Tag Archives: David Mamet

The Winslow Boy (1999, David Mamet)

The Winslow Boy utilizes all the trappings of a stage adaptation without ever being stagy. Director Mamet opens the film with a family entering their home–there’s some muted conversation before they get completely inside, then the introductions begin. So it’s a very play structure too, at least as far as the first and third acts go, but Mamet perfectly matches that structure. The way Mamet paces the film is exquisite. He anticipates story beats with stylistic choices, often infusing Winslow with indeterminate foreboding.

The first act sets up the cast. Nigel Hawthorne is the stern but loving and proud father, Gemma Jones is mother, Rebecca Pidgeon is the oldest, a pre-WWI feminist and suffragette, Matthew Pidgeon is the disappointing middle child, and Guy Edwards is the (much younger) pride of the family. Mamet and his actors deliberately establish their characters, with Mamet moving the narrative focus among them for best result. As the actor establishes their character–the beginning Winslow Boy is sort of a rapid, pre-Christmas ground situation exposition dump; Mamet keeps it moving through dialogue speed, repetition, Barbara Tulliver’s editing, and especially Benoît Delhomme’s photography. Winslow Boy only has the one main location–the family’s house–and Mamet is inventively pragmatic composing shots in it. Again, he emphasizes the actors’ performances, even when it’s an off screen actor.

After the setup, the film jumps ahead four months. There has been some hint of the main plot–young Edwards is expelled from the royal naval academy for thievery, a crime he maintains he didn’t commit–but not how it will play out. Hawthorne fights the expulsion, at great expense to the family and to great publicity. It’s Edwardian England, between wars, and it all causes quite a stir. Enough of one to eventually threaten Rebecca Pigdeon’s love life.

Mamet and the cast have a great deal of fun with Edwardian propriety, with Pidgeon getting the best lines. There’s a thoughtfulness and gentleness in the propriety and how the actors essay it, something the film technically emphases. The music’s different, the photography and composition are more intimate–even when it’s set during a bright day, Mamet and Delhomme find a way to focus just on their subjects. The rest of the world is far away.

About halfway through the film, Winslow Boy introduces Jeremy Northam’s barrister. Winslow is never about the process in getting the expulsion reconsidered, it’s about the effects of that process, both immediate and collateral. Northam’s character lets Mamet take the film into the House of Commons, to hear the debate–otherwise, news of the case is usually shown through expository shots–supportive buttons, political cartoons, branded umbrellas.

Thanks to Mamet’s established repetition device, he’s able to not just get the information across of what’s happening offscreen, but he’s able to give it the necessary context for viewers not well-versed early 20th century British law. Pidgeon and Hawthorne are learning about it too. It’s a great way to make the characters more sympathetic too; it puts characters and viewers at the same point on the learning curve.

The performances are all excellent. Rebecca Pidgeon and Jeremy Northam have a lovely, gentle romantic subplot. They’re both great, though never as good with anyone but each other. Their timing, how Mamet handles their peculiar flirtation, anchors the third act of the film.

First act lead Hawthorne spends the second act in obscured transition. In addition to straining his family to defend Edwards’s honor, he’s got his own aging character arc, which he never gets to play on front burner, and then he’s got to deal with the publicity fallout. So he has these relationship arcs with almost every character. Sometimes just for a quiet joke.

Jones is the film’s unsung glue for the first half. She’s mom, she’s always sympathetic, she’s great with all her costars. Her comic timing is phenomenal. Matthew Pidgeon’s good, Edwards’s good, everyone’s always good and often better. Mamet directs for his actors.

The Winslow Boy is a quiet, gentle, rousing success.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by David Mamet; screenplay by Mamet, based on the play by Terence Rattigan; director of photography, Benoît Delhomme; edited by Barbara Tulliver; music by Alaric Jans; production designer, Gemma Jackson; produced by Sarah Green; released by Sony Pictures Classics.

