On a plane recently I watched The Verdict, a 1982 Sidney Lumet film, starring Paul Newman and James Mason. It's a creaky and dated film, saved by some very good performances. It's got a great reputation; voted by the American Film Institute the 91st greatest screenplay of all time. Adapted from a novel, the movie concerns a drunken and washed-up lawyer (Frank Galvin, played by Newman) who is gifted an easy medical malpractice case, where the thing to do is just to press for a good out-of-court settlement, make everyone a bit of money and get his own career back on track. In fact, he decides to take the case to trial, and against all the odds succeeds.
The screenplay is by David Mamet. There are some good character touches and Mamet keeps things gritty, rather than sentimental. But the moves in the plot are pretty clunky and the ending is out of nowhere much. Possibly Mamet's just following the novel - I haven't read it - but what might work in a book as a kind of legal procedural needs some rethinking in narrative terms. The drive to find the hidden witness ( a nurse who knows that a key document was falsified) evaporates in court when the judge rules her evidence inadmissible. The problem is you feel cheated, but in narrative rather than moral terms. It also features Mamet's characteristic misogyny: Galvin meets and starts a relationship with Laura (played by Charlotte Rampling). Some way through the trial, Galvin discovers that Laura is in the pay of his trial opponent and is spying on him, feeding his strategy back to them. Galvin's reaction is to find her and punch her to the ground. At the end of the film, Laura is now the washed-up drunk and we see her sprawled in her bed tearfully phoning Frank; the final scene has Frank in his office moodily ignoring the phone. It seems as if the great triumph of the movie is his grand repudiation of women.
It made me think about Mamet and his bizarre drift from perhaps the most brilliant playwright in America to a washed-up, right-wing jobbing writer, incapable of capturing even a flicker of his previous quality. His drift to the right has been a long time coming; the sort of comments he made to the press around the time of Oleanna (1992) suggested contempt for liberal values, but it was only in 2008 when he wrote a notorious essay for Village Voice entitled 'Why I Am No Longer A Brain-Dead Liberal' that he came out as a fully-fledged neo-liberal conservative, an admirer of Hayek, a Romney supporter, an opponent of gun control, and a scourge of liberal pieties. This has been accompanied by a decline of his playwriting powers. He would undoubtedly like to believe that his plays are still great, it's just that the liberal theatre establishment has turned against him. But it's just not true; the plays are now thin and shapeless. His once-famous dialogue has decayed into a series of barbs and one-liners, smart remarks about this and that. In particular there's a strange tendency for the characters to twist their words into gnomic utterances that one fears the author believes is wisdom. This from the beginning of 2012's The Anarchist:
ANN. What have you been doing?
CATHY. I've been studying. As usual.
ANN. And what have you learned?
CATHY. In the larger sense . . .
ANN. . . . all right.
CATHY. I hope that I've learned to be reasonable. At least I have studied it. Most importantly.
ANN. Most importantly.
ANN. Reason more than patience?
CATHY. One might think the pressing study would be patience. But patience, of course, implies an end.
ANN. "Patience implies an end".
CATHY. Well, yes.
CATHY. One may be patient only for something.
ANN. Such as?
CATHY. A deferred desire, or the cessation of discomfort . . .
CATHY. Well, that would fall within the rubric of desire deferred.
ANN. And reason teaches?
CATHY. Reason would teach the abandonment of the unfulfillable wish; and, so, of the need for patience. It therefore may be said to be the higher study.
(The Anarchist, New York: TCG, 2012, pp. 7-8)
They sound like an impersonation of intelligence. Compare it to Glengarry Glen Ross (1983), his masterpiece I think, which early on gives us this exchange:
LEVENE. [...] All that I'm saying, things get set, I know they do, you get a certain mindset . . . A guy gets a reputation. We know how this . . . all I'm saying, put a closer on the job. There's more than one man for the . . . Put a . . . Wait a second, put a proven man out . . . and you watch, now wait a second – and you watch your dollar volumes . . . You start closing them for fifty 'stead of twenty-five . . . you put a closer on the . . .
