David Mamet: A Survey of Screenwriting Genius

| August 3, 2012

I’ve spent the last few months trying to educate myself on David Mamet and he’s quickly become one of my favorite writers, which isn’t much of a surprise if you’ve seen any of his films. While I haven’t seen every Mamet movie, mostly because the one’s that I have left are so difficult to get ahold of because they aren’t being printed anymore, I though I’d go ahead and list off the one’s I’ve seen in order from greatest to least, which if you were to graph it would look mostly like a real tall plateau and then a quick drop there at the end.

The Untouchables

It’s hard to put this at number one because it’s so dang obvious. I’d love to put something most people haven’t seen here because then it would emphasize even more that you should check out Mamet’s lesser known films because he has so many of them and most are so great. But the truth is that The Untouchables has got to be his finest work. It’s hard not to say that this is in part due to Brian De Palma, whose final sequence of the film is a classic from inception to finale, but Mamet’s character’s are so well defined that within the opening minutes of the movie you know exactly what’s going on and how characters feel about the criminal atmosphere in Chicago. As amazing as Robert De Niro’s performance is, its the punchy, repetitive dialog Mamet gives him that makes his scenes so memorable. And though you wouldn’t notice it unless you’d just watched as many Mamet films as I have, Eliot Nes is the prototype for the rest of Mamet’s boyscouts. His stance that it doesn’t matter how he feels about prohibition because it is ‘the law of the land’ is the purest form of moralism which, much like when Anthony Hopkin’s compass leads him in circles in The Edge, Nes must learn that his moralism will not win him the day as he expects it to as he barges into a warehouse full of umbrellas shouting, “Lets do some good!” Mamet knows just how to inspire us to greatness with Jim Malone’s speeches about the ‘Chicago way’ and just when to break our hearts. This movie approaches perfection and to put it anywhere else but on top of this list would be to insult a great writer’s greatest masterpiece.

The Spanish Prisoner

“If I told you this story… would you believe it?”

I’d love to know where Mamet himself ranks this film among his works. It’s easy to list this movie among the best con films ever made. The Spanish Prisoner draws on the traditional twisty plot structure of a hitchcock movie, and though some twists are more predictable and some are better executed, in this case the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. This is likely a direct result of Mamet’s exercised attention to detail. Mamet floats so many details around the viewer that he’s able to use them as distraction away from what he’s actually doing without drawing attention to himself because we’ve already grown accustomed to this environment.

But as well formed a con movie as this is, that isn’t what makes it stand out for me. The Spanish Prisoner is a treasure trove of great lines. Phrases that, when taken out of the context of the movie, ring with such truth that they’ll be remembered long after this movie is forgotten and David Mamet is dead. Lines like, “Worry is the interest paid in advance on a debt that never comes due,” are not just snappy dialogue, but transcend to become words to live by.

American Buffalo

Unlike so many of David Mamet’s movies, American Buffalo doesn’t juggle complex plot details, instead it focuses on the relationships between its three characters. It’s a simple story of a shop owner who, feeling he’s been taken advantage of by a recent customer, plays a robbery with his friend and a neighborhood boy he’s taken under his wing. So much struggle and greed grows from a single American buffalo nickel.

The Edge

Man fights bear should be an easy enough sell, but it is everything else about this movie that’s the real gem. Of all David Mamet’s boy scout characters, Anthony Hopkin’s role is easily my favorite, particularly because of the way his skills and knowledge seem to fail him when he puts them into action. But it’s really the scene in the helicopter that makes me love this movie. Rather than draw out the major conflict of the film, Mamet gives Hopkin’s character the awareness and the confidence to speak into being his suspicions about Alec Baldwin early on.

Anthony Hopkins fights a bear but that’s not the climax of the movie, and that makes it great.

Spartan

This movie is a hidden gem. It takes all the tropes of Mamet’s films, the twists, the boyscouts, the government conspiracies, and the snappy dialog and mixes them together in moderation. The idea of the president’s daughter being kidnapped isn’t a new one but Mamet puts it in a fresh context, and rather than relying on Val Kilmer’s character being the only one who can save her because of the skills or strength that he has, he’s the only one who can save her because he’s the only one who believes she’s still alive. This is the thinking man’s version of Taken, so put it high on the list of movies you need to see soon.

