Writer/director David Mamet and co-star William H. Macy have a good time reminiscing on the commentary track that accompanies the Criterion Collection edition of Homicide (1991). This “cop movie that didn’t want to be a straight-up cop movie,” and started as an adaptation of a novel that was soon abandoned, is the third of the playwright’s films, following 1987’s hard-edged House of Games (also on DVD from Criterion) and the gentler Things Change (1988). Whatever it is—“I’m paid to write it, not read it,” Mamet growls—the movie is one of his more compelling, and makes a timely reentrance on the scene, given its relation to the “Jewish vengeance” pictures Defiance and Inglourious Basterds.
Those are set during World War II, or, rather, the fact-based Defiance is; Tarantino’s unspools in the multiplex in his head. Filmed in Baltimore (before the like-named TV show got there), Homicide unfolds in Mamet-land, that semi-realistic place where everyone has a “thing,” and if your thing collides with someone else’s thing you better look out. It centers on police detective Bobby Gold (Joe Mantegna, the star of Mamet’s prior films, here with a wounded face and manner like slightly bruised fruit), whose “thing” is being a stalwart first-through-the-door cop. But the overt racism of black FBI agents trying to take down an elusive drug dealer (Ving Rhames) and the institutional prejudice of the force (Macy is his best friend, a member of the Irish old guard) get him more personally involved in the routine murder of an elderly Jewish candy store owner—whose past includes running guns for Zionist causes. Gold’s assimilation offends the proprietor’s family and colleagues, who close ranks around him. But he wants to know more about their “thing,” which draws him into a noir-ish hive of archaic symbols and anti-neo-Nazi activity.
Mamet is a master tease, obliging you to fill in the gaps between his loosely formed plot and rat-tat-tat dialogue, expertly delivered by his Chicago regulars. This was Macy’s first major film role, and he’s an excellent counterpoint to Mantegna’s sudden attack of self-doubt, brushing off his friend’s “yid” concerns as they spiral. Also appearing are numerous other members of Mamet’s creative tribe, all duly accounted for in the commentary, including Ricky Jay, the exotic Natalia Nogulich, Mamet’s wife Rebecca Pidgeon (poor in most of his films and plays but fine here in a safely small role), his father, and the future Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist, Jonathan Katz. Some of the guys, including Mantegna and Jay, relate their experiences in Mamet-land in a disc featurette.
Though he warns against cinematographers and other designers wanting to be “interesting,” I assume that Roger Deakins, the eight-time Oscar nominee best known for his work with the Coen brothers, nudged Mamet toward the more dynamic shooting style of this film, which has several taut action scenes. The leaning-toward-darkness image is clean and stable in this 1.85:1 anamorphically encoded transfer.
In his booklet essay, Stuart Klawans, film critic of The Nation, notes that Mamet the polemicist has become strident in recent years, issuing “a number of bluntly worded commentaries accusing virtually all critics of the State of Israel of anti-Semitism (or of self-hatred if they’re Jews), and of having feeble brains haunted by The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” and asks that viewers separate out Mamet the artist. Briefly noting the controversy kicked up by the film, Mamet concludes in his commentary that the moral of this particular story may be—spoiler alert—is “If you’re a Jewish detective, don’t blow up a model train store.” Stick to your fucking thing.
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