WILLIAMSON. Shelly, you blew the last . . .
LEVENE. No. John. No. Let's wait, let's back up here, I did. . . will you please! Wait a second. Please. I didn't 'blow' them. No. I didn't 'blow' them. One kicked out, one I closed . . .
WILLIAMSON . . . you didn't close . . .
LEVENE. . . . I, if you'd listen to me. Please. I closed the cocksucker. His 'ex', John, his ex, I didn't know he was married . . . he, the judge invalidated the . . .
WILLIAMSON. Shelly . . .
LEVENE. . . . And what is that, John? What? Bad luck. That's all it is. I pray in your life you will never find it runs in streaks. That's what it does, that's all it's doing. Streaks. I pray it misses you. That's all I want to say.
WILLIAMSON. (pause) What about the other two?
LEVENE. What two?
WILLIAMSON. Four. You had four leads. One kicked out, one the judge, you say . . .
LEVENE. . . . You want to see the court records? John? Eh? You want to go down . . .
WILLIAMSON. . . . no . . .
LEVENE. . . . do you want to go down-town . . . ?
WILLIAMSON. . . . no . . .
LEVENE. . . . then . . .
WILLIAMSON . . . I only . . .
LEVENE . . . then what is this 'you say' shit, what is that?
(Plays: 3, London: Methuen, 1996, pp. 5-6)
Everything that is great about this latter scene is bad about the former. This scene is incomprehensible: it's a shock - we are thrown suddenly into a world, with terminology ('closer', 'leads') that we are unfamiliar with. In The Anarchist, we're thrown into a set of ideas being sedately exchanged that we don't care about. In Glengarry, a baffling situation starts to resolve into a personal relationship; we begin to feel that Levene is being aggressive because he's on the back foot; Williamson is more diffident in the debate because he holds all the cards; there's a story here and we want to know more. In The Anarchist, no such relationship truly emerges; it's static on a deep level. In Glengarry, we begin to paint a whole world around this scene: the leads, the judge, the court, the ex, the situation where we are, the situation where we're not - brilliantly, he sets the first act of this workplace play not at work - but in The Anarchist it just remains static and empty and arid. Levene has a speech that feels like someone speaking wisdom - the speech about luck - but we know it's got a purpose; it's being said to have an effect; it may not be something Levene particularly believes. In The Anarchist we sense that the ideas are not part of any kind of situation; Mamet actually cares about these ideas and wants us to follow them and engage with them. But they are neither followable or engaging. The halting rhythms are now not about character or situation or even realism, they are the unlovely self-love of a writer who has stopped being interested in language, only in the things he wants to express. And that's why he's stopped being any good.
But what struck me, watching The Verdict, is that the reason why Mamet used to be so good is that he has always been attracted to the Right: the cut-throat entrepreneurs of Glengarry Glen Ross, the hopeless individualists of American Buffalo (1975), the illiberal liberals of Oleanna, the vicious misogynists of Sexual Perversity in Chicago (1974) - and indeed the vested interests and crude misogynists of The Verdict. Horrible though the ending is in moral terms, it's probably the most profound and stirring moment in the movie. It was because he was drawn to these people, fascinated by them, but troubled by his own feelings for them that he is driven to show them, expose them, lay them bare, in all their complexity and fascination to him. There was a transition period in the 1990s, where these tensions were brought to thrilling crisis: in particular, Oleanna, a play which he seems to have written as an attack on political correctness, but with such troubled complexity that the play is one of the most brilliant presentations of the complexities of the debates over liberalism, free speech, gender, and sexual exploitation that I know, even if I suspect Mamet doesn't realise how good his play is. It's a play that comes from a great playwright trying to explore his troubled feelings.
Now, unfortunately, he is untroubled by his feelings about this right-wing world and the writing has consequently become thin and flat. The Verdict isn't as great as Mamet could be, but it's still better than anything he's been able to write in the last decade. Mamet has become a terrible writer which is a pity, because at his peak, there was no one in the world who could write like David Mamet.