Glengarry Dogs

Shelley tries to persuade Williamson, while Mr. White and Mr. Pink have troubles of their own.

Time for the smackdown of the century (well, the late 20th century, anyway): 1992 Guy-movie titans Glengarry Glen Ross vs. Reservoir Dogs.

Back in 1992 I jokingly referred to Reservoir Dogs as Glengarry Glen Ross with guns, but now that I examine both films, I was closer to the mark than I suspected.

1. Both films are about “a bunch of guys” who are involved in a not-quite-legal enterprise.  One group sells Florida swampland to rubes, the other robs a jewelry store.

2. Both films deal with “manly” issues of responsibility, trust, betrayal, identity and “work” as a defining trait.

3. Both films revolve around a criminal act we never see happen.  One has an office robbery, the other has the jewelry-store robbery.

4. Both films deftly shift points-of-view to keep up the supense of “whodunit.”  In Glengarry it’s “who robbed the office,” in Dogs it’s “who’s the cop?”

5. Both films refuse the audience the pleasure of a protagonist, a hero, or even a “central character.”

6. Both film have a central location where the climax of the narrative takes place, which makes the movie feel like a filmed play.  Glengarry has the real-estate office, Dogs has the mortuary warehouse.

Now then.  One would say that Dogs is not structured the same way as Glengarry, but look at what Tarantino has done.

Here is the narrative of Reservoir Dogs laid out in chronological order (spoiler alert):

1. Joe Cabot wants to rob a jewelry store.
2. He gets his gang of men together.  We meet them one by one.
3. The Cops find out about the robbery and plan to stop Joe and his gang.
4. The Cops get Tim Roth to go undercover.
5. Tim Roth practices his “story” that will get him credibility with the gang.
6. He tries it out: it works!
7. Tim Roth hangs out with the gang before the job.
8. The morning of the job, the gang goes to a coffee shop.  Here, they discuss Madonna and how much to tip a waitress.
9. The job happens.  Something goes wrong.  We don’t see what.
10. Afterthe job, everyone high-tails it back to the rendevous point
11. Everybody sooner or later makes it back to the rendevous point and hilarity ensues.

Everything after this is one full hour of the movie.  The rest of it is backstory.

Tarantino could have put the movie together this way, but look what happens.  You know who the mole is from the very beginning, there’s no mystery as to “what happened at the jewelry store,” and only mild suspense for about ten minutes where Tim Roth is hanging out with the gang and they don’t know he’s a cop.  And then he would have gotten to the rendevous point, at which point he’s got an hour of movie left and one location to shoot it in.

Which, strangely, is exactly what happens in Glengarry Glen Ross.  There is the first forty-five minutes of the movie, which chops up, expands upon, and moves around the first act of the play very nicely, and then there is the last 50 minutes of the movie, where we’re stuck in that real-estate office and might as well be watching a play.  A Pulitzer-Prize-winning play, but a play nonetheless.

Just think of the movie we could have had, oh so very easily, if Mamet had Tarantino-ized his script (again, spoiler alert).  What if Glengarry began with Jack Lemmon walking out ot the Nyborg’s house, having just closed his deal with them, getting in his car and heading over to the office, only to find that the place had been broken into.

Then, we could have cut to Al Pacino hustling Jonathan Pryce the evening before, stopping to wink at Ed Harris, who’s in the middle of a conversation with Alan Arkin.  Then we could cut to Kevin Spacey having a conversation with Alec Baldwin while they’re waiting for the guys to show up for the sales conference.  Then we could cut back to the next day, and there’s Kevin again having to deal with the police and Mitch and Murray because the place has been ripped off.  Then we could cut to Jack Lemmon, the night before, trying to get his daughter on the phone at the hospital.  Then we could go back to the big scene with Alec Baldwin doing his great speech, then back to Al hustling Jonathan, and so on.

It would have been a little “artier,” but jeez, the thing is already based on a play, how much artier could a movie be in 1992?  It would have made it all the way to being a “real movie,” instead of half of one.

Glengarry Glen Ross is one of the great American plays of the 20th century and my second-favorite play ever written (#1 would be Endgame).  But I’m afraid that in this contest, Tarantino and his time-shuffling gimmick takes the screenplay prize. hit counter html code

The Edge


Anthony Hopkins is scary good in this movie.  He’s always very good, but for some reason he’s scary good in this.

One of the important things he does is make Mamet’s trademark rhythms feel utterly natural and in character.

