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Heist on its Own Petard 

David Mamet's rich dialogue enlivens a by-numbers plot

In Hollywood in the 1940s, working on the adaptation for Howard Hawks' classic film noir The Big Sleep, William Faulkner realized he couldn't figure out the solution to the mystery. Who, in the end, had really killed whom, and why? Faulkner called up the author of the book, Raymond Chandler--or so legend has it--and was dumbfounded to discover Chandler didn't seem to know either, and apparently didn't much care.

Compared to the twists and turns in the plot of Heist, Chandler's relatively linear story seems like child's play. By the end of the new film from David Mamet, not only will you likely not know who's done what to whom, or why; you will wonder, perhaps, how much Mamet himself cares. Like some of Chandler's work, this movie reverses the typical generic pattern--it's the mystery to a solution.

The film starts in mid-heist. A waitress about to douse her eyes with drops instead surreptitiously squirts the liquid into four coffees-to-go. Two men circling a block, playing it cool, are nearly intercepted by cops when a third diverts attention by casually throwing himself in front of a speeding car. The drugged coffee renders comatose the guardians of a vault of jewels, and the four robbers converge on the site, plundering it with ruthless cunning. (The robbers are Joe, Fran, Bobby and Pinky, played respectively by Gene Hackman, Rebecca Pidgeon, Delroy Lindo and Ricky Jay--all great.) The heist is shown in quick, terse shots, mostly in dissociated close-up, and though the technique reveals the brutality of the crime, it's also clear we're meant to admire the cleverness of the thieves. They're professionals.

The rest of the story takes us through the aftermath of this crime and the processes surrounding a follow-up heist. The quartet resists becoming embroiled in this even bigger, more complicated plot--or do they?--but they're pressured into it by their fence Bergman (Danny DeVito). The film's structure is typical in beginning this way, in medias res--so does Rififi, for instance, or The Sting, or Jean-Pierre Melville's great Un Flic (an unknown classic just released on video)--but more traditional crime capers do so to show us the effects first so we can better understand the cause, and they draw the audience painstakingly into the bigger cons that follow from the preliminary ones.

The heists in Mamet's film are so abstracted, though, the plot becomes nearly avant-garde (as in some of Mamet's earliest plays, like Sexual Perversity in Chicago). We know the basic motivation--greed--and we're not surprised when it gives way to the usual consequences, betrayal and revenge. But we're never in on the plots, and are meant to take pleasure in piecing them together as they unfold. The film seems so fascinated with the formal dynamics of the heist genre, as a series of recondite variations, that it seems content merely to tantalize. And in a way, that turns out to be for the best--a few half-hearted gestures in the last few minutes toward satisfying audience expectations nearly wreck the whole movie.

This abstract formalism can be clarified by looking at some of the characteristic Mametian dialogue, which simulates a sort of post-Chandleresque, vaguely Elmore Leonardish ethos by manipulating a few stock phrases and playing them against incantatory obscenities and jarringly weird locutions that flirt openly with nonsense. "He's so cool," says Pinky of Joe, "when he goes to bed at night the sheep count him." The line is sharp and nearly too sleek to be clever, and it's tossed off, so its improbability will register, if at all, only as an afterthought; and though it makes a kind of sense, referring to a sort of noir-ish, mentholated calm, it really only gestures toward sense, in its rhetorical reversal of a half-acknowledged cliché. Mamet seems to have studied the headily surreal dialogue of Double Indemnity, and studded the movie with hardboiled epigrams, paradoxes that mimic gangsters' patois while turning resolutely in upon themselves.

"You're a piece of work," Bergman says to Fran, with admiring contempt--and she snaps back, "I came all the way from China in a matchbox." The line makes sense only in the emotional context of their conversation, returning contempt while holding it in reserve, or by cross-reference, since there's a series of oblique, impertinent references to China throughout the script which gain whatever significance they have only by accumulation. Yet the distanced character of the dialogue--the self-referential quality that makes the lines bluntly functional only in relation to one another--gives them an edgy, enigmatic spin, as if we were hearing them at one remove, or by second-hand report.

