[11 October 2009]
At the time, it seemed like David Mamet might be slumming. This was back, way back, when his name was still more synonymous with punchy street plays like American Buffalo than it was with script-doctoring Hannibal or primetime dramas like The Unit. When the great Chicago playwright—an artist whose jagged skill with gutter-wise dialogue was almost as prodigiously frightening as his productivity—started getting into movies, it made for a weird transition.
There was House of Games, a construct so mannered it made Pinter seem naturalistic. That was followed by Things Change, a sweetly sentimental study in genre-shifting. They were both exercises, with good and bad points, but ultimately not possessed of much staying power. Paychecks. Modest, but still.
Then came Homicide. For a few minutes during its quiet-loud-quiet opening sequence of an FBI raid on a suspect’s apartment (the door is blown, guns are drawn, shots fired, bodies drop, one man escapes into the city night), it feels like many other movies, before and since. The feds have screwed up, and now it’s up to the cops, city cops, regular guy cops, to go out there and fix things. Morality will be shaded, heroes will be shown to be occasionally villainous, and vice versa. In the end, though, after much blood and sacrifice, they will get their man and the city will sleep a little bit easier.
But then in a tense and blustering scene of shouting and vituperation, that cozy narrative falls by the wayside. Accusations are flung like darts as targets are hastily lined up for blame. After declaiming about the city’s black population being up in arms over the manhunt, a black official jabs an anti-Semitic snarl at detective Bobby Gold (Joe Mantegna, then still Mamet’s main guy) before swaggering off.
This has the effect of the pin being pulled on a hand grenade, and soon Gold’s fellow detectives are storming around the squad room declaiming in vintage Mamet-ese. The dialogue is circular and repetitive, one man and then another taking the job of chorus (nodding, “That’s right, that’s right”) while they vent and storm about (”Spare me the fucking FBI”), getting ready to go out and bust a guy the way that real cops do (“The FBI could fuck up a baked potato”). Gold and his partner (William H. Macy, stealing most every scene in his first starring role) go tearing off in their unmarked, only to get sidetracked by a murder scene—an old Jewish woman shotgunned to death in the candy store she ran in a black neighborhood—whose investigation will knock Gold out of his self-deluded state.
The problem, needless to say, is that Gold is lying to himself. In the Criterion edition’s sterling commentary track by longtime collaborators Mamet and Macy, the writer notes (in between joking around with Macy about their old Chicago theater days, and all their buddies that they cast in the movie) that there is one characteristic that cops and dramatists share: “We both know that everyone’s lying.”
Gold is lying to himself about himself. Mamet writes him as a particularly self-hating kind of deluder, determined to think that he always has to be proving himself to the other cops. To become one of the guys, he overcompensates in the ugliest fashion, going out of his way to make jokes about the Jewish family whose grandmother’s murder he’s investigating, and then to pretend he has nothing to do with them (“Hey, not my people, pal”). Caught out in this act of self-denial, Gold becomes obsessed with solving that murder, at the expense of the manhunt his fellow detectives need his negotiating skills on.
Mamet tricks out the grandmother’s murder with enough clues to get anybody’s head spinning. Rumors that she was hiding a fortune in the store. Neo-Nazi flyers in the neighborhood. A trunk in her basement that once carried Thompson submachine guns. A picture of her as a young lady in the ‘40s, running guns to Israel. Loud sounds like gunshots outside the apartment of the grandmother’s family. A secretive Jewish organization (housed in a dark compound full of radio equipment and automatic weapons) whose members want Gold’s help and will play on his guilt to get what they want.
Gold is in many ways just another pinball in Mamet’s game, of course, there to be knocked from one tragic screwup to the next until the artist has made his point. But he’s also much more truly lost and searching, much more human, than many of the hapless schlubs whom Mamet has visited so much cruelty on. (Think of Shelly Levine in Glengarry Glen Ross, shut out and epically doomed, but still somehow forgettable.) Gold’s problem is that he doesn’t have an angle, which makes him a sucker in this universe. For all the contempt layered on Gold by many of the Jewish characters he encounters (the Talmudic scholar who says, “You say you are a Jew, and you can’t read Hebrew. What are you?”), he receives just as much from everyone else.
It gives away nothing to say that little in Homicide is as it seems. The film toys with illusion and conspiracy with a dark kind of intent, playing on Gold’s fears and schizoid self, not to mention the audience’s tendency to fill in gaps in the plot with paranoid assumptions. What gives it all more of a sting than Mamet’s usual glee at pulling back the curtain is that the reality lurking behind the plot machinations are so grounded in a sense of the American city as sharp-elbowed ethnic battleground, simmering with resentment.
In all this cops and robbers hugger-mugger, Mamet wasn’t slumming, he was making a bridge from one art form to the next. Later on, he’d go back to the same old movie games, with hand-trick amusements that ranged from the better (The Spanish Prisoner, Redbelt) to the painful (State and Main), but his real creative energies seemed to stay in the theater. That’s where the real drama and danger was. But there are still moments in Homicide that capture some of the thrilling darkness of his better stage work.
In the film’s electric pop of language, Mamet provides a grand kind of stage for the ugly catalyst of jealousy and racial hatred that curdles in just about every character’s mind. For all the grimy realism of the unnamed city Gold trawls through (Baltimore doing a bad job of being anonymous), the cynically poetic dialogue elevates things to a different level. Mantegna talks in one of the extras—a documentary on Mamet titled after one of his maxims (“Invent Nothing, Deny Nothing”)—about how people always tell him they like Mamet because he writes “how people actually talk.” “No they don’t!” He laughs. “People don’t speak in iambic pentameter.”
Another illusion shattered.