Alec Baldwin, already with a little Mamet under his belt at this point, is also good, but takes a little while to come into focus for some reason, for me anyway.  Maybe because he has to make the transition from Take Charge Fashion Photographer to Scared Airplane Crash Survivor to Flailing Helpless Guy to Cold-Blooded Killer All Along to Sobbing Helpless Guy to Dying Guy, and needs to find a common thread through all that.

This is one of my favorite Mamet scripts, even though it’s a movie about a couple of guys and a bear.

Lee Tamahori’s direction is elegant and unfussy.  The dramatic scenes are understated and natural, the action scenes are nerve-wracking and upsetting.

The bear performs admirably and the stunt work is terrific.  Either that or those are real movie stars fighting with a bear and falling down mountains and treading carefully across a log over a high waterfall.

Harold Perrineau holds up well under the burden of playing the role of “non-star who gets eaten by a bear.”

The roles in general are written with great humanity and nuance. 

I dig nuance.  Movies are full of cliches, this one included, they are in fact smoothly efficient vehicles for cliches, and in fact they thrive on cliche and depend for their survival on cliche.  So nuance and detail become important in selling these stories.

An unusual 4-act structure for a 2-hour film.  Act 1 is, “Let’s have an adventure, even though there are definite tensions between the principles.”  Act 2 is “Well, maybe having an adventure wasn’t such a good idea.”  Act 3 is “Oh holy fucking shit, there’s fucking BEAR WHO WANTS TO EAT US.”  Act 4 is “How about that, we killed the bear.  Oh shit, these tensions between us just got worse.”  And you could even split Act 4 into two distinct sections, each about 15 pages long, one being “Aha!  Forgot all about this, did you?” and “Well, that was a bad idea too.  Shall we go home now?”

And then, 97 minutes into the movie, comes the Wind.

Back in 1996 or so, there was a Star Wars video game called Dark Forces.  There was a level to the game that took place on the ice planet of Hoth.  Hoth was cold and windy, as ice planets tend to be, and there was a recording of Wind that played, over and over, throughout the entire level.  Since I’m a really crappy player, I spent many, many days trying to get the fuck off of the ice planet of Hoth, and got to know that Wind very, very well.

Now I can barely watch a movie with an outdoor scene, because they keep using that same Wind.  Most recently it was featured in the opening minutes of Sydney Pollack’s The Interpreter to emphasize the desolate quality of a hot, dusty African road.  Of course, for me it will always evoke the freezing cold and sheer ice cliffs of Hoth, so that scene just didn’t work for me.  In The Edge, at least, it’s set among the majestic peaks of what I’m guessing is the Canadian Rockies, so at least the “cold” part of it works.  But as soon as the Wind came on, I started looking for stormtroopers and Imperial droids.

There is a very funny account of the filming of The Edge in producer Art Linson’s book What Just Happened?
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Wag the Dog

An example of what great actors, well-directed, can do with a first-class Mamet script.  His dialogue, which so often sounds hollow, brittle and soulless, even when he directs it himself (especially so), here sounds spontaneous, startling, razor-sharp and jaw-droppingly funny.  De Niro and Hoffman are shockingly alive and present, and all the ensemble scenes crackle with intensity and humor.

The world the script describes, which was goosed with the reality of the Lewinsky/Kosovo thing back when it came out, hasn’t aged a bit and, if anything, has become less of a satire.

The script  takes a sharp left in the third act, as many of Mamet’s scripts do, going all the way back to The Verdict, but the impact of the movie is still undeniable.
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Or, Heat goes Continental.

More tough guys who don’t talk much, Men who Do what they Gotta Do.

There’s this case, see, this silver case, and De Niro and gang are After the Case. And because this script is by Mamet instead of Mann, the Tough Guys don’t spend the whole movie blabbing about themselves and slobbering over their girlfriends. De Niro gets in a couple of kisses with Natasha McElhone, but otherwise there’s no mushy stuff.

More aphorisms. Ain’t that the thing? It is what it is. That’s the first thing they teach ya.

What’s in the case? What’s in the case? Big mystery. Because the script is by Mamet, We Never Find Out. Why? Because it Doesn’t Matter. Mamet is relishing the chance to write a pure Maguffin.

Whatever it is, the Russians want it, the IRA wants it, De Niro wants it, the CIA wants it.

Turns out? Ice skates.

I don’t get it, but international intrigue often eludes me. I guess they were really nice ice skates.

A veritable who’s who of espionage players. A Mission Impossible guy, a Hunt for Red October guy, a Munich guy (well, many years later) and no fewer than two Bond villains. Just so you know what De Niro is up against. It’s kind of like European Espionage All-Stars vs. De Niro.

I would have thought that De Niro would have already done an espionage picture before this, but no, just gangsters and psychos. Which adds a nice American touch to the picture. “Hey, all you fancy European spy guys! Get a load of Travis Bickle!