Though the actors' deliveries are notably less deliberate, less stilted, than in Mamet's previous films--making Heist seem, at least on the surface, Mamet's most conventional movie--the dialogue, as trenchantly as any piece Mamet has ever written, combines a gritty naturalism with a mannered stylization. Mamet seems to have gone back not just to hardboiled fiction, but to the great dialogue writers of classic American movies--Robert Riskin (Capra's longtime scenarist), Preston Sturges, or Billy Wilder and I. A. L. Diamond, all of whom knew how to meld glancing realism with stylized patter in hermetic, yet accessible, patterns.

A last example: "I don't set you up--what do you got?" taunts Bergman. "Lamsy divy, that's what!" Meaning, of course, diddley squat. But the variation is classic Mamet. The first sentence gains its Mametian impact through a brusque elision of its grammatical elements--"if" and "then." But the "lamsy divy" is the payoff, working by both substitution and reference. It replaces a more standardized turn of phrase through its precisely exorbitant allusion to the old Fanny Brice song: "Mairzy dotes and dozy dotes and little lamsy divy." But the allusion is a tribute, too, since the song does exactly what Mamet tries to do--to make familiar language seem strange by playing up its underlying formal patterns. The sense of the Brice line is simple: "Mares eat oats and does eat oats and little lambs eat ivy." Language makes sense only as an abstract structure--both Mamet and Fanny Brice tell us--but if we note the structure, paradoxically, it can stop making sense, on a dime.

Mamet's a structuralist, too, in the way that he finds the same meanings in a wide variety of formulas. Systematically, in the course of his career, he has explored different territories characterized by highly specialized vocabularies: the pawn shop of American Buffalo, the businesses of law or theater or real estate or academe in The Verdict, A Life in the Theater, Glengarry Glen Ross, and Oleanna, Hollywood in Speed-the-Plow or State and Main. In each case, he varies and recombines a few key phrases from these vocabularies to show how they are implicated in the illusion of trust, and infused by the seduction of betrayal. The best example is Mamet's best film, House of Games. There, the jargon of psychoanalysis collides with the lingo of con artistry, as a therapist is drawn into a con game, and the effects of this collision give a kicky, lurid overtone to the methodical, formal dynamics of the film.

The title of one of Mamet's books, On Directing Film, is a bit of a misnomer, since the book is mostly about writing scripts. But what that means is that for Mamet, directing is writing--and the script is the film. But Mamet expresses one real idea about filmmaking in the book. Shots, he argues, in and of themselves, should be completely uninflected, and should gain force only in their collision with one another, in editing.

This notion replicates in film language the principles Mamet applies to spoken language in his dialogue, and over the years he's built a distinctive style out of it: pointed, exact, and vivid, if portentous.

But the direction of Heist is undistinguished--even sloppy, at times, using a Jurassic Park cliché like subliminal thumpings on the soundtrack to announce impending action. Mamet keeps the camera close and the focus shallow--in a style much too close to the current fashions--and he cuts a lot, but gets few real effects from the cutting, so the shots remain, for the most part, uninflected. One memorable effect comes out of this style, though: We see Joe in tight close-up, blurry background stretching behind him. A figure enters the background, and we know it's Fran, but because the focus is so shallow, we can make out only her hazy outlines. Then, abruptly, breathtakingly, the focus shifts and, without moving, she leaps into clarity. A nice effect--crisp and clean.

To get the real measure of Heist we may have to go back further in film history than 1940s noir, all the way to The Great Train Robbery, one of the first films to tell a story, in 1903. The story it told, step by step, was that of the title crime, and reformists cried foul, fearing the movie would teach the masses how to rob trains. The film's primitive impersonality--it's filmed all in long shot, so the characters are nothing but sketchy figures--places all the emphasis on the steal-by-numbers action. Heist isn't impersonal, exactly, but it's so abstract--even the direct resonances of terrorism remain weirdly remote--that all its fascination lies in processes, in watching the well-played cyphers, as they spew their Mametian foul-mouthed poetry, pull off their impossible capers, schemes that have about as much reference to current American realities as the ones in Topkapi, or 11 Harrowhouse. Watching this film is like leafing through a brilliantly conceived, precisely designed manual that you know you'll never use. EndBlock

  • David Mamet's rich language enlivens this by-numbers caper.

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