I think I was too young to really appreciate David Mamet and the beauty of his writing (and two great actors performing it) when I first saw this back in 1996. I mean, I could get behind GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS at that age, but that movie is a goddamned house on fire of amazing acting and sharp, attacking exchanges. It's dynamic in a much different way than AMERICAN BUFFALO. And on top of that, Mamet himself didn't direct that one, James Foley did. Michael Corrente directed this Mamet script (adapted from his famous play). Corrente is certainly a different director than Foley and this story was a bit smaller (only three characters) so it's kind of a different animal. I must admit nonetheless that when I first saw it, AMERICAN BUFFALO didn't grab me in the way I hoped it would (though Mamet's own THE WINSLOW BOY would completely mesmerize me three years later). Corrente would really get my attention with his film OUTSIDE PROVIDENCE (based on a novel by Peter Farrelly) in 1999. That said, this go-round I caught the dynamism of language that I underappreciated my first time. From Dennis Franz's very first lines I could feel the magnetic poetry of Mamet's dialogue. I even noticed phrases like "Am I wrong?" and others that immediately made me thing of a certain Coen Brothers stoner noir and that completely made sense. Of course the Coens would be fans of AMERICAN BUFFALO (or at least it wouldn't surprise me if they were). Once "the thing"of AMERICAN BUFFALO is established, it's pretty outstanding to watch Franz and Hoffman go around and around in conversation trying to figure out how to go about it, while all the while not really trusting each other and trying to feel each other out. It really is the talking around things that is the most gratifying thing when you watch actors performing Mamet. He really is one of the true masters of the talk-around. It's a fucking glorious thing.
There's something pretty great about Dennis Franz delivering Mamet-speak for me. The harsh nasal-y tone of his very Chicago-bred voice adds this certain layer of blue collar filtering on top of the Mamet poetry and it gives it a nice twist. Mamet himself is of course from Chicago so he knows that voice well, but I am so used to non-Chicago actors saying his words that I forget how good they sound with homefield advantage so to speak. Franz is an actor who doesn't get his deserved credit in my opinion. Maybe because he played a lot of cops (because he's great at it) and the fact that he was on NYPD BLUE for so long has made people forget about him a little and how good he is. The other factor is that he hasn't really acted since that show ended in 2005. That's ten years we've been deprived of Dennis Franz in movies and it's kind of a bummer. AMERICAN BUFFALO was actually a little bit of a swan song for him in a way in terms of this kind of acting. He had a role in CITY OF ANGELS in 1998, but that was his last movie as far as I know. It wasn't until this rewatch that I came to realize all this and suddenly the whole thing became a tad bittersweet. I have loved Dennis Franz since I first saw all of his collaborations with Brian De Palma. De Palma seemed to be the one big film director who understood the acknowledged the value of Dennis Franz.
Dustin Hoffman is certainly a much more appreciated actor and one who is not afraid to make choices that can tend to push his characters into some less likable territory. I couldn't help but be reminded of one of my favorite Hoffman films (STRAIGHT TIME) when watching this thing. His career criminal character Max Dembo in that film is not by any means the same kinda guy as his character "Teach" in AMERICAN BUFFALO. They are similar though in that crime isn't something they are averse to and it's something that has been in and out of their lives for a long time (or so it would seem). Teach is more of a grifter/gambler type loser who's hungry and desperate and yet is able to project enough confidence to con people. Hoffman can play anything, but his take on this sort of cocksure desperation is particularly compelling. He seems to really be able to tap into something when he plays roles like this, the sheer vulnerability of these folks is something he can make compelling while still being slightly off-putting.
-This disc features a Twilight Time commentary track with the excellent and ubiquitous Nick Redman and Julie Kirgo. It's no secret that I love their commentaries and they've yet to disappoint me.
