Drawing again from my files of movie dialogue that’s particularly caught my attention, I’ve come up with another potpourri from a single film written by a major American playwright. My previous column presented comically bathetic lines from the 1955 adaptation of Clifford Odets’ “The Big Knife” — things you couldn’t imagine anyone saying in real life with a straight face. This column, though, focuses on intentionally comic lines from a film written and directed by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Mamet.
His 2001 “Heist” stars Gene Hackman as master thief Joe Moore, Rebecca Pigeon (Mamet’s wife) as Joe’s wife, Fran, and Danny DeVito as Bergmann, the fence bankrolling Joe, who pressures him for one final big job. Mamet peppers the dialogue with memorable exchanges, but, unlike in the Odets script, they’re clever, funny and slick — quips of the sort you wish you could come up with — demonstrating how clever and slick these thieves are. As one of his crew describes him, Joe’s “so cool, when he goes to bed, sheep count him.”
Like some of the best lines here, that doesn’t make sense — and also makes perfect sense.
Criminals, conmen and double-crossers populate much of Mamet’s work, and how characters talk about things and how things really are is a dichotomy he and his characters explore with relish.
Take, for example, this barroom exchange: “Take it easy, baby. That stuff’ll rot your stomach lining.” “Yeah, but I get to drink it first.”
Then there’s this paradoxical discussion where Joe “explains” his genius. He builds and repairs boats for his day job, and when he solves an especially challenging problem for a customer, the man compliments him with “You’re a pretty smart fella.” “Ah, not that smart,” Joe demurs. Customer: “You’re not that smart, how’d you figure it out?” Joe: “I try to imagine a fella smarter than myself. Then I try to think, ‘What would he do?’”
If you watch “Heist” with the sound off, it’s a taut caper film. With the sound on, it’s one of the funniest film scripts Mamet has ever written. And if you listen to it a second time, you see jokes interlinking cynically to recap and critique the film.
Right at the outset of the film, Joe and partner Bobby Blane (Delroy Lindo) get coffee from a sidewalk cart, and the vendor calls after them, “Hey, buddy, you forgot your change.” Taking his change, Joe says, “Makes the world go round.” Bobby: “What’s that?” Joe: “Gold.” Bobby: “Some people say love.” Joe: “Well, they’re right, too. It is love — love of gold.”
Witty and cynical, it reveals a lot about Joe. It also resonates throughout the film as Joe’s marriage and his robbery plans intertwine.
Examining jewelry Joe has just stolen for him, Bergmann muses, “Nobody gets away with the goods like you, Joe.” Joe: “Anybody can get the goods. The hard part’s getting away.” Bergmann: “Uh huh.” Joe: “You plan a good enough getaway, you could steal Ebbets Field.” Bergmann: “Ebbets Field’s gone.” Joe: “What did I tell you?”
Much later, after thieves have fallen out and bodies have littered the dock, Fran returns with Bergmann’s nephew, Jimmy (Sam Rockwell), to whom Joe had sent her as part of his con, to relieve him of the stolen gold. Jimmy covers Joe with a pistol, and Joe asks, “Why doesn’t he shoot me?” Fran: “That’s the deal.” Joe: “He ain’t gonna shoot me?” Fran: “No.” Joe: “Then he hadn’t ought to point a gun at me. ... It’s insincere.”
Joe’s quip epitomizes coolness in a tense situation. But it — reinforced by that pause before those final two words — calls to mind Bergmann and Jimmy’s earlier discussion about how Fran can demonstrate the “sincerity” of her offer (at Joe’s direction) of collaboration in the heist.
The film’s greatest line, though, belongs to Bergmann, and Roger Ebert declared it “one of the funniest lines Mamet has ever written.” It sounds like a Zen koan about economics — a statement that completely derails your thinking — and investment advice programs and podcasts often quote it: “Everybody needs money! That’s why they call it money!”
It makes no sense, and it makes perfect sense. Either you think it’s hilarious or you think it’s stupid. But in some weird way, it’s true.
Note: Mamet’s “Heist” is rated R for language (and some violence), so I couldn’t quote many of the best lines in a family publication. You do have a choice sample here nonetheless, and you can find it on DVD, DirecTV, Amazon, Google Play and other platforms.