By Gregory Hess
“It’s a Barnum and Bailey world, just as phony as it can be.
But it wouldn’t be make-believe, if you believe in me.”
-“It’s Only a Paper Moon” (song published 1933)
The Water Engine, written by David Mamet, is introduced with the subtitle “An American Fable,” but it doesn’t need to be. It’s crystal clear from the outset what Mamet’s on about—the “American Dream,” and all of its accompanying trials and tribulations. Set in Chicago in 1934, the film (based on Mamet’s play, which itself was based on his earlier radio play of the same material) was made for TV, produced by Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment, and originally aired on TNT. Though The Water Engine doesn’t have the slick panache of many of Mamet’s theatrical features, it is loaded with great performances. For Mamet completists, as well as Chicago history buffs, it makes for fine viewing. (continued)
The stage is set for doom right up front. William H. Macy plays Charles Lang, a machine operator at the anonymous, hulking Dietz & Federly factory. Lang also dabbles in engineering, and he is seen in the opening scenes covertly stealing parts from the factory. He lives with his blind sister (played with child-like naiveté by Patti LuPone), and together they dream of brighter things to come. One day, Lang phones his sister from his workshop to report that, at last, the invention works—he’s built a water engine. But when Lang cautiously sets out to secure a patent for the device, the cogs are set in motion for his achievement to be invalidated, stolen, or possibly destroyed.
The Water Engine was filmed in 1992, and Mamet already had two features under his belt (House of Games and Things Change), though he himself did not direct this project. That task went to his long-time student and theatrical accomplice Steven Schacter. It is not surprising, then, that many of Mamet’s rogue’s gallery of company players are here liberally employed. Nearly all of the usual suspects turn up in The Water Engine, including Macy, Mike Nussbaum, Joe Mantegna, J.J. Johnston, Ricky Jay, Rebecca Pidgeon, and the late Lionel Mark Smith. Others who had never acted in a Mamet film were Chicago theatre folk, like John Mahoney. Still others would turn up in future Mamet projects (Patti LuPone later appeared in Mamet’s State and Main, as did Charles Durning.) Macy even gets a chance to go toe-to-toe with Felicity Huffman, his future wife, in a brief scene in a dance hall. It could be argued that Mamet is one of the only contemporary auteurs to successfully manipulate a long-term corral of company players in film, as such luminaries as John Ford or Preston Sturges did before him. Mamet himself even makes a rare on-screen appearance in the film, in a brief dialogue with J.J. Johnston on a streetcar.
Macy should be considered the most gifted interpreter of Mamet’s writing, and rightly so, as he’s had the most time to absorb it. The two met in Vermont in 1971—Macy the student, Mamet the teacher, though the two men are separated in age by only three years (Mamet is slightly older, born in ’47). Macy went on to accompany Mamet in founding the St. Nicholas Theatre Company, which began in Vermont and later migrated to Chicago, and which premiered “The Water Engine” in December, 1977 (though Macy did not play Lang in this staging).
From start to finish, The Water Engine is one of Mamet’s most Chicago-centric works. The opening credits play over the state anthem “Illinois” and the film name-checks the Aragon Ballroom, Halsted Street, and the Lincoln Park Zoo. Unfortunately, however, The Water Engine appears to have been shot entirely on a soundstage, not on location.
The Water Engine also uses as a device the Century of Progress World’s Fair Exposition, which occurred in Chicago from 1933 to 1934, commemorating the centennial of the city. The legacy of this fair can still be seen in the Windy City today. The fourth star on Chicago’s flag was added in its honor, though at the time it was only the third star (another star, said to be the “first” star, was added in honor of the historic Fort Dearborn in 1939). The Century of Progress Expo took place mostly in the area now known as Northerly Island, and remnants of structures designed for the expo are still found there today.
There is a recurring voice-over narration in the film (no doubt an artifact of the previous radio play iteration) delivered by no less than Martin Sheen. The voice reads the words of a chain letter, which were popular at the time. This letter is delivered to various players throughout the story, and the narration is ominous (“Do not break the chain”), telling the sad tales of those who failed to heed the letter’s instructions, and the great riches bestowed on those who did. It provides a pretty easy illustration to the themes of the film—the false promise of the “American Dream,” and the seeming impossibility of success in post-Depression America. In a way, The Water Engine is a perfectly natural companion to Mamet’s con-game films. In this world, as in those, grifters abound, the house is stacked against you, and nobody’s on your side.
The Water Engine is just one of a myriad of Mamet film adaptations that tangentially relate to him—satellite productions with which Mamet himself was not involved, but which feature his distinctive stamp. Joe Mantegna filmed an excellent version of Lakeboat, which sadly went straight to video, featuring many Mamet regulars. Also, Stuart Gordon, who worked in the Chicago theatre scene with Mamet in the ’70s, directed Macy in the titular role of Edmond, a role which Macy originated. Another made-for-TV adaptation of a Mamet play, A Life in the Theatre, was filmed in 1993, starring Matthew Broderick and Jack Lemmon. (This too is available on VHS only, but is even harder to find. Facets carries it for rent.)
“It’s Only a Paper Moon” is sung fairly early in the film, as Lang and his sister enjoy a night out at a dancehall to celebrate Charles’ achievement. The song is a harbinger of things to come, as Lang’s “American Dream” will soon be brutally denied. The common man will remain common, and may in fact find that his gift to the world will ultimately be his undoing. The “Century of Progress” has arrived, but this progress has already been long telegraphed, and those who stand in its way risk being run over by it, like a steaming locomotive.
“We Want VHS” : The place to vote for all your favorite contemporary films to be butchered into pan-n-scan and released on VHS! (They got Paramount to cave on Paranormal Activity, evidently.)
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