Photo Credit: Phillip V. Caruso/HBO
There’s an absolutely brilliant scene about 15 minutes into David Mamet’s new film Phil Spector, which premieres Sunday on HBO. On a rainy night in 2007, attorney Linda Kenney Baden (Helen Mirren), who has been drafted onto Spector’s (Al Pacino) legal team by lead attorney Bruce Cutler (Jeffrey Tambor), arrives outside the Alhambra, Calif., mansion of the eccentric music mogul, who stands accused of murdering cocktail waitress and failed actress Lana Clarkson on Feb. 3, 2003.
The illumination on the grounds throws spooky shadows onto the house and, as Baden enters the abode, she finds herself in an almost surreal combination of Versailles and carnival fun house, with corridors leading to ornately over-decorated and overstuffed rooms connected by doors that often open the “wrong” way or lead to false entrances. The HBO press materials include a note by Mamet – who both wrote and directed the film, in addition to serving as an executive producer – that he wanted the scene to be evocative of a famous moment in Cocteau’s 1946 fantasy Beauty and the Beast, as Belle makes her way into the Beast’s forbidding castle for the first time. At the heart of the place, however, she finds not a fearsome monster as Belle does, but a shambling and seemingly harmless little man, sort of like the one Dorothy finds when she explores the inner sanctum of The Wizard of Oz.
This Phil Spector who welcomes Linda acts nothing like the volatile megalomaniac accused of shoving a pistol into Clarkson’s mouth and pulling the trigger on that fateful night. He seems instead to just be a weary old man who wants to relive his glory days in a rambling monologue as Linda tries to take in the staggering clutter of memorabilia, which we suspect may mirror the inner state of Spector’s mind on top of everything else. But although Linda previously had thought Spector’s defense was virtually unwinnable – after all, his chauffeur that night testified that, after a gunshot came from inside the house, Spector came out and said, “I think I just killed somebody” – Spector insists on his innocence, saying that the driver, who barely spoke English, misunderstood him when he said, “I think I should call somebody” to report what he says was Clarkson’s self-inflicted wound.
That scene is a major highlight of this new HBO Original, and there are other compelling moments as well, but Mamet has dealt something of a self-inflicted wound to the movie as a whole with the startling disclaimer he puts up at the beginning of the film: “This is a work of fiction. It’s not ‘based on a true story.’ It is a drama inspired by actual persons in a trial, but it is neither an attempt to depict the actual persons, nor to comment upon the trial or its outcome.”
So, according to Mamet, Phil Spector apparently isn’t a courtroom drama or a reliably fact-based character study or a docudrama, which might leave the possibility that it’s a cerebral meditation on whether juries occasionally convict defendants simply because they don’t like them. But wait, Mamet isn’t commenting on the trial or its outcome, either.
That doesn’t leave a whole lot to hang a 90-minute film on, even when it’s written by one of America’s most dazzling wordsmiths and acted by a cast that includes two world-famous Oscar and Emmy winners who never have shared a dramatic screen together before. And it also robs Phil Spector of a lot of the dramatic urgency it might otherwise have.
As for the two star performances, both Mirren and Pacino are very good indeed. She has a somewhat easier task, since even if we allow for occasional fudging of details for the sake of drama, Linda Kenney Baden’s point of view is fairly easy to understand: As she spends more time with the defendant, she comes to believe that blood spatter evidence and other forensic tests strongly suggest that it would have been impossible for Spector to have shot Clarkson in the mouth at close range without being virtually painted in her blood, instead of having only a half-dozen small spots on his jacket. When a friend of Clarkson angrily confronts Linda and challenges her to prove that Spector didn’t do it, Linda calmly replies that her job is simply to prove that the hard evidence raises reasonable doubt that her client is guilty.
Pacino has a more challenging row to hoe, since he has to master some of Mamet’s characteristically dense verbal arias that make up Spector’s frequent rants and attempt to create a cohesive character out of a role that stubbornly remains, well, somewhat spectral. It’s a busy portrayal, to be sure, although thankfully Pacino never crosses the line where his performance is more a matter of quantity than quality. In a climactic scene, after spending extensive time and energy trying to prepare Spector for a risky appearance on the stand, Linda is stunned and dismayed when he turns up for this critical day in court with his hair in a mile-high gray Afro like a refugee from a clown college for senior citizens. Why is he doing this? Is he suffering from dementia? Angling for an insanity defense? Who knows?
That moment is the last part of the trial Mamet shows us. Pre-credit cards at the end advise us that, with Linda leading his defense, Spector’s first trial ended with a deadlocked jury; a second trial, in which Linda couldn’t participate due to some personal health issues, resulted in his conviction.
Mamet isn’t going to comment further on this, of course. But the jury at home is free to draw its own conclusions.