Spoilers ahead for The Untouchables, The Spanish Prisoner, and House Of Games.
There’s a moment in 1992’s Glengarry Glen Ross when Alec Baldwin, sent from head office on what he calls a “mission of mercy,” opens his motivational speech to an office of real estate salesmen by turning on Jack Lemmon’s Shelley ‘The Machine’ Levene.
“Put that coffee down,” he demands as Lemmon pours himself what he, probably reasonably, considers to be a well-earned cup of Joe.
“Coffee’s for closers only,” Baldwin points out, using the term for someone who can make a successful sale. The person who can close it.
“Your name’s Levene?” he asks a few moments later. “You call yourself a salesman, you son of a bitch?”
The callous disdain of this moment, the language’s bluntness showing Baldwin’s disregard for a once great elderly salesman who has hit a prolonged bad streak, crystalizes the world of the film’s writer, David Mamet. It’s a world stripped of any safety nets, fuelled by testosterone, adrenaline, and caffeine. The men who populate it invariably have a task to perform, one that tests them physically, spiritually or morally. These men are driven forward by necessity and must navigate a course towards their destiny where death, deception and financial ruin are common pitfalls.
When Hollywood came calling in the early 1980s, it was on a playwright who had developed a use of language so recognizable in its sparseness and rhythm that it was incomparable to anything else. Mamet Speak, as it came to be known, is dialogue as dance, a sparse, staccato tango used to communicate, threaten, or inveigle.
Mainstream audiences unfamiliar with his work were given a crash course in the Mamet milieu in 1987’s The Untouchables. The well-known tale of Elliot Ness’ crusade against Al Capone, already guaranteed a stylistic edge by the choice of Brian De Palma as director, had this edge honed to the sharpness of an open blade razor by Mamet’s endlessly quotable script. The gleam in this razor is Robert De Niro’s Capone. A grinning grotesque only ever a heartbeat away from violence, he wraps his tongue gleefully around the words given to him by Mamet.
In one scene, by speaking just a few lines, he creates a mask of benevolence, while simultaneously hinting at what he is truly capable of.
“Somebody messes with me,” he tells a group of reporters, “I’m gonna mess with them. Somebody steals from me. I’m gonna say ‘you stole’, not talk to them for spittin’ on the sidewalk.”
Building to what is arguably the film’s most shocking scene, Mamet’s script creates an atmosphere crackling with tension. With his lieutenants gathered together for a dinner, De Niro circles the table, giving a speech about teamwork, the baseball imagery of which is complemented by the bat he wields.
“A man stands alone at the plate. This is the time for what? For individual achievement. There he stands alone. But in the field, what? Part of a team.”
“Sunny day,” he concludes, settling behind the unfortunate individual who, having earlier failed Capone, is the inspiration for this monologue. “The stands are full of fans. What does he have to say? I’m goin’ out there for myself. But… I get nowhere unless the team wins.”
His lieutenants agree, the bat is swung, connecting with the man’s skull, the moment passing into legend.
Mamet’s scripts are a brilliant, deliberately prepared blueprint, their precision discouraging any deviation, any flashes of improvisation, lest their meaning be lost or diluted. Words are italicised, the emphasis changing the whole meaning of lines, like notes in a song. See again Glengarry Glen Ross, where Dave Moss (Ed Harris) talks to Dave Aaronow (Alan Arkin) about possibly breaking into the office, but does so while being careful to phrase his ideas in a way that will ensure deniability.
Moss: “No. What do you mean? Have I talked to him about this [Pause]”Aaronow: “Yes. I mean are you actually talking about this, or are we just…”Moss: “No, we’re just…”Aaronow: “We’re just ‘talking’ about it.”Moss: “We’re just speaking about it. [Pause] As an idea.”
Ten years separate House Of Games and The Spanish Prisoner, but the films are linked by the great Mamet theme of deception, as their central characters encounter an individual who they are at first dazzled but ultimately duped by.
Lindsay Crouse goes down the rabbit hole in the earlier work, taken in by Joe Mantegna’s Mike who intrigues both her body and mind, revealing to her, like a card lifted briefly from a poker table, the colorful word of the con.
Crouse peels back the layers of this world and finds Mantegna, spitting and writhing, at its rotten core as she confronts him at the story’s climax.
