Archive for December 12th, 2009

David Mamet

When I talk about David Mamet I am never completely sure of the reaction I will get. Many people find his dialogue had to swallow, others dislike the huge amount of dialogue that drives the plots, some don’t invest enough concentration to appreciate the carefully woven plots and narratives, lots of people have never heard of him! Even of those who haven’t heard of him most people reading this blog will have seen at least some of his work even if they don’t realise it.

As a playwright Mamet received the Pulitzer Prize for Glengarry Glen Ross as well as a Tony Award nomination. He later went on to turn the play into a screenplay that was directed by James Foley in 1992. The film was brilliant, thanks in no small part to the outstanding cast including: Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, Alec Balwin (with a career best performance), Alan Arkin, Ed Harris, Jonathan Pryce and Kevin Spacey. Mamet’s film career actually started long before that. In the late 70’s he adapted Barry Reed’s novel The Verdict into a screenplay the film was made in 1982 and directed by Sidney Lumet. The story of a hard drinking washed up lawyer who finds redemption in the case he is fighting was probably the best performance of Paul Newman’s illustrious career. Mamet received his first Oscar nomination for the screenplay, the film received another four nominations including Newman and Lumet. Mamet’s next screenplay (actually made before The Verdict) was the 1981 version of The Postman Always Rings Twice directed by Bob Rafelson and staring Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange. Rather than remaking the Lana Turner, John Garfield movie from 1946, Mamet went back to James M. Cain’s novel for his adaptation resulting in al film that is probably equal to the original.

1987 was a big year for Mamet, writing the script for his biggest film to date. The Untouchables, directed by Brian De Palma told the well-known story of Eliot Ness and his attempts to bring down Al Capone in prohibition ere America. Ness was played by rising star Kevin Costner and Capone by Robert De Niro. The other reason it was a big year is that Mamet made his directorial debut with The House of Games. The complicated but compelling plot centres around a psychiatrist who in an attempt to help one of her clients gets dragged into the world of gambling, scams and grifters. The main stars of the film where Mamet’s then wife Lindsay Crouse (who also appeared in The Verdict) and Joe Mantegna.

In 1997 Mamet received his second Oscar nomination for his screenplay for the political satire Wag the Dog. The same year Mamet directed The Spanish Prisoner. The film takes its name from an old confidence trick, the basic idea of it is:

The con-man tells his victim he is in the process of raising money to help free a wealthy nobleman who has been imprisoned in Spain under a false identity. The prisoner has great wealth they will share with him on release but can not access the money whilst imprisoned without revealing his identity and jeopardising his safety. The con man lets the victim put some of the money up in return for a huge return in future following the prisoners release. The deal may even be sweetened by offering the opportunity to marry the prisoners beautiful daughter or sister. The final part of the scam comes when complications arise requiring more money in order to secure release, without them the initial investment and the potential reward will be lost. Eventually the victim is cleaned out and realises that there is no rich nobleman or reward, if he has met the daughter/sister she was the con mans accomplice.

Amazingly this trick actually worked around a hundred years ago. If it sounds familiar to you have probably received an email from someone claiming to be in a similar predicament in Nigeria or even Iraq since the invasion. This is just a modern interpretation of the same idea.

As well as the brilliant idea of taking an old confidence trick and turning it into the plot of a modern movie, the film is notable for a couple of other reasons. One of its stars is Rebecca Pidgeon, Mamet’s second wife who now appears in most of his films. The other reason is the film is a rare opportunity for Steve Martin to show off his straight acting talent. The twisty plot has been compared to the works of Hitchcock, it also shares another great Hitchcockian device the “MacGuffin”. The main character Joe Ross has developed “a process” that will make his company millions of dollars. The process is never revealed, nor is what the process is relevant to the plot, but the plot hinges on this process.

