Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!
Nobody understands the confidence game better than David Mamet. His movies, most of all his debut House of Games (1989), show you in great detail how his con men entrap, use and manipulate their victims for money, influence, sex, or all of the above. His take on the long con is so simple that he is a playwright first and a moviemaker second; his games only need a stage and a few props. He often enlisted the late Ricky Jay, who was a magician first and an actor second. It’s also proof that more complex things are going on than meet the eye, but the con very often happens in plain sight. The point of any confidence game is this: “It’s called a confidence game. Why? Because you give me your confidence? No. Because I give you mine.” It’s the perpetrator’s choice, and the victim is hopelessly trapped. Some characters know what is happening to them, but can’t do anything about it. Others simply have no clue. There is a cruel purity to such a concept.
Mamet’s stage play Glengarry Glen Ross premiered in 1982 and became a film directed by James Foley in 1992. It brings the con game into the shark-tank world of real-estate sales, a world that Mamet himself had worked in. Best salesman gets a cadillac, second gets a set of steak knives, the rest get fired. The cast (Al Pacino, Alan Arkin, Jack Lemmon, Ed Harris) have to coax, wheedle and subtly manipulate their leads into buying land. They are also not above manipulating and conning their co-workers: if they can’t close their own leads, they can at least prevent the others from doing so. Mamet’s weapon is language: his salesmen sweet-talk their way into the sales while using threats and curses towards each other. Salesmen are the very visible victims of economic pressure, but they are also perpetuating the system that threatens to crush them.
Glengarry Glen Ross doesn’t obscure things. The leads get stolen, and we eventually get to know who did it, but that’s not the point. The movie, like most of Mamet’s work, is about how people are only all too ready to cheat others. They know that there are several cheaters among them. In House of Games, the main character knows she is being manipulated by a con man, but is virtually powerless to do something about it. That is Mamet’s thing: it’s all there right in the foreground. Pick a worthwhile victim, use your words wisely, and you will gain the upper hand. Theft is for losers.
The Rear-View Mirror will return every Friday, looking further and further into the past. Fasten your seatbelts: it may just be a bumpy ride.