Director: David Mamet
Screenplay: David Mamet
Stars: Joe Mantegna (Bobby Gold), William H. Macy (Tim Sullivan), Natalija Nogulich (Chava), Ving Rhames (Randolph), Rebecca Pidgeon (Miss Klein), Vincent Guastaferro (Senna), Lionel Mark Smith (Olcott), Jack Wallace (Frank), Paul Butler (Commissioner Walker)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 1991
Country: U.S.
Homicide Criterion Collection DVD
HomicideHomicide, David Mamet’s third film as a director, following his masterful 1987 debut House of Games and 1989’s Things Change, is one of his strangest and most compelling films. Although it starts off quite conventionally as a police thriller, it gradually and then aggressively morphs into a psychodrama about a police detective’s identity crisis, which leads him into a dark netherworld of secret organizations and covert violence that could very well be simply ridiculous if it didn’t have such a gripping dreamlike quality. The irony of Homicide’s narrative/thematic structure is that the main character is essentially asleep during the film’s gritty and realistic first half and is then rudely awakened during its nightmarish second half.

The main character is Bobby Gold (Joe Mantegna), a veteran police detective who is known for his skills at negotiation. He is very much the typical Mamet professional, defined primarily by his specialized skills and abilities, which means that he gives very little thought to his Jewish identity except for when a gruff police commissioner calls him a “kike.” Near the beginning of the film Gold and his partner Tim Sullivan (William H. Macy) are trying to track down the brother of a dangerous drug runner (Ving Rhames) who we have already seen escape a SWAT team in the film’s tense and violent openly setpiece. On the way, however, Gold is sidetracked by a crime scene in which an elderly Jewish woman has been gunned down in the corner store she runs in a poor black neighborhood. Gold is sure that it is just another case of banal criminal violence, but the woman’s family, particularly her son, a wealthy doctor (J.S. Block), and her granddaughter (Rebecca Pidgeon) are not so sure. They believe that she was killed because she was a Jew, and when they find out that Gold is also a Jew, they use their influence to pull strings and get him on the case, even though he would rather be tracking down the drug dealer, which ostensibly promises him more excitement and glory.

Gold is understandably skeptical of the family’s claims, particularly when they call him to their house late one night claiming that someone was shooting at them from the nearby rooftop. This sequence is particularly crucial because it puts Gold in direct conflict with “his people,” culminating in a classic sequence in which Gold is on the telephone angrily grousing about the family and their anti-Semitic paranoia, only to discover that he has been overheard by the granddaughter, which essentially forces him to face his own culpability in Jewish persecution.

Thus begins Gold’s odyssey, as he finds himself being drawn deeper into the murder investigation, which leads him into an unexpected shadowy corner of the city inhabited by Zionist activists running guns and bombing the buildings of anti-Semites and white supremacists. To some extent your reaction to the film will hinge on the acceptance of this particular plot development, which has the dangerous potential of playing as ridiculous conspiracy theory. However, when viewed in relation to Gold’s evolving consciousness about his own heritage and how he has ignored it in favor of an easier path of assimilation based on professional prestige, the extremity of the film’s second half detour begins to make more sense, at least thematically. For Gold to truly understand the stakes, he must be confronted with an extreme of which he may never be able to be a part. Joe Mantegna’s performance as Gold is one of his best, even as it is one of his more restrained, suggesting a character who exists largely within himself (it is pointedly mentioned that he has no family) and therefore struggles when forced to externalize.

With cinematographer Roger Deakins (a favorite of the Coen Brothers) behind the camera, Homicide is a visually impressive film that quickly deflects any potential criticism of Mamet’s background in theater limiting his visual dexterity. While House of Games was purposefully minimal in its style, Homicide adopts a much more fluid approach to its portrayal of anonymous urban hell painted in drab shades of gray and brown (although the film was shot in some of the decaying inner-city neighborhoods of Baltimore, the city is never explicitly named).

To this end Homicide is also a striking portrayal of race relations, which Mamet’s trademark staccato dialogue infuses with deft urgency. Aside from Gold’s crisis of Jewish identity, the film gives us several scenes that remind us of the tensions inherent in a primarily white police force hunting down a black criminal; the scene in which Gold and his colleagues burst in on the drug dealer’s mother, who can’t understand why these “white folk” would assume she would give up the baby she “brought into the world” underscores this powerfully. At the same time, Mamet does not allow for simplistic white/black divides, as he puts the film’s first racial slur in the mouth of a powerful black commissioner and the last one in the mouth of Gold himself, even after he has seen the continuing power of racial hatred. Thus, while questions are answered in the final reel of Homicide, Mamet knows better than to suggest that the larger questions--the ones that structure the film’s frightening portrait of humankind’s inability to see past its self-created divides--are anywhere close to resolution.

Homicide Criterion Collection DVD

Aspect Ratio1.85:1
  • English Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo
  • Subtitles English
  • Audio commentary by writer-director David Mamet and actor William H. Macy
  • New video program featuring interviews with recurring Mamet actors Steven Goldstein, Ricky Jay, J. J. Johnston, Joe Mantegna, and Jack Wallace
  • Gag reel
  • TV spots
  • Essay by critic Stuart Klawans
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateSeptember 8, 2009

    Homicide has been long out of print on home video, thus Criterion’s resurrection of the film in a pristine new anamorphic transfer on DVD is cause for celebration among fans of both Mamet’s work and early ’90s independent cinema. The digitally restored high-definition transfer, which was taken from a 35mm interpositive and supervised by editor Barbara Tulliver, looks great, with no signs of age or damage from a film that is now almost 20 years old, although the overall look appears to be somewhat soft. The film’s palette is purposefully desaturated and dark, with a strong emphasis on earth tones and heavy blacks (especially in the film’s second half, which takes place almost entirely at night; it is almost jarring when Gold finds himself in a room with a bright red Nazi flag). The stereo soundtrack, transferred at 24-bit from the original LT/RT magnetic print master and digitally restored, also sounds excellent. The abundant dialogue is clean and natural, and the film’s various action sequences (particularly the shoot-out at the end) have a strong sense of spaciousness and directionality despite being only a two-channel mix.
    The screen-specific audio commentary by writer-director David Mamet and actor William H. Macy starts out a little slowly, with Macy keeping it moving while Mamet tends to wander off on tangential issues. However, it picks up as the film progresses and offers some fascinating insight into the filmmaking process. Also on this disc is a 21-minute featurette titled “Invent Nothing, Deny Nothing,” which features new interviews with regular Mamet actors Steven Goldstein, Ricky Jay, J. J. Johnston, Joe Mantegna, and Jack Wallace discussing both the film and their working relationships with Mamet over the years. There is also a six-minute gag reel (transferred from a rough video source) that shows the otherwise serious actors blowing their lines and cutting up during production and seven TV spots.

    Copyright ©2009 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (3.5)

    James Kendrick

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