Long before becoming a deranged FOX News personality, David Mamet was arguably one of the most unique voices of the American stage. His plays defined a certain kind of dog-eat-dog mentality that permeated the rising capitalism of the late 1970s and early 80s, with hits like American Buffalo, Glengarry Glen Ross, Speed-the-Plow as well as the shifting gender politics of that era with Oleanna and Sexual Perversity in Chicago. Although his movies did not make as much noise as his theatre work, Mamet’s cinematic world is a unique one, too. In a way, it is a world that no longer appeals to viewers, as it is in strict Mamet fashion a world of rules, codes and men willing to do anything in the name of whatever it is that they consider sacred.
As a screenwriter, Mamet was able to bring aspects of his credo – that the most important thing in a story is for a character to want something at all costs – to movies like The Verdict (where down-on-his-luck Paul Newman is taking the most unlikely case to trial against all odds) or The Untouchables (where Kevin Costner is going up against the most powerful man in the country, Al Capone).
But, when it comes to directing, Mamet applies certain twists that other directors who worked with his material like De Palma or Lumet did not do, which is to strip the film of anything that makes it remotely cinematic and focus on characters first and foremost. His movie Heist from 2001 underlines this tendency to stick to the page rather than the medium itself. It is a crime film without any special effects, a movie about thieves who don’t even seem to enjoy the work they do, but they do it anyway. It’s a film that feels molded in a by-gone era, where an aging Gene Hackman is the leading man and Danny DeVito can still get away playing an intimidating bad guy.
Heist tells the story of a crew of jewelry thieves (played by Hackman, Delroy Lindo, and Mamet regulars Rebecca Pidgeon and Ricky Jay) who are forced to do one last job for a local crime boss (Danny DeVito).
Hackman (in one his last major roles before stepping away from acting three years later) is Joe Moore: a consummate professional who wants to retire, but can’t. He dreams of sailing his boat and spending the rest of his life somewhere nice and quiet with his younger partner Fran (Rebecca Pidgeon), but ultimately higher powers continue to nag him, making him do things he’d rather give up. That’s the whole story. It’s a film about feeling a terrible pain in the ass and not scratching, no matter what. It’s a film about being tired and not being able to sleep without a gun under your pillow.
However, Mamet elevates this over-used storyline by relying on his favorite cinematic trick: having his characters double-cross each other at every turn. Like he did in his debut film, House of Games, where the whole plot is one big con job, in Heist Mamet ruthlessly toys around with his characters, and depending on where you stand, who you side with, and whether you’re aware of it or not, the twists and turns change the way you might respond to the situations that arise.
Mamet’s characters always struck me by how instinctive they are. In Mamet’s world, you either adapt to the situation at hand, or perish. Hackman’s protagonist of Joe Moore is constantly having to respond to ever-shifting situations. Him and his crew are masters of disguise, masters at putting on little scenes to evade critical instances. When two police officers start bothering Joe, he simply tells his friend Pinky (Ricky Jay) to ”cut them off,” which prompts Pinky to blindly walk into running traffic and get hit by a car to divert attention.
Mamet’s reality is based on commitment to a cause, and in Joe Moore’s case, his crew are committed to being the best in the business. When asked whether Joe is going to be cool under pressure, Pinky replies, “My motherfucker’s so cool, when he goes to bed, sheep count him.”
In an ideal world, this would be a story about friends helping each other out, but in Mamet’s case, his characters are bound to individual codes of conduct, and they will always try to make the best for themselves.
This alludes to the dog-eat-dog mentality I mentioned earlier on. Whether you’re in love or not, business is the name of the game in Mamet’s universe. This is certain. And very often the realization that business does indeed rule everything around them, is what makes his characters tick – think about Shelley Levine in Glengarry Glen Ross whose entire personal life crumbles because he can’t make enough sales, or Frank Galvin in The Verdict whose job becomes meaningless when he realizes the level of corruption around him. The same applies to Heist, where relationships are shoved in second or third place behind things like diamonds and gold. It’s a cold world.
For Mamet, crime is not about violence and shoot-outs. That is the least interesting part of any crime story, argues the playwright. When directing action, Mamet could not care less about the outdated sound effects, the amateurish gunplay and the different types of weapons at disposal. Action for Mamet is a way of conveying consequences for his characters, but not in a didactic manner. It’s about chaos created by the characters themselves. At the end of the day, they are the ones willing to inflict violence upon each other. They are, once again, the ones who are willing to commit to violent situations. It’s their world. It’s messy. Danny DeVito’s crime boss looks as helpless as a puppy in distress once he finds himself in the middle of a fire-fight, screaming at the top of his lungs, “Can’t we talk this over? Let’s talk this over!”
What keeps us, the viewers, and Mamet engaged is the shifting motivations behind characters’ actions. It is quite impossible to predict the trajectory or arch of Mamet’s characters because they are completely in charge of their fate. They construct the world around them through their personal interests and choices. Death for any of them can be personal or business, and the way they go about deciding between the two is what ultimately defines them in our eyes.
Of course, one would not be able to write about Mamet’s movies without taking into account his ever-present dialogue: crisp, clear and sharp exchanges that often walk a fine line between crystal truth and utter non-sense. Think about Danny DeVito’s line when Gene Hackman tells him he doesn’t need money anymore: ”Everybody needs money! That’s why they call it money!” Or when Gene Hackman is about to pull a very difficult job at an airport and says, “Nobody lives forever,” to which his partner, Fran, replies “Frank Sinatra gave it a shot.”
Dialogue is a weapon for Mamet, and a link that binds us to the world inhabited by his characters. Without the dialogue, the fate of his characters would be impenetrable to us. ”Everybody needs money! That’s why they call it money!” is a line that placed out of context makes no sense, and yet, when situated in Mamet’s reality, we immediately know what is meant by it. It is the credo of Danny DeVito’s character, just like it’s the credo of a million other Mamet creations.
His world is sinful, built on shaky moral standards, samurai-like codes of conduct and dirty tricks that are the bread and butter for any person willing to be part of it. It’s fun too, because it allows us to get a taste of what it’s like to be simultaneously the cat and the mouse in the chase.