HOMICIDE (1991, USA, David Mamet direction and screenplay)
You say you’re a Jew and you can’t read Hebrew. What are you, then?
This one feels like a real find –until the Twistmeister gets too fancy at the end, muddling thematic complexity with plot contrivance that’s completely unnecessary. Up to the point where the thoughtful Mamet gets shouldered aside by the clever Mamet, it’s a fascinating character study, a conversion story of sorts with a strange string of circumstances that challenge homicide detective Bobby Gold to decide who he is – a cop, or a Jew – at the risk of ending up neither.
Cinematog Roger Deakins gives us lots to look at: ominously silent after opening credit music, a slow tracking shot starts abstract, just shapes, texture, and motion, then reveals itself to be a banister moments before shapes enter the frame, moving against the camera motion, men with shields and guns working their way up the stairs for a deadly raid on a tenement apartment. Scene after scene, everything is old, cracked, peeling, neglected, a wearing-out world of rooftops, stairways, rundown storefronts on mean, dreary streets. Until we enter the apartment of a wealthy Jewish doctor, where the contrast is striking: a single room or hallway here feels more expansive – and certainly more expensive – than anything else we (or the detective) have seen, even outside in broad (but never bright) daylight.
A simple reveal is beautifully executed: the detective stands and steps out of frame to show the doctor’s daughter, unnoticed, on a couch behind him, precisely when Gold’s blisteringly crude anti-Semitic phone conversation crystallizes into something even more personally damning: “Hey, not my people, baby. Fuck ‘em. There’s so much anti-semitism the last four thousand years, we must be doing something to bring it about.” He hangs up the phone, and the dialogue-dense air is suddenly still as he too notices the beautiful young woman. (These crisp contrasts characterize the film). She walks past him, then speaks in measured tones: “My grandmother was killed today. She stayed down there because she wanted to stay there. She was a fighter. She wanted to die there. She died there. You’re a Jew and you talk that way in the house of the dead. Do you have any shame?” He replies – inadequately – that he’s sorry about her grandmother, who was gunned down in the family candy store that afternoon. “No one asked you to be sorry. No one asked for your sympathy. We would have appreciated your respect. Do you hate yourself that much? You belong nowhere.”
The carefully rendered scene crystallizes a theme that’s been building with a slow accretion of details. Gold (brilliantly rendered by Mamet regular Joe Mantegna: even the film’s detractors celebrate his performance) is an extraordinarily polite and restrained man who doesn’t lose his composure under the constant pressure of verbal and physical attack, yet one insult he cannot shake – a hallway altercation where a condescending City Hall functionary calls him a kike. Montegna hardly looks Hassidic, and that’s just as it should be: we suspect it’s not the epithet that bothers Bobby, it’s being outed as a Jew when he thought he could pass as… Well, as whatever Joe Montegna is. Checking out the killing of an elderly candy shop owner, he lingers over the star of David the woman wears on a necklace chain. When his sergeant pulls him off a cops-and-robbers drug bust to assign him to “the candy store case,” at the request of the victim’s son, a wealthy Jewish doctor, Gold resists: he’s not “their people.”
The film’s deftest touch is a subtle leitmotif that embodies the tension at the heart of the story. Mamet (himself a Jew) tunes our perceptions to pick up the least hint of Judaism or anti-semitism in every situation – it’s as though we’re mimicking Gold’s hypersensitivity – to the point where we begin to notice that nobody in this story calls a cop’s badge his badge, or his shield, or his identification: it’s always his “star.” A background suggestion that moves front and centre when the detective’s growing curiosity takes him to a Jewish library to research a shadowy anti-Semitic group.