Glengarry Glen Ross

I’ll admit that I don’t love this movie as much as most people do. The dialog is all fantastic and the performances—especially those from Alec Baldwin and Jack Lemmon—are career defining moments. The movie turns a real estate office into a battleground and stretches regular men to desperate lengths. It’s so well written that it earned Mamet a Pulitzer. But there’s something about watching these men struggle that keeps Glengarry from earning a place in my heart. While I feel for and even relate to some of the men in that office, I don’t know that I really like any of them. They are put in such grave circumstances that it’s hard to let myself root for any of them because I know that chances are they’ll lose. I like a good depressing movie from time to time but these men aren’t giving everything for a cause I can believe in. It’s a fine film, just not for me.

The Verdict

A drunk lawyer who’s resigned himself to ambulance chasing takes on a case that he’s determined to win. It’s not entirely a story you haven’t heard before but it’s one told especially well. Paul Newman is at the top of his game and while this is an early script from Mamet, it still has the clever twists and the meticulous plotting we expect.

State and Main

David Mamet’s films are always pretty rich with comedy, but State and Main is a rare opportunity to let his dialog stand on its own, uninterrupted by dense plot structures or heavy satire.

Heist

This is likely the tightest of Mamet’s twisty scripts and one of those with the most mainstream appeal. Gene Hackman is as good as ever and as silly as this will sound, the heists in this movie are pretty dang cool.

Hannibal

With the incredible talent behind this movie it’s a shame how much it suffers from the simple fact that Hannibal Lector is more terrifying behind bars than he ever is loose. Silence of the Lambs let us like Lector, but in Hannibal there’s very little emotional story to hold on to when we can no longer root for Lector himself. If it’s on TV I’ll watch Hannibal, but I rarely love it.

Redbelt

I was really surprised by this movie. I didn’t know what to make of it from the trailers and it’s in danger of treading common Rocky/Karate Kid ground, but instead Redbelt is about a combat trainer who struggles to remain one of Mamet’s boyscouts among temptations and treacherous friends. It’s definitely worth checking out.

Wag the Dog

Rewatching Wag the Dog felt more like a piece of history than I expected. It’s so rooted in mid-nineties politics and and a very True Romance version of hollywood that as funny as it remains it seems to suffer in age. The satire is heavy handed at times but it’s still entertaining enough that I’d suggest people check it out, but it doesn’t hold up as well as Dr. Strangelove does, and they’re attempting many of the same things.

Ronin

This movie is a mess. The car chase is spectacular, certainly one of the inspirations for the gritty and claustraphobic chases sequences in the Bourne films, but that’s not what I expect to be the best part of a Mamet film. There are a few of Mamet’s lines that stand out but clearly too many writers and poor direction drowned out whatever vision what intended for this movie. Instead it just meanders until it can get boiled down to good guys shooting at bad guys.

Edmond

This movie starts off interestingly enough with Edmond having something of a breakdown, walking out on his wife and then getting in a series of situations where he tries to have sex with strippers and prostitutes but keeps getting hung up on the cost or the methods through which the money is laundered, but about the time that Julia Stiles’ character is introduced it begins to fall apart. Whatever Mamet is trying to say gets lost in the jumbled thought processes of a man going crazy. By the end, when Edmund’s life is torn completely asunder by his seemingly random actions I’m left unsure of what I’m supposed to get out of the film with no character left to like and no clear statement about what any of it means.

Also, because I can’t help not sharing this and because I’m ashamed that I’ve gone through an entire article about David Mamet movies without saying anything about how awesome Ricky Jay is, here’s Mamet’s short for Funny or Die featuring Kristen Bell, Ed O’Neill and Ricky Jay, The Lost Masterpieces of Pornography.

– James

About the Author:

James grew up in a house where Friday night was Movie night, which meant that he’d watched more movies than anybody else his age before he was even old enough to watch the rated R ones. He’ll watch just about anything, though he tends to avoid the horror movies without a sense of humor. Among his favorite movies are: Alien, Fargo, True Romance, Ed Wood, and Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. He’s a die-hard LOST fan and a Brown Coat.

As a writer, story usually comes first for James. Memorable characters and sharp dialogue are the things that separate the classics from the chaff. That said, he does his best to keep having fun at the movies. He’s seen plenty of critics who would once have accepted summer blockbusters as entertainment become jaded and nit-picky. Sure James loves the art of film and storytelling, but fun comes first, the fun that he had watching Raiders when he was little.

Also, E.T. scares the pants off him.

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