Steven Gale reviews Mamet's latest genre film starring Gene Hackman and Rebecca Pidgeon.
Screenplay and direction by David Mamet.
Warner Brothers, November 2001.
From the beginning of his screenwriting career, David Mamet’s filmscripts have typically included misdirection, trickery, and deception in both their subject matter and techniques. Although tackled from a somber point of view in his first two screenplays (a rewrite of The Postman Always Rings Twice, 1981, and The Verdict, 1982), duplicity has been one of the primary themes in his cinematic works. In Things Change (1988), he considers the ramifications of false identities, recalling Frank Capra’s Lady for a Day (1933), but in House of Games (1987) and The Edge (1997), the tone is deadly serious as he portrays characters who rely on deception to attain their goals. In The Spanish Prisoner 1997), games are also significant, and plot twists abound.
Plot twists are de rigueur in the genre of films known as caper or heist movies, which range from high-spirited (The Lavender Hill Mob, Too Many Crooks, The Ladykillers) to emotionally charged (Reservoir Dogs). With Heist, Mamet seems to be drawing on this tradition, as his title suggests. Yet Heist is not a 50s caper movie, nor is it film noir; it starts out in the vein of its mid-century predecessors but takes a violent twist near the end. In the early street scene, as the gang prepares to rob a jewelry store, there is a series of switch-overs and trade-offs from one character to another reminiscent of The Sting. Things go wrong with the elaborately planned jewel heist; still, the violence is minimal and no one is seriously hurt.
The characters generally play off one another as the gang’s leader, ship builder Joe Moore Gene Hackman), and his co-conspirator/money man rival Bergman (Danny DeVito), try to best each other. Hackman, who has to run because he can he identified from the jewelry store job (he sloppily allows a saleswoman to see his unmasked face, which is simultaneously photographed by a security camera), also allows DeVito to force him to take part in the heist of a Swiss bank’s gold bars that are being transported by air. DeVito demands that his nephew, Jimmy Silk (Sam Rockwell), go along on the caper in order to make sure that Hackman plays straight with him.
The complication sets in when Hackman sends his moll, Rebecca Pidgeon as Fran Moore, to seduce Silk. The robbery goes as planned (by Hackman, though not by the others), but there is a falling out among the thieves, In the end, DeVito and his gang are gunned down. Hackman’s partner Bobby Blane (Delroy Lindo) goes off to enjoy his share. Pidgeon chooses to leave with Silk, and Hackman is left holding the bag—literally.
The film breaks down on several fronts. First, Don (Ricky Jay) is killed. While there has been some violence up to that point, nothing would suggest this murder. Verbal barbs have been traded, but not bullets, so even though it occurs off- screen, this violence seems gratuitous. Events then become even more addled: the shoot-out on the pier in which DeVito and his whole gang are destroyed by Hackman and Lindo does not ring true; the degeneration into the kind of sudden brutality of House of’ Games and Wag the Dog does not call for violence and thus seems unrealistic.
Nevertheless, there are instances of wit and humor that recall Mamet at his best. When one of DeVito’s goons points a gun at Hackman, for example, Hackman asks DeVito if the man is going to shoot him. When DeVito says no, Hackman responds, “He isn’t gonna shoot me? Then he hadn’t oughta point a gun at me. It’s insincere.” Unfortunately, too many moments disappoint, as when DeVito, speaking to Hackman, who stands over him with a shotgun pointed at the prone man’s chest, says, ‘Don’t you want to hear my last words?” Hackman replies, “I just did,” and pulls the trigger. Similarly, it’s hard to believe that Pidgeon, who has shown great affection and understanding for Hackman and has worked with him on all of his tricks, would find Jimmy Silk attractive enough to forsake Hackman (if one buys the Hackman/Pidgeon coupling in the first place, which is possible).
Certain elements could make the picture successful. Pidgeon’s taking off her wig as she leaves the restaurant after doping the coffee meant for the jewelry store employees is a nice way of signaling the duplicity that will follow. Lindo’s tale of the man saved from a bullet in his heart by the Bible in his pocket tells the audience that there are twists upon twists, but the punchline is too obvious—as is the case with most of the twists. Perhaps Mamet deliberately exposes these betrayals so as to trick the audience as much as the characters trick one another.
The opening scene of’ the movie makes sense only in retrospect. After a close up of an intricately engraved shotgun, Hackman is seen with the shotgun walking through a forest, wearing a bright red/pink vest as well as a hard-hat. He makes his way down to the highway where a truck is waiting. Later, he returns to this same setting to prepare for the gold heist—which means he had been scouting the location, so he knew what he was going to do before DeVito “forced” him to do it: the Swiss gold heist was the plan all along. When asked how he can be such a successful thief, Hackman answers that he figures out what a man smarter than he is would do and then does it. This means he sent Fran to Silk to get rid of her. Thus, the intricately carved gun reflects his carefully crafted plan and is simultaneously an instrument of violence. Joe Moore, then, is a man who loves to play games—and he intends to win. His resulting wealth may or may not mean as much as the winning itself, but it certainly means more than love. Still, Lindo is the only one who is loyal throughout, and in the final analysis, he is the only character to whom Hackman shows any loyalty, so clearly honor is a part of the game.
Poker, a game never far from Mamet’s mind and one entrenched in his films (particularly House of Games), plays a role in Heist, too. The object is to clean out your opponent (or at least leave with more than you came with), and everyone is your opponent, as Mamet wrote in “Things I Have Learned Playing Poker on the Hill.” Nonetheless, good poker is ruled by an etiquette. In Heist, the world of poker frequently echoes, through certain phrases, the game playing that is going on, such as when Don allows himself to be hit by a car in order to distract the police so his accomplices can escape. He is unhurt, and one of the characters calls this his “road game”—which is also a term is used in poker to indicate a player’s expertise at a specific game, such as “hold ‘em.” Other clever puns include “bad beat,” as when a ‘full house”—normally considered a “lock”—is beaten by four of a kind, which is what happens to DeVito and his gang. If Heist is Mamet’s cinematic game of poker— with the bluffs, the money whipping, and other allusions— then Hackman succeeds because he beats everyone, although he shows respect for Lindo, who has shown respect for him, a trait that poker player Mamet might consider a sign of weakness.
In any case, despite its good qualities, Heist ultimately fails because it has a split personality. It is neither a classic caper film nor a gangster movie, neither about loyalty nor greed nor game playing—yet it is a little about all of these and so cannot be entirely about any of them. The result is what Graham Greene might have called “entertainment,” which is perfectly acceptable but is not high art.
KENTUCKY STATE UNIVERSITY