Starring Nigel Hawthorne (Arthur Winslow), Rebecca Pidgeon (Catherine Winslow), Gemma Jones (Grace Winslow), Jeremy Northam (Sir Robert Morton), Guy Edwards (Ronnie Winslow), Matthew Pidgeon (Dickie Winslow), Aden Gillett (John Waterstone), Colin Stinton (Desmond Curry), Sarah Flind (Violet), and Neil North (First Lord).


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The Spanish Prisoner (1997, David Mamet)

Every moment, every line of dialogue, every shot–every use of sound–is so precise in The Spanish Prisoner, it’s sometimes hard to comprehend of Mamet put it all together. There are not a handful of precise moments, or a few precise scenes. Minute after minute, from the first shot, everything in the film is precision.

But none of the filmmaking precision–Carter Burwell’s score is the most obvious, but Gabriel Beristain’s photography and especially Barbara Tulliver’s editing are essential components as well–none of these components would matter without the acting. Between Ricky Jay, who delivers his lines–usually quotes–with enough memorability, even though Mamet never makes them obvious, the viewer can call back to them and how they relate to the film’s events.

Or lead Campbell Scott, who is simultaneously sympathetic and annoying because of his deep-seated desire for wealth, so much it causes him to ignore a possible romance with nice, regular girl Rebecca Pidgeon. She’s a little annoying herself, which often implies the pair is perfect for one another.

The important part about Scott, Pidgeon, Ben Gazzara (who has the perfect voice for Mamet dialogue), Jay, Felicity Huffman and Steve Martin (cast against type as a mystery man) is how they’re able to sell their roles. Mamet’s dialogue should put a glass pane between the viewer and The Spanish Prisoner, the unreality should pulse, but thanks to the cast (and Mamet’s direction) it feels realer than real.

It is an exceptional piece of filmmaking.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by David Mamet; director of photography, Gabriel Beristain; edited by Barbara Tulliver; music by Carter Burwell; production designer, Tim Galvin; produced by Jean Doumanian; released by Sony Pictures Classics.

Starring Campbell Scott (Joe Ross), Rebecca Pidgeon (Susan Ricci), Steve Martin (Jimmy Dell), Ben Gazzara (Mr. Klein), Felicity Huffman (Pat McCune), Lionel Mark Smith (Detective Jones) and Ricky Jay (George Lang).


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House of Games (1987, David Mamet)

House of Games is a very small film, but Mamet and cinematographer Juan Ruiz Anchía manage to make it appear a lot bigger. When there’s no one in a shot, in a public place, except a principal, Mamet makes it seem stylistic instead of budgetary. It’s only during the final fifteen minutes, when there’s a near empty airport—sure, it’s the middle of the night, but it’s still too empty—does it become clear the film’s just economical and it’s not style.

The film, about a psychiatrist who finds herself drawn to some lowlifes, is also about deception. It all works out in that sense. Still, once Mamet fully unveils House of Games, the whole thing collapses. He writes himself into a hole and can’t get out—possibly because it’s such a predictable plot. There are no surprises.

There’s a lot of excellent acting. Lindsay Crouse, as the psychiatrist, is great for most of the film (she’s the one who the ending fails). Joe Mantegna is the main lowlife she’s interested in and he’s excellent. Mike Nussbaum and Ricky Jay are also excellent. J.T. Walsh isn’t bad, he’s just doing a schtick and the others aren’t.

Mamet’s insistence the plot be the most compelling aspect constrains House of Games. He’s trying to be clever and cute but there’s no emotional connection. Even when she’s good, Crouse cannot connect on that level.

Even the dynamic dialogue fades away. Eventually it becomes so predictable it’s boring. While technically excellent, Games’s rather pointless.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by David Mamet; screenplay by Mamet, based on a story by Jonathan Katz and Mamet; director of photography, Juan Ruiz Anchía; edited by Trudy Ship; music by Alaric Jans; production designer, Michael Merritt; produced by Michael Hausman; released by Orion Pictures.