Great car chases. Wow. Impressive use of crowds. Hugely sophisticated action sequences. The chase through Paris is quite amazing.

SPOILER ALERT: The sad thing is, they go to all this trouble to get the skates, and then they shoot the skater. Katerina Witt, no less. Man oh man, Nancy Kerrigan thought she faced a desperate opponent.
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Purchased for $3.99 at Second Spin, Wilshire Blvd, Santa Monica. This price made even the clerk do a double-take.

Mamet’s smoothest, most sophisticated piece of film direction, this one feels more like a “real movie” than any of his others.

Val Kilmer is swell in the lead, William H. Macy is fine as the guy smoking the cigarette, but Ed O’Neill is a revelation as the authority guy in the big suit.

When this movie came out, some snorted with derision at the political stance of the picture, which includes the observation that the president would rather kill innocent people and sell his own daughter into slavery than risk losing an election. At this point of our national nightmare, that kind of news item would be noted on page A17.

The photography is silky smooth and seductive, and the production design is the best of Mamet’s films. You get the idea that he’s really starting to get the hang of this art form.


There are a number of plot contrivances that do not detract from the overall pleasure of the experience. They are:

1. The Girl has a logo, a little emoticon [ %-) ] (so, Mr. “I only write on a portable Smith-Corona in a cabin heated with a wood fire” Mamet is familiar with the computer, after all!). This emoticon (or “device”) becomes a key plot point, as it shows up in the windows of both places where the girl is held against her will.

Derek Luke (Val’s Little Pal #1) “sees the sign” in the window and thus we know that the girl is not dead. Okay then, good enough.

But wait! Derek also found her earring at the house, so why did we need the sign?

My question: why did the girl put her logo in the window of her captor’s house? The only thing I can think of is that she was hoping that the Delta Force guys would see it and thus know that she’s in the house, without her captors knowing.

But why would she know that the Delta Force guys are coming? And if she knows they’re coming, why would she need to put the sign in the window? What would it matter? And then she does it at the second place in Dubai too, even though she knows by now that no one is coming after her. Why?

2. The Shootout At the Airport. At the end of the movie, Val Kilmer finds that he’s been followed by Bill Macy and his team of commandos. Bill and his team are there to kill Val and the girl, to protect the president.

There’s a shootout in a hangar, and much posing with guns and ducking in shadows.

Why are there no people working in the airport? It seems like you can have a shootout any old place these days.

But wait, there’s more.

During the shootout, a plane happens along. Who is it? Why, it’s a SWEDISH NEWS TEAM, led by a tall, gorgeous blond of course. Aren’t they all? And they capture the whole shootout on tape and eventually get The Girl onto the plane and out of the country. They save the day.

Why was there no Swedish News Team around when someone backed out of their driveway and rammed my car? It came down to my word against his, and he didn’t have any insurance. I sure could’ve used a Swedish News Team that day.

Why is a Swedish News Team in Dubai that day anyway? What Swedish News Team is so well-funded that they’re sending private jets to Dubai with an anchor and a camera crew? You would think a stringer in a hotel would be enough for the Swedes, but no, apparently there is an unquenchable thirst in Sweden for news from the United Arab Emirates, and their hugely well-funded News Teams jet from country to country, scouring the streets for any tidbit of news they can find.

SWEDISH CAMERAMAN: Where are we going?
ANCHOR: Today we are in Dubai, tomorrow Oman.
SC: What’s happening there?
A: Doesn’t matter. We’ve GOTTA GET THAT NEWS.
SC: Is that the thing?
A: That is the thing.
SC: Well ain’t that a kick in the head.
A: It is indeed.

I guess, because they’re Swedish, they’re guaranteed to be neutral on the subject of the president’s daughter.

Speaking of which, because they’re Swedish, they also get their plane off the ground on time, even when there are ARMED COMMANDOS HAVING A SHOOTOUT IN THE HANGAR NEXT TO THEM. This goes back to the “why are there no people working at the airport?” question. The last time I was on a plane and a shootout broke out among a bunch of commandos on the runway next to my plane, we were delayed quite a long time, let me tell you. But I guess these things happen every day in airports in Dubai.

PILOT: Excuse me, tower, but there is a shootout going on in hangar one-niner.
TOWER: Understood, proceed with takeoff.
PILOT: Um — shouldn’t you, um, “do something” about it?
TOWER: This is Dubai, chief, we don’t bother with that stuff.
PILOT: Oh my God! The guy from “Fargo” just got his throat cut! Shouldn’t you call somebody or something?
TOWER: It’s probably some American inter-agency struggle going on. Rogue agent, kidnapped president’s daughter, not our concern. Let ’em sort it out.
PILOT: Roger.

