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David Mamet’s Unnoticed Sleight of Hand

David Mamet has pulled off the ultimate sleight of hand—just as brilliant as what we see in his film House of Games (1987), in which a psychiatrist is taken in by con men even after she knows they are con men!

So great is his legerdemain no one seems to have noticed. So I will let you in on the trick.

It is easy to see that Mamet’s films have dazzling plots. It is a pleasure to watch them unfold. This in itself is worth the price of admission.

In addition, Mamet has acute perception and he uses his exceptional intelligence to take us beyond the clichés. For example in Homicide (1991) he overturns what we expect about race, gives us a deeper understanding of the nature of evil, and raises significant questions about loyalty in a confused deracinated modern world. In Oleanna (1994) he thoughtfully challenges glib beliefs about the value of higher education and about sexual harassment.

But as wonderful as the first two achievements are, the third—the hidden one—is even more magnificent. We find it in House of Games, Things Change, Homicide, Oleanna, The Spanish Prisoner, The Winslow Boy, Spartan, and Redbelt.

For David Mamet has the magic—that rare ability to take us to the third way. (1) And in his case he takes us there while giving the impression he is doing the opposite.

As you may recall from The Secret Life of Films, “The third way is like going home. It is a place of light and heart and bravery and love and beauty and kindness—even if the film is filled with betrayal and deception and murder. It is a place where everything matters.”

In Body Heat the spirit of Lowenstein’s beautiful gesture on the pier fills the entire film from beginning to end. Mamet does the same thing. Without ever being preachy, he brings back what it is to live a noble life. The old virtues of honesty and goodness and courage are not mocked. Honor is sacred.

But Mamet does not do this in a direct way. Perhaps he thinks such sentiments presented directly would be ridiculed and dismissed? Perhaps he thinks they would be seen as aristocratic and therefore both preposterous and bad?

Whit Stillman, by the way, does much the same thing in his films Metropolitan (1990), Barcelona (1994), and Last Days of Disco (1998). While giving us what appears to be a slick distanced irony, he is in reality fighting fire with fire, using an ironic tone to champion all that is good. See for example this scene about untitled aristocrats in Metropolitan:

In Things Change, Gino (Don Ameche) is a man of honor who says “I gave my word.” But he is not a prince. He is a shoe-repair man.

In Glengarry Glen Ross, for which Mamet wrote the screenplay, the F-word is used 138 times. But we do not feel dirty from the experience. No. We feel exhilarated because it is in the service of something beautiful.

The Winslow Boy (1999) is not so oblique. A boy is falsely accused of stealing. His father and mother and sister and brother stand by him. This film overflows with courage and love. But even here Mamet has a fig leaf of cover: it takes place a hundred years ago. So it is not quite clear that he is offering virtue to us here and now. We can say: well yes, but that was then.

But The Winslow Boy is no anomaly. At the deepest level all Mamet’s films are telling the same story.

I am moved to tears by The Winslow Boy. This is understandable. But I am also moved to tears by The Spanish Prisoner. How did Mamet do that? It seems mysterious—it is a story with deception and betrayal at every turn—until we realize that Mamet has filled The Spanish Prisoner with the same spirit.

At the plot level Jimmy Dell (Steve Martin) and Joe Ross (Campbell Scott) are opposites: evil versus good. And this in itself is a very engaging moral tale.

But Mamet creates a beautiful civilized world so that no matter who is speaking the spirit of the world he creates is all that matters.

In support of this is Manet’s use of language. I am not referring to Mamet’s penchant for repetition of phrases. No. It is that everyone in the film—and certainly Jimmy Dell—speaks in a manner that is filled with beauty and feeling. For example:

But, you may ask, isn’t Mamet simply saying that people are not always who they seem to be and that they can hide their dark intent by pretending to be civilized? Clearly that is true. But it is a red herring that distracts us from the more profound meaning. Jimmy Dell is the very best that civilization offers. He is intelligent and generous and thoughtful and courteous. He is capable of apologizing. He is a gentleman. The fact that at the plot level Jimmy is the opposite of what he appears to be is of no relevance to the more important fact that Mamet has created a world of noble virtue.

Mamet is—consciously or unconsciously—tricking us into going with him into this world.

This then is David Mamet’s delicious sleight of hand: he gives us a perfect world in such a way that we can easily not see it—even though it is right in front of us.

Jimmy Dell offers Joe Ross a thousand dollars for his camera. Joe—offended by this—says indignantly: “Because if it’s important to you, why don’t you take the camera as a gift? Why don’t you take it? There you go. My gift to you.”

Mamet gives us the gift of HIS camera: his films. His gift to us is very great. It is the creation of a truly civilized world. It is the deep meaning of all his tales. Mamet obliquely yet continuously gives us this land to live in.

(1) see The Secret Life of Films


©   Richard Hobby

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