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Five awesome movies by David Mamet

June 25, 2011

In response to David Mamet’s conservative coming out recently, encapsulated in his book The Secret Knowledge: On the Dismantling of American Culture, my list today will be five of his movies that I think are the best.

What makes a Mamet penned movie so good?  It has to do with his method of character revelation.  His characters are all extremely complex creatures often containing quite a few hypocrisies broiling around in their past, but Mamet never does anything so overt has to have a character actually just tell you his past (like less quality writers often do to their ever-loving shame).  Remember in film-making, “if you can show it, don’t say it.”

So as an example, lets look to one of the movies on the list, Glengarry Glen Ross.  I wrote about this last night (can you tell I am happy to find out my favorite screenwriter is a conservative?).  In one scene of this movie, we learn almost all we need to about who Ricky Roma (played by Al Pacino) is.  Its early in the movie, and he is coming into a Chinese restaurant from out of the dark rainy night.  He begins a little small-talk with some of the other salespeople who use this place as a headquarters, and out of the blue, Johnathan Pryce’s character injects himself into the conversation, friendly mind you, just showing interest in the topic.  The look on Ricky’s face tells it all – the machinations, the inner-workings of a finely tuned salesman’s mind are revealed so brazenly on his face its hard not to see – unfortunately for Pryce, he definitely doesn’t see it.

What ensues is about 20 minutes of the most incredible soft-selling I have ever seen.  Soft-selling is selling without the customer knowing you are doing it, it’s very roundabout but extremely effective, if you can do it well.  Ricky is a master.  He talks about sex, life, expectations, marital relationships and other such things with Pryce.  You get the feeling Pryce is a little confused about the nature of some of the topics, but he is interested that this stranger is so curious as to ask questions about his life.  He is getting hooked as to the juggernaut personality of Ricky Roma.

Once the hook is set, Ricky breaks out a brochure for Florida real-estate, and Pryce’s character is done.  That is what masterful character revelation is all about, SHOWING us Roma is a master of selling, not TELLING us he is.  And Mamet integrates that revelation into a major part of the story, it moves the plot along.  It’s not a 20 minute vignette that serves no purpose in the grander scheme of things, it is an integral part of the film.

Enough of my plebeian attempts at film criticism, on to the movies.

5.  The Untouchables – If you haven’t seen this, you truly deserve a kick in the cajones.  This movie is the premiere modern “gangster” film.  Starring Kevin Costner as Elliot Ness, Sean Connery as Jimmy Malone and Robert de Niro as Al Capone, this movie is all about the fall of Al Capone during the years of prohibition.  We are treated to a visual masterpiece (thanks to director Brian de Palma) that ends in a movie history icon, the slow-mo shootout at the train station.  Don’t really need to talk this movie up too much, it is an acclaimed masterpiece.

4.  The Verdict – I can’t pass up a Paul Newman movie, he was such an amazing actor.  In The Verdict, Newman stars as the lawyer Frank Galvin who has fallen into a bad state.  He is a drunk, hasn’t had a case in years, and is stuck literally ambulance-chasing trying to get a client so he can pay his bills.  Suddenly, out of the blue, a malpractice suit falls in his lap, and it’s against the Catholic Church byway of one of their hospitals – lots of money to be had.  Everything is telling Galvin to settle, take the money and run, but the concepts of justice and morality rear their ugly heads and Frank begins to have designs on taking the suit to court.  The end you will have to see for yourself, but see it you should.

3.  Wag the Dog – This comedy stars Dustin Hoffman as Stanley Motts a television producer, and Robert de Niro as Conrad Brean a political spin doctor, who are tasked with manufacturing a fake, made-for-tv only war (in the Whitehouse basement no less) to cover-up the pedophilic tendencies of the Commander-in-Chief (he fondled a girl-scout).  This is one of those movies that truly make you think about our aristocrats and what they actually get away with.  The most interesting parts are to be had in the dialogue, where we see the worldview of people who would deign to propagate such a myth on the people of America, for example:

Stanley Motss: The President will be a hero. He brought peace.
Conrad ‘Connie’ Brean: But there was never a war.
Stanley Motss: All the greater accomplishment.


Conrad ‘Connie’ Brean: What’s the thing people remember about the Gulf War? A bomb falling down a chimney. Let me tell you something: I was in the building where we filmed that with a 10-inch model made out of Legos.
Stanley Motss: Is that true?
Conrad ‘Connie’ Brean: Who the hell’s to say?

This is a very quotable movie (I could have put down another 20 and still had tons to go).  It will give you a rather pessimistic view of politics (as if we don’t have one already) so take that into account before watching.

2.  Redbelt – If you didn’t know, David Mamet is a director as well, and Redbelt is one of his finest efforts.  This film stars Chiwetel Ejiofor (amazing actor, I loved him in Serenity) as Mike Terry, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu instructor who slowly gets embroiled in a plot to make him do the one thing most abhorrent to him, fighting for money.  This might sound like a familiar plot, tons of movies are out there about the young teenager who can fight okay, but after getting smoked by the better, bigger bully, finds a mentor and then learns the true principles of martial arts only to be sucked into a fight “to win it all” at the end of the movie.  Redbelt is nothing like that drivel.  This film is about how a man’s principles can be challenged by everyone he knows, even his wife, to the point where the only thing he can choose to do is violently fight against them.  Amazing acting, great cinematography, and most importantly, a compelling thought-provoking story; Redbelt is a movie you should see.

1.  Glengarry Glen Ross – If you haven’t noticed by now, I think this is a really good movie.  For a plot synopsis, you should see my post Everything I know about the free-market, I learned from David Mamet, which details what the movie is about.  Just trust me, it is an amazing piece of work.  The writing is incredible and the acting is second to none.  It’s a perverse irony to get so much pleasure out of watching such despicable characters on the screen, but its the truth.  You wouldn’t want to meet any of these guys alone in a dark alley (especially Ricky Roma), but its like a train-wreck, you can’t turn your eyes away.  If you watch any movie on this list, this should be the one.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. June 25, 2011 7:40 pm

    The only one I have seen is “The Untouchables” one of my favorites, I will have to check out the others on your list.

    • June 25, 2011 11:28 pm

      Yeah, Untouchables is a classic. The other one’s are just as good.

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