David Mamet didn't stand a chance in Hollywood. His Samuel Beckett-influenced plays hacked back plot to an ominous implication, pared each nobody's thought to an elliptical repetitive essence and anguished common English. Take the rants in Obie-winner American Buffalo (1976) about a botched rare-coin heist: "What are we saying here? Loyalty. (Pause.) You know how I am on this. This is great. This is admirable…. This loyalty. This is swell…. All I mean, a guy can be too loyal, Don…. What are we saying here? Business…. Loyalty does not mean shit in a situation like this!"
Like his hero Theodore Dreiser, Mamet works out his characters' scummy scams in their own sweet time ("Midwestern legato," he calls it) and mutant demotic tongue. It was all wrong for movies: the half-comprehensible compression, the unadmirable characters, the habit of following words wherever they plotlessly led.
So movie men screwed him at first. They rewrote his scabrous 1974 play Sexual Perversity in Chicago as 1986's simpering flick About Last Night. But scalawag director Bob Rafelson saw the pre-castrated play and hired him to write The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981). Mamet abruptly got it: movies want plot and genre straitjackets. Postman hit big, then The Verdict (1982). Rewritten again on The Untouchables (1987), Mamet got even by satirizing Hollywood in Broadway's savage Speed-the-Plow (1988). (Increasingly rich, he skewered it with increasing affection in 1997's Wag the Dog and 2000's State and Main.) His directing debut, the card-sharp drama House of Games (1987), fused classic noir with his own brand of con. He got so much clout that his career capstone play, Glengarry Glen Ross, made it unscathed to film. The 1996 movie American Buffalo almost did too, weighed down by Dustin Hoffman's stagey ego, but with Mamet's words intact.
In plays, Mamet transmogrified straight-ahead Chicago slang into sentences that come at you like sidewinders. In movies, he managed to magic himself into a mainstream master. Look what he's pulled off lately: The Spanish Prisoner (1997), State and Main and Heist, his first big studio star vehicle and self-conscious genre pic. It's like three-card monte with two aces and a king.
We'll get to why Heist isn't quite aces in a minute, but first, here's why it's tasty. As heistmeister Joe Moore, Gene Hackman is Mamet's first hero who breathes air not previously exhaled by David Mamet. In the opening setup–Mamet's smoothest action scene yet–old pro Joe blows what should be his last job: a ritzy jewelry store.
At first (and fast), Joe's crew does everything right. Joe's sashaying wife (Rebecca Pidgeon) impersonates a waitress squirting Visine in her eyes, only she's pretending–it's knockout drops, squirted on the sly into four takeout coffees headed for the jewelry store. Joe's thug philosophes Bobby (Delroy Lindo) and Pinky (Ricky Jay) stage an explosion, don creepy translucent masks, down the store's door and deftly smash and grab. But Joe spots one coffee undrunk. He whips off his mask and assumes a face of compassionate rectitude, steps around the corner and instructs the sole unsedated clerk to call 911. She turns; he stun-guns her. Joe is a take-charge guy. So is Hackman. At last, Mamet's gang gets what it's always needed: a charismatic gang leader.
But the security camera spots Joe, and the cops' dopplering sirens won't give him time to grab the tape. He's "burned," identified. So the fence, Bergman (Danny DeVito, vigorous but too familiarly DeVitoid), refuses to pay the vulnerable Joe unless he does one last heist: get a Swiss gold shipment from a jet just before takeoff and take Bergman's fanged nebbish nephew (Sam Rockwell) along on the job.
Joe's spat with Bergman over the Swiss job ultimatum is an extended quibble, the opposite of the ultratight Hammettesque exposition that's supposed to be the big idea of Heist. As ever in Mamet, compression yields to digression whenever a pretty phrase is in view. He's like the helpless star Alec Baldwin played in State and Main, who interrupts work for play at the sight of a teen skirt. "She could talk her way out of a sunburn," says Joe of his conniving wife. "My motherfucker is so cool, when he goes to sleep, sheep count him," says Bobby of Joe. As Bogey noted, "The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter." Though much of the lingo in Heist is a God-given gaudy gift, too much of it is labored, not up to the Mamet standard. When he tries to top a line about being "as quiet as an ant pissing on cotton" with the stern retort, "I want you to be as quiet as an ant not even thinking about pissing on cotton," the old phrase-slut momentarily succumbs to his besetting sins, smugness and faux portentousness.
Mostly, though, the buildup to the Swiss job is niftily executed. Working with hoary noiry archetypes, Mamet and a killer cast keep us on our toes. The gang impersonates a telephone crew in order to wire a bomb at the airport; a cop drives by, stops and scarily approaches. In the phone-company car, the fence's simpleton nephew reaches for his gun. Bobby seethes. Did the cop see? Joe ably fast-talks the cops–Heist triumphantly leavens Mamet's overdetermined style with seeming improvisation. After the heat beats it, Joe and Bobby let the nephew know he's a Cocky Hothead Who Could Get Them All Killed.
But is he simply a simpleton? Or does he have plans for Joe's wife, who's closer to his age than Joe's? Joe dispatches his missus to boff the kid into a false feeling of security; whose hood is really getting winked? As Pidgeon's character says in The Spanish Prisoner, "Anybody could be anybody." At every step, as the gang boards the plane, unloads the gold and attempts to fulfill Joe's prime injunction ("It's not getting the goods, it's getting away"), Mamet redeems numbly familiar routines with his patented style of who's-screwing-who suspense.
OK, Mamet's style is pretty familiar, too. Don't expect any big, hairy Crying Game surprises. But compare Mamet going through the Rififi heist-flick paces and any number of studio movies abominably failing to do the same. (Tom Cruise's tortured attempt to explain the Rififi-riffing but nonexistent plot of Mission: Impossible to the LA Times is the funniest star interview on record.) Mamet has succeeded in movies because, despite the oddity of his personal signature, he can concoct a logical con. The final shootout and fakeout in Heist isn't just tacked on, it's a gratifying resolution.
Hackman, Lindo and Jay juggle Mamet's verbal baubles with aplomb. Though there isn't much character development, they expertly suggest long common experience, if not deep bonds, by the merest gesture and the flawlessness of their ensemble acting. The only calamity is Rebecca Pidgeon. Except for her bit in the bravura opening scene, she's a stale cliché, a hard-chick fatale who mutters monosyllabic witless-isms.
And she was so fresh in The Spanish Prisoner. There, she got a wide-eyed character worth watching–she even lent that Boy Scout Campbell Scott a touch of sexual intrigue. The problem with Heist (not a fully crippling one) is that nobody really cares who the dame tumbles, or why. You could almost snip her right out of the film to salubrious effect, as in that Star Wars fan's Jar Jar Binks-less re-edit of The Phantom Menace that popped up on the Internet. More generally, Heist is lesser than the similar Spanish Prisoner because in that film, Mamet gave himself Dreiserian elbow room to let his concatenating con games and loping, ambiguous relationships unfold. Heist is his Beckett mode of excessive compression without the ambition part.
Still, all three are keepers. The Spanish Prisoner is a rare example of a trick narrative that works, though the filmmaking is tentative. State and Main, about the cons of the film game, proves Mamet can crack wise and share the love too, screwball-comedy style. Heist shows a new visual fluidity, and that Mamet can play a simple game on the suits' home court and win.