001).

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