Film Reviews

Coin Flip-Out

The first play by David Mamet to receive wide notice was American Buffalo, a three-hander set in a junk shop, about marginal smalltime crooks planning to rob a coin collection. After an Obie-winning off-Broadway run, it hit Broadway in 1977, with Robert Duvall, Kenneth McMillan and John Savage, and it hasn't been out of the American repertoire since--Al Pacino's performance as Teach, the most talkative of the three smalltimers, has been especially noted among the play's many stagings.

More than any other work, American Buffalo made Mamet's reputation as a recorder of the riffing chatter of gritty lowlifes. How justified that reputation is may be debated. The language of American Buffalo sometimes rings closer to Damon Runyon than to overheard talk. And though Mamet's written at least two first-rate plays--Glengarry Glen Ross and his neglected tragedy Edmond--there are times throughout all of his work when he seems like a slumming middle-class kid who wants to wow us with his backstreet connections.

But specious or not, it can't be denied that Mamet's rattlespeak, in the mouths of actors rigorous enough to treat it as inviolable text, is theatrically effective. It plays, it holds the stage. The screen, too--some of Mamet's best works are the hired-gun movie scripts he wrote for The Verdict and The Untouchables. Two years ago, Mamet directed a simple, faithful film version of his controversial two-character Oleanna, which--whatever one thinks of the play's politics--proved fully screenworthy despite its obvious origins in the theatre.

Similarly, the current film version of American Buffalo from the young director Michael Corrente (Federal Hill) gives the lie to the old notion that one-set, gab-oriented plays make for weak movies. Corrente clearly had nothing more ambitious in mind than a smooth, fluid showcase for the text, performed by a dream team of Mametesque actors: Dustin Hoffman, Dennis Franz and Sean Nelson, the black teenager who with such unaffected excellence played the title role in Fresh. That is what Corrente got, and, guess what, that's plenty--plenty, anyway, to make the film diverting. How much value the piece has beyond diversion is another matter.

Donny (Franz) the shop owner has sold a buffalo-head nickel to a customer for $90, but he can't shake the notion that the guy cheated him, that the coin must have been worth much more than that. He therefore schemes with his young gofer Bobby (Nelson) to rob the guy's nearby home, where he presumes they'll find a valuable coin collection. But Teach (Hoffman) insinuates his way into the plot. He plants the seed of doubt in Donny about Bobby's fitness for the job--the kid is inexperienced, and an ex-junkie besides. Donny succumbs to Teach's persuasion and cuts the kid out of the deal, and it screws everything up.

That's basically it; a bungled, small-potatoes burglary. But the film is handsomely shot by Richard P. Crudo, on a fine set by Daniel Talpers, with terrific music by Thomas Newman. Above all, the actors glide effortlessly on Mamet's stream of verbiage. Nothing in the text convinced me that the outcome of the plot was sufficiently tragic to warrant Teach's final explosion of rage. But it was redeemed by Hoffman's acting.

--M. V. Moorhead

American Buffalo:
Directed by Michael Corrente; with Dustin Hoffman, Dennis Franz and Sean Nelson.