His next film saw something of a U-turn for Mamet. An English costume Drama, The Winslow Boy is based on a 1946 play of the same name by Terence Rattigan and was previously made into a film in 1948 directed by Anthony Asquith (son of former Prime Minister H. H. Asquith). Set in the 1900’s, Ronnie, the Winslow boy of the title is expelled from Osborne Naval College accused of stealing a postal order from a fellow cadet. The boy’s family goes to great lengths and personal sacrifice to clear the boy’s name; at one point it is even debated in the House of Commons as to if the case should be granted a trial. A landmark in Mamet’s directing Career as it showed what versatility he has as well as the use of period dialogue without losing his personal style.

Spartan (2004) is one of the most underrated films of recent years. Staring Val Kilmer as a U.S. government agent who joins a team with a secret mission to find a missing Harvard student. The reason for the secrecy, the student Laura Newton played by Kristen Bell is the daughter of the President and they have to find her before the press and public realise she is missing. What starts out looking like it will be an action thriller becomes darker and deeper as you would expect with a David Mamet film. It offers an interesting story, some great characters and all the great dialogue you would expect, this combined with more action than you normally get in a David Mamet film.

David Mamet studied jiu-jitsu for around six years achieving the rank of purple belt before making the martial arts film Redbelt (2008). Don’t be fooled into thinking martial arts means that it is a dumb action film. It came out in the UK around the same time Never Back Down, a film whose plot borrows heavily from The Karate Kid (1984); Redbelt is a far deeper and more rewarding film. Always with any eye for authenticity Mamet cast versatile English actor Chiwetel Ejiofor who reportedly spent twelve hours per day training for three months before filming. There is a small but significant part in the film for Dan Inosanto who was Bruce Lee’s protégé. Mixed martial arts trainer Pat Militech worked as a consultant. There are also acting appearances for Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu ace John Machado, Mixed martial arts fighters Randy Couture and Enson Inoue and former World Champion boxer Ray Mancini. Despite all this talent on show there is actually very little fighting and the film has a carefully weaved plot and fantastic dialogue with a great morality tale.

As well as his film work Mamet has also had several books published the most famous of which is probably 2007’s “Bambi Vs. Godzilla: On the Nature, Purpose, and Practice of the Movie Business”. In 2006 he also moved into television creating the hit CBS show The Unit. He has written, produced and directed episodes of the series that finished its fourth season earlier this year. Mamet’s next film is scheduled to be based on The Diary of Anne Frank and is due for release next year. His latest play Race premiered on Broadway earlier this month.

What I have described above is only a brief look at a few movies, this is a list of all David Mamet’s Directing credits (movies only):

  • House of Games (1987)
  • Things Change (1988)
  • Homicide (1991)
  • Oleanna (1994)
  • The Spanish Prisoner (1997)
  • The Winslow Boy (1999)
  • Catastrophe (2000)
  • State and Main (2000)
  • Heist (2001)
  • Spartan (2004)
  • Redbelt (2008)

And his writing credits (again movies only):

  • The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981) screenplay
  • The Verdict (1982) screenplay
  • About Last Night… (1986) play
  • The Untouchables (1987) written by
  • House of Games (1987) screenplay story
  • Things Change (1988) written by
  • We’re No Angels (1989) written by
  • Homicide (1991) written by
  • Glengarry Glen Ross (1992) play & screenplay
  • Hoffa (1992) written by
  • Vanya on 42nd Street (1994) play translation
  • Texan (1994) (TV) written by
  • Oleanna (1994) (play) screenplay
  • American Buffalo (1996) play & screenplay
  • The Edge (1997) written by
  • The Spanish Prisoner (1997) written by
  • Wag the Dog (1997) screenplay
  • Ronin (1998) screenplay (credited as Richard Weisz)
  • The Winslow Boy (1999) screenplay
  • Lakeboat (2000) play (un-credited) & written by
  • State and Main (2000) written by
  • Hannibal (2001) screenplay
  • Heist (2001) written by
  • Spartan (2004) written by
  • Edmond (2005) play and screenplay
  • Redbelt (2008) written by

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