Julie and Nick discuss the play itself here and how it launched Mamet and the actors who were in it in it's various Broadway productions. It's quite interesting to hear about the differences between what the film shows as far as the characters and how they are played versus how they were interpreted in some of the various stage versions with other actors. There's a lot more discussed here, but I'll leave it to the listener to enjoy.
HOMBRE (1967; Martin Ritt)
There are several things you should know about this movie from the outset. First, the cast includes Paul Newman, Fredric March, Cameron Mitchell, Richard Boone, Martin Balsam, and Barbara Rush. Second, it was directed by the great Martin Ritt and was shot by the equally great James Wong Howe. Third, it's based on an Elmore Leonard novel. That's a whole lot this movie has going for it right up front right? It was certainly enough to sell me on checking it out.
This movie plays out in a couple parts. The first has to do with Paul Newman who plays John Russell, a white man who was raised by Apache Indians. There is much disdain for the Apaches and as a result, John Russell himself too. When he inherits a boarding house, he cleans himself up and dresses like the white man to claim it. The boardinghouse already has its own story going on and the characters that live there become part of the story. The second part of the tale has to do with a stagecoach and its passengers (which include John Russell and the folks from the boardinghouse plus others). Enter Cicero Grimes (Richard Boone). Grimes bullies his way on to the coach as only Richard Boone can do. Once the coach leaves town the movie becomes kind of a STAGECOACH kinda thing. Plenty of good Elmore Leonard dialogue throughout. The movie is solid until Richard Boone shows up and then it goes up a notch. Boone is one of those actors who can play evil characters like just about nobody else. He has a deadly charisma and often charms before he strikes. He has a world-weathered face, a bulbous nose and a gravely voice to menace people with. He is one of my favorite character actors, especially in roles like he has here. He can truly give a sense of a man who just as soon kill you as look at you in the most believable way. I truly believe that a movie is only as good as its villain and Boone is one that I've found has elevated everything he's been in. I also feel like not enough cinephiles know about him. He exists in a certain pocket of genre films (often westerns) for the most part wherein if you haven't ventured into those movies, he doesn't exist. When I first came across him in Budd Boetticher's THE TALL T (one of my favorite movies), he won me over immediately. And Boone fits perfectly into the Elmore Leonard universe.
Leonard is one of the great genre writers of the twentieth century without any doubt. And he's a fella whose work can and has been adapted into some pretty great films. He paints of world of weariness and distrust. A world where things can get stripped down to the "it's you or me" paradigm quite quickly and once it goes there, there's no coming back without some kind of showdown. But he's clever about it. Clever about his villains and clever about his "heroes". He can create a bleak, but potent heroism born out of pure self-preservation. That cutting away of the bullshit is quite primal and really can hook you. The Leonard microcosm functions fantastically well in a western setting. It also functions well in a noir setting and he seems to bring elements of both genres to either type of story with terrific skill. Both noirs and westerns have the darkness of life and death hanging in the balance often at the hands of merciless people. Paul Newman's John Russell is wonderful Elmore Leonard character. He's an outsider and is disliked by much of the rest of the folks involved. Disliked and seen as dirty and useless until he makes a stand where the others wouldn't. Then suddenly he's their savior, but a savior who wants nothing to do with them. It makes for great drama and a great Paul Newman performance. HOMBRE is a film that will certainly be among my favorite "discoveries"of 2015 and I have Twilight Time to thank for that. This is one of Ritt's best films and is right up there with HUD in terms of his collaborations with Paul Newman. A very fine film.
This disc also features a very solid commentary track, this time from Film Historians Lee Pfeiffer (of Cinema Retro Magazine) and Paul Scrabo. Both share a fondness for films of the 1960s and 70s and both are quite knowledgable about cinema (this is apparent right out of the gate). You can just tell when folks know their stuff based on the incidental films and such that they mention early on in a commentary. They discuss the new found freedom and the new kind of westerns (like HOMBRE) that were emerging during this amazingly fertile period in cinema history.