For years, Homicide has been the Mamet fanboy trump card, the film considered required viewing for those looking to definitively dismiss the dramatist’s Hollywood career. And perhaps not so coincidentally, it’s also been the only Mamet movie to fall inaccessibly out of print. The Criterion Collection’s new DVD release is therefore not only likely to provoke much-needed revisionist conversation regarding the film itself but also about the entirety of its auteur’s oeuvre. The irony, however, is how impishly Homicide uses our expectations of Mamet, rather than simply film formula, against us: While Mamet incubates multiple narrative threads quite snugly beneath his standard seedy loquaciousness and clever garden-path plots, he additionally reveals seldom-explored, existential subtexts under the flashy surface of his favorite tropes. The Pulitzer-winning playwright’s movies are often a few steps ahead of their audiences, but Homicide seems to have intuitively anticipated its now-exemplary status.
For those familiar with the nine other entries in Mamet’s celluloid decalog, watching this often-praised third effort is a curiously holistic experience: Plot reversals seem to click into place rather than simply occur, as though some final piece of Mamet’s blithely jigsawed worldview is finally being revealed. The central character herein is Bobby Gold (Joe Mantegna, for the first time promoted from the near periphery), a garrulous police officer with a gift for suspect negotiation (in other words, he’s unsurprisingly a con-artist cop). At the start of the story he’s readying to conclude the manhunt of his career—the search for ultra-wanted, trigger-happy drug dealer Randolph (Ving Rhames, whose subtle vocal rebellion against Mamet’s faux-black rhetoric is both effective and hilarious)—when two loosely linked events distract him away from the score. First, a belligerent F.B.I. officer vehemently denounces him as an indolent “kike,” and then, as though fate is hovering over his racial wounds with a saltshaker, Gold stumbles into a fresh crime scene, where an elderly Jewish woman has been murdered in her downtown convenience store. After Gold is reassigned to the new homicide investigation against his will, both he and Mamet zigzag between the two cases (and a pseudo-third involving a militant Hebrew conspiracy that sprouts from mysterious circumstances around the shop keeper’s death), dissecting the nebulous role that self-identification plays in loyalty. We can almost hear Mamet gruffly asking Gold at various intervals whether he’s going to be a good Jew or a good cop—a pulpy ultimatum that comments more fiercely on those two roles’ putative mutual exclusivity than the trickier relationship between race (blood) and occupation (money and civic honor).
It can’t be much of a spoiler to state that the above content is little more than an elaborate MacGuffin, but unlike the painstakingly mechanical chic-nihilism of House of Games (or, for that matter, the painstakingly mechanical buffoonerisms of the sophomoric Things Change), Homicide toys with us for much larger stakes. Even the off-kilter colloquialisms are brushed aside, forcing the film to indicate the tenor of key male relationships in nonverbal ways (though William H. Macy, in his first real screen role, gets some choice Mamet morsels: “S’always a piece of cake or a slice of life, you notice that?”). Clumsily yet earnestly adding vague dimensions to the nervous masculinity of his familiar turf, Mamet dabbles in racial angst that winds up appropriating, of all things, esoteric Nazi paraphernalia as an objective correlative. For some audiences and critics, this subplot is one of only a few times Mamet has directly broached the theme of his conflicted Judaic heritage, but while it’s hard not to sense the adolescent pain behind a handful of lines directed at the lapsed Jew Bobby Gold (“You say you’re a Jew but you can’t read Hebrew? What are you?”), this interpretation forces us to read the denouement as unnecessarily masochistic. Is seeking identity in Abrahamic faith that much of a dead-end? Furthermore, the casting of an obvious Italian-American as the self-hating Jew all too easily undermines the honesty of the film’s ethnic undercurrent—but where else would Mamet have found Mantegna’s husky speech cadence and tortured rictus?
This last point in particular—preferring performance to minority accuracy—hints at the influence of another autobiographical conflict on Homicide: that between the stage and the screen. The respective cults surrounding these dramatic modes are even cleverly represented by the two disparate police cases in the film: Gold’s skills are far more useful in the potentially career-bolstering search for Randolph, but he passionately pursues the dynamic unknown of the Jewish case, which his cop buddies disparage, out of heritage obligations and, more importantly, sheer curiosity. Mamet has impressively maintained dual careers in both cinema and theater—though occasionally they cacophonously clash, cf Oleanna. And while his plays have arguably been the more lauded, there’s no denying that his filmic maturation has been an oddly rewarding sidebar; a bit like observing a nonnative English speaker slowly become fluent, then fully bilingual with a grasp of idiomatic nuance. Homicide is still a talkative cheat like its two predecessors, but it’s also where Mamet started using film grammar with the same aplomb he generally exercises over linguistics—where he began, with perhaps a blend of confidence and guilt, to see himself as a film director. Nearly two decades later its crafty auto-didacticism and fevered indecisiveness are still attention-yanking.