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.



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).



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.



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).


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.



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).

State and Main (2000, David Mamet)

Something unfortunate happens during the last third of State and Main… Mamet realizes he needs a story.

He goes so long without traditional narrative elements—the film has, at best, a roaming protagonist and Mamet doesn’t do much establish the ground situation as hint at one for smiles. Mamet doesn’t go for belly laughs in the script, he goes for nods and smiles. It works better, since he’s dealing with cynical Hollywood types in small town America.

Of course, it’s small town New England, so he can make sure the town’s residents are all quite literate.

For the most part, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s independent playwright turned Hollywood screenwriter is the protagonist. State and Main, the non-comic parts, is about his relationship with townsperson Rebecca Pidgeon. It’s a good on-screen romance… very classical. Mamet doesn’t know how to really finish it, turning Pidgeon into a nice Lady Macbeth at one point, but it’s otherwise excellent. Both Hoffman and Pidgeon are great.

But there’s no bad acting in the film. William H. Macy’s, Alec Baldwin, Julia Stiles, David Paymer, Lionel Mark Smith, Patti LuPone… everyone’s great. Mamet—doing a really mellow story—does exceeding well directing his cast.

Oh, and Sarah Jessica Parker? Great. I always forget she can be really good.

Clark Gregg’s small town slime bag’s fun too.

Very appropriate score from Theodore Shapiro.

The only complaint, besides the finale, is Mamet’s lack of establishing long shots. He never sets up the small town besides on street level.



Written and directed by David Mamet; director of photography, Oliver Stapleton; edited by Barbara Tulliver; music by Theodore Shapiro; production designer, Gemma Jackson; produced by Sarah Green; released by Fine Line Features.

Starring Philip Seymour Hoffman (Joseph Turner White), Rebecca Pidgeon (Ann), William H. Macy (Walt Price), Clark Gregg (Doug Mackenzie), Sarah Jessica Parker (Claire Wellesley), Alec Baldwin (Bob Barrenger), Julia Stiles (Carla), Charles Durning (Mayor George Bailey), Patti LuPone (Sherry Bailey) and David Paymer (Marty Rossen).