Starring Lindsay Crouse (Margaret Ford), Joe Mantegna (Mike), Ricky Jay (George), Mike Nussbaum (Joey), Lilia Skala (Dr. Maria Littauer), William H. Macy (Sgt. Moran) and J.T. Walsh (The Businessman).


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The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981, Bob Rafelson)

I’d heard–read, actually, but maybe heard as well–the 1981 Postman Always Rings Twice was terrible. If I knew Rafelson directed it, I’d forgotten. I did remember David Mamet wrote it. For some reason, I always thought it was an in name only remake, not at all based on the Cain novel.

The film opens with a loud title sequence. It’s the titles themselves, the font. It’s puffed-up. Only when the headlights enter the black (the titles are white text on black) do the titles start to imply there might be something going on, in terms of good filmmaking. Michael Small’s music, which I’ll get around to describing as disastrous in a little while, is good during the opening titles. Then Nicholson appears, a hitchhiker finding a ride.

The next sequence, which introduces Nicholson, Jessica Lange and her husband, played by John Colicos, is concise. But the film’s problem–Mamet’s script has its problems, but it’s not bad–becomes clear in this scene. Nicholson’s giving a terrible performance. I wouldn’t even describe it as phoning it in, because phoning it in suggests he had the active presence to pick up a telephone and dial it. His performance in The Postman Always Rings Twice is more like someone called Nicholson’s assistant, who held the phone to Nicholson’s ear and mouth while he talked. And had to keep waking him up.

Obviously, Nicholson and Rafelson were the permanent parts of this package, but Nicholson’s presence is constantly dubious. He looks way too old for the part as written–maybe if it had been written for his age, it’d work better, but Nicholson’s somehow both weary and sharp. Doesn’t work. But none of the clothes don’t fit him either. Sure, he’s supposed to be wearing some guy named Phil’s leftover coveralls, but not even his clothes fit him. It’s like the costume department was expecting someone else to show up for the part and then Nicholson arrived on set.

The shame–the near tragedy–of The Postman Always Rings Twice is Jessica Lange. She’s fantastic. Lange’s got one of those hairstyles, the cover one of the eyes kind, lots of directors use to try to avert the viewer’s attention from the actress’s lack of ability (Nicole Kidman’s career is based on her hair’s performing ability) and for a second I was worried–but then Lange starts giving this wonderful, nuanced, textured performance and it’s clear why everyone recognized her talent so quickly. She’s just wonderful. It’s awful such a fine performance was in such a turkey.

A couple more things. First, the music. Small’s score is okay most of the time, but then the explicit sex scene has this romantic music. It’s like Howard Hanson or something. It’s idiotic, doesn’t fit, and makes the scene funny. Unfortunately, I don’t think the whole project was just a joke Rafelson and Nicholson were playing on everyone (if it were, I imagine they would have put in a Head reference).

Second, the setting. The film’s got a beautiful production values, just wonderful 1930s Great Depression stuff. Gorgeous. Except that skyscraper in the background for a second, but whatever. Except… The Postman Always Rings Twice doesn’t work when they’re trying to add all this realism to it. It’s pulp. Reality concerns need to be… sorry… pulped.

Maybe Mamet, who’d only been writing plays until this film, wanted to break free of the fixed set, but it was a bad idea. Except it was nowhere near as bad an idea as letting Nicholson give this performance.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Bob Rafelson; screenplay by David Mamet, based on the novel by James M. Cain; director of photography, Sven Nykvist; edited by Graeme Clifford; music by Michael Small; production designer, George Jenkins; produced by Charles Mulvehill and Rafelson; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Jack Nicholson (Frank Chambers), Jessica Lange (Cora Papadakis), John Colicos (Nick Papadakis), Michael Lerner (Mr. Katz), John P. Ryan (Kennedy), Anjelica Huston (Madge), William Traylor (Sackett) and Thomas Hill (Barlow).


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