3. There’s a Female Unit Member, who is Val’s Little Pal #2 (since Pal #1 gets his head blown off at the end of Act II). FUM has a drink with Val, and Val tells her what he’s going to do.

Then he goes to Dubai, seemingly by himself, and meets up with an English guy, who becomes his Little Pal #3. (Hint: Don’t become one of Val’s Little Pals. They all get shot dead, dead, dead. So much for Leave No Man Behind.)

Anyway, so there’s the airport, Val has The Girl, Bill Macy shows up, shootout, bang bang bang, Val’s hit, Faceless Commando is killed, and bang-zoom, here comes FUM, out of the shadows, to escort The Girl to the plane (before getting shot in the back by Macy).

How did FUM get there? It seems that she was there with Macy. But why would she be with him? She was with Val at the top of the act. Did Val give her the assignment of “Stick with Macy, just in case he tails me to Dubai and tries to cut us off at the airport and kill us both?” Why would he do that?

In Heist, Gene Hackman’s character (“Bob” or “Joe” or whichever man-man name he was given this time around) always has a back-up plan. It’s part of his credo. Is FUM being with Macy Val’s backup plan?

But no, she couldn’t be, because Val’s surprised when he finds the Tracking Device (capitals intentional) in his Special Knife That We Had a Whole Scene About. So Val DIDN’T think that Macy was going to follow him to Dubai. Why then would he have FUM be with him?

Or was her mission to merely be there in the airport hangar when Val showed up with The Girl? If so, where was she at the top of the act, when he flew in on the airplane and did the thing with the shipping container?

I understand that if you have not seen the movie, the above will make no sense to you. But hey, these nits ain’t gonna pick themselves.
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David Mamet is one of my favorite writers of all time. Only Samuel Beckett takes up more space on my bookshelf.

As a playwright, he’s the best America has living.
As an essayist, he is without parallel.
As a novelist, he is provocative, innovative and occasionally opaque.
As a screenwriter, he has brought us many sterling entertainments, including The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Verdict, The Untouchables, Glengarry Glen Ross, The Edge, Wag the Dog and Ronin.

Certainly, a writing career for anyone to envy, especially me.

It’s Mamet the director who presents a different kettle of fish.

House of Games, strangely, is still his most satisfying movie. The weird dialogue, the stilted Mamettian acting, all of it is of a piece, it doesn’t seem like it’s poorly done, it seems like a stylistic choice, and the script is very strong.

But every now and then Mamet the director lets Mamet the screenwriter get away with some lazy writing.

In Heist, the characters speak some of the cheesiest “tough guy” lines ever written. It’s all “Is dat th’ thing?” and “You’re burnt! You got old!” and “Walk away” and “Aren’t you as cute as a Chinese baby?” He puts an old black-and-while WB logo at the front of the movie, as if to indicate that he’s taking us back to the WB gangster movies of the 30s, but it doesn’t stick this time as a stylistic choice, it just feels false and clumsy. And not even uber-Mameteer Ricky Jay can get away with a line like: “My motherfucker is so cool, when he sleeps, sheep count HIM.” Come to think of it, I don’t even know what that means.

Maybe it’s because House of Games seems to take place in a kind of hermetically sealed Mamettian fantasy world, but Heist seems to take place in something like our real world, so it seems weird that the actors are all talking like some post-modern 40s tough-guy gangsters.

After seeing The Spanish Prisoner (his second-best movie) I joked to myself that one day, Mamet would write a screenplay that consisted entirely of aphorisms. Heist seems to come close to that.

CHARACTER 1: Waste not, want not.
CHARACTER 2: In’t dat th’ thing.
1: It is.
2: As it was in the beginning.
1: A stitch in time —
2: — is a penny earned.
1: In’t it?
2: We would say that it is.
1: And beauty is but skin deep.
2: Except when it is not.
1: Is dat th’ thing?
2: Dat is th’ thing.
1: Hold ’em or fold ’em, everybody leaves the game.

And so forth.

The script has a number of good ideas in it and plenty of dazzling lines, my favorite of which is “Everybody needs money, that’s why it’s called money,” another non-sequiter which nevertheless resonates.

Mamet the film director sometimes seems to have a certain amount of disdain for the medium he’s directing in. He will occasionally use very old-fashioned, obvious, far-fetched, nonsensical or downright silly plot points, as if to say “Well, the important thing is the drama, whatever gets us from Point A to Point B is good enough. It’s just a movie, after all.”
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