This is Mamet’s third turn as a film director, after THE VERDICT (to which HOMICIDE bears comparision, both in tone and religious theme) bagged him a screenplay Oscar. Before that (and since), Mamet’s greater reputation was as one of America’s pre-eminent playwrights, and theatre-goers who made their way to the multiplex to check out the latest from the Pulitzer playwright masquerading as movie maven would have been startled at the protagonist’s name. Three years before, Joe Mantegna played the lead in the Broadway premiere of Mamet’s “Speed-The-Plow,” an intensely crude and funny lampoon of film industry pretension and compromise in which central character Bobby Gould is confronted with a choice between producing an exploitative action genre picture that will make a great deal of money, or creating the film adaptation of a book much prized by the intelligentsia, a religious film that warns of impending judgment. Followed a year later by the one-act play “Bobby Gould In Hell,” where William H. Macy (Gold’s partner in HOMICIDE) played cosmic Interrogator to a somewhat different Bobby Gould, whose sins were much smaller but perhaps sufficient to damn him all the same.
Turns out Mamet had created yet another incarnation of Bobby in “The Disappearance Of The Jews,” a 1982 one-act that that didn’t see the stage until premiering at Cambridge’s American Repertory Theatre in 1997 as part of “The Old Neighborhood,” a triptych of stories about a Bobby Gould who may or may not be the same Bobby Gould who worked in the movies or winds up defending his life in hell. This Gould revisits old friends to recover some sense of himself after the collapse of his marriage. His regret at having married a shiksa – who once said to him “If you have been persecuted so long, you must have brought it on yourself” – triggers a tirade from a practicing Jewish friend. The second piece of the trilogy (written around the time Mamet would have been penning HOMICIDE) has Bobby’s sister regretting that “One thousand generations we’ve been Jewish, my mother marries a sheigetz and we’re celebrating Christmas.”
This question of Jewish identity is central to this constellation of “Bobby Gould/Gold” pieces – just as it is to Mamet’s short story “Passover,” another lesser-known play (“Goldberg Street”), and his 2006 non-fiction book The Wicked Son: Anti-Semitism, Self-Hatred, and the Jews. All of which provides a rich and complex background for a film that can otherwise be dismissed as an unconvincing genre flick.
Moviegoers have come to think of (and even dismiss) Mamet as the guy with the twisty plots, just as playgoers had come to focus on his foul language and distinctive dialogue ( – HOMICIDE has plenty of both: check out the squad car interchange between Bobby and his partner that culminates in the sandwich cure). Both perceptions of Mamet are unfortunate caricatures, but caricatures the writer can’t seem to stop himself from playing into. A pity. Because at his best, David Mamet is a deeply moral (at his worst, moralistic), even something like idealistic, maybe even (and this is probably how he thinks of himself, but that doesn’t mean he’s necessarily wrong) prophetic voice in American culture. “Theatre is a place of recognition: it’s where we show ethical exchange.”
Writing In Restaurants includes essays and speeches that are a call to arms for a generation of theatre artists who do their work out of a conviction that it matters;
The mass media pander to the low and the lowest of the low in the human experience. They, finally, debase us through the sheer weight of their mindlessness. Every reiteration of the idea that nothing matters debases the human spirit. It denies what we know to be true. In denying what we know, we are as a nation which cannot remember its dreams – like an unhappy person who cannot remember his dreams and so denies that he does dream, and denies that there are such things as dreams.
Who is going to speak up? Who's going to speak for the human spirit? The artist. The actor. Dedicated to the idea that the theater is the place we go to hear the truth. Theatre – true theatre – is an art whose benefits will cheer us, and will warm us, it will care for us, and to elevate our soul out of the story times. The place we can go to hear the truth.
HOMICIDE wants to be such a film. Mamet confronts his own ambivalence about his race, about his religion, in the person of Bobby Gold, who is something like an alter ego. Viewed from that angle, the film is one of his best, ending up somewhere between epiphany and tragedy. Unfortunately, he also comes dangerously close to pandering, encumbering a compellingly dark character study with clanking suspense movie contrivances that may have been calculated to make the film more commercially viable, but which confuse and diminish an otherwise troubling, substantial (and at times surprisingly subtle) film.
My advice? Read against the grain, don’t head down the rabbit trail Mamet wants to lure you down. Focus on the stars, ignore the birdseed, and you’ll be fine.
THE VERDICT, THE BELIEVER
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