“I used you,” he confesses. “I did. I’m sorry. And you learned things about yourself that you’d rather not know. I’m sorry for that. You say I acted atrociously. Yes, I did. I do it for a living.”
Similarly, the climax of The Spanish Prisoner (1997) sees Campbell Scott’s Joe Ross confront Steve Martin’s Jimmy Dell at the end of the hall of the mirrors Dell has constructed to con him out of the lucrative industrial process he has invented. Again, the conman is remorseless and matter of fact about what he has done.
“I enjoy doing it actually, but thank you for your concern,” he taunts.
A highlight of this movie is the dialogue given to Ricky Jay’s George Lang – every other line from him is a quotable bon mot.
For example, Lang on worrying: “Worry is like interest paid in advance on a debt that never comes due.”
Lang on business trips: “Nobody going on a business trip would have been missed if he never arrived.”
1997 also saw the arrival of The Edge in cinemas. Here was the masculine, harsh world of Mamet taken to a primal extreme as billionaire Charles Morse (Anthony Hopkins) struggled to survive in the wilderness with photographer Robert Green (Alec Baldwin again), a man possibly intent on murdering him.
The film displayed another hallmark of Mamet: the revelling in the arcane details of a particular world. From Glengarry Glen Ross’ leads and closing, to the intricacies of the con in The Spanish Prisoner and House Of Games, he recognizes that, as an audience, we have the urge to see what is going on behind that office window, or in the smoky shadows of that poker room. We want the lid lifted and the secrets laid bare.
In The Edge, knowledge grants that most fundamental of powers: the power to survive. Morse ensures his prolonged survival, not only from the elements but also from Green, by holding all the cards: he can make fire from ice and compasses from paperclips. Green knows therefore that, without him, he will never make it out of the wilderness alive.
While The Edge revels in scenes of survival, and is less reliant on dialogue than any of Mamet’s other works, there are still memorable exchanges, like the one between the two leads after they have fought off a bear:
Morse: “For all my life, I’ve have wanted to do something that was, um, that was unequivocal.”Green: “Well, Charlie, I certainly think this qualifies.”Morse: “Or something.”Green: “See, Charles, that’s why they call it personal growth. A month ago, old Smokey here would’ve reared up, you probably would’ve called your lawyer!”Morse: “Nah, I wouldn’t do that to an animal.”
Mamet’s world, while masculine, is not without its good female characters. However, if involved in the main plot to any great degree at all, these are threatened and deceived by the world of men (Crouse in House Of Games) or are full of threat and deceit themselves (Rebecca Pidgeon in The Spanish Prisoner).
The clash of the male and female worlds was the focus of one of Mamet’s most powerful and divisive works. Adapted from his stage play, 1994’s Oleanna is, in the opinion of its producer, the most feminist of the writer’s works, and stars William H. Macy as a professor named John and Debra Eisenstadt as Carol.
Carol, who is concerned about failing her class, approaches Macy, who is distracted by phone calls about a house he wants to buy and fails to engage with the student. She later returns, seemingly more confident, in appearance and bearing, and accuses the professor of sexual harassment. Mamet steers the plot to this point with all of the skill and precision you would expect, layering his dialogue with nuances that leave ample room for audience perception and debate.
The meaning and subtext of earlier scenes gain interesting new possible meanings when re-examined in light of later developments. For example, when John discusses adjusting Carol’s grade:
John: “What is the class, but you and me?”Carol: “There are rules.”John: “Well…We’ll break them.”Carol: “How can we?”John: “We won’t tell anybody.”Carol: “Is that all right?”John: “I say that it’s fine.”Carol: “Why would you do this for me?”John: “I like you.”
Mamet’s most incandescent creation might just be salesman Ricky Roma, portrayed in Glengarry Glen Ross by Al Pacino. In a rare moment of reflection, speaking to Shelley ‘The Machine’ Levene, he sums up with perfect brevity what is one of the main underlying themes of the world of Mamet, namely the regret that, although some men live by a certain standard, they must co-exist with other men travelling a different path and possessing other values:
“It’s not a world of men, Machine. It’s a world of clock watchers.”
However, the final words on the world of Mamet go to the inestimable George Lang:
“We must never forget that we are human, and as humans we dream, and when we dream we dream of money.”