Written PostFrom the DVD Shelf: Josh Reviews Homicide (1991)

From the DVD Shelf: Josh Reviews Homicide (1991)

One of my earliest posts on this blog was a look back through the films of David Mamet.  One of the films I wasn’t able to review at the time was Homicide, because it was shockingly unavailable on DVD.  Late last year, though, the fine folks at the Criterion Collection thankfully stepped in to remedy that situation, releasing Homicide in a lovely new DVD set (which made my list of the Top 10 DVDs of 2009).

Joe Mantegna plays Jewish homicide detective Bobby Gold.  When the FBI screws up the manhunt for a suspect, Randolph (Ving Rhames), in whose case Bobby was originally involved, Bobby and his partner Tim Sullivan (William H. Macy) are tasked with finding the missing man.  But on the way to a key meeting in the investigation, Bobby stops to help two young beat cops who have found the body of a murdered woman in a convenience store.  It turns out that the elderly Jewish woman had owned the store in the tough neighborhood for decades, and the local kids think she was murdered because of rumors that she kept a fortune hidden in her basement.  When Bobby finds himself assigned to this new murder case, he is is frustrated by what he sees as a distraction from his priority: the pursuit of Randolph.  But quickly the case begins to get under his skin and leads Bobby to confront long-buried questions about his own Jewish identity.

Written and directed by David Mamet, Homicide stars many Mamet regulars (Mantegna and Macy, along with Ricky Jay, Rebecca Pidgeon, and many other familiar faces) and features his distinct, fast-paced, rough and tumble dialogue and a twisty-turny plot in which the story that you think is unfolding in the film’s opening minutes turns out to be merely a feint, as Mamet has other intentions with his tale.

For, despite its title, Homicide really isn’t a police procedural at all.  Yes, Bobby’s investigation into the murder of the elderly Mrs. Klein is the backbone of the story, but that’s not really what the film is about.  Rather, Homicide is a story about identity.  Over the course of the film, Bobby Gold is forced to address deep-rooted questions about how he defines himself.

According to The 50 Greatest Jewish Movies, by Kathryn Bernheimer (published by Birch Lane Press, 1998): “Mamet, who admits he has always felt like an outsider and acknowledges a great longing to belong, has said the story was inspired by his experience as an American Jew growing up not feeling sufficiently Jewish or American.  Like many of his previous films, Homicide deals with what Mamet calls ‘problems of reconciliation and self-worth’.”

When we first meet Bobby Gold, there’s little to indicate to us that he is Jewish, other than his name.  He’s one of the guys — a homicide detective first and foremost.  When he gets involved in the Klein murder case, he’s disinterested and dismissive of the Klein family’s claims that the murder was part of a larger wave of anti-semitism.  He clearly sees the family as passive and paranoid, and believes that Mrs. Klein brought her death upon herself by stubbornly continuing to work in her store in the inner city, despite her family’s wealth.

When Bobby realizes that the Klein’s granddaughter has overheard him saying nasty things about the “Jew broad” and her family on the phone to his partner, it’s an embarrassing mental slap in the face for him that causes him to, for a moment, drop his walls and start to take the case seriously.  Once he does, he begins to discover whole new aspects of the world around him that he thought he knew.  As Bobby learns of Mrs. Klein’s past in Palestine and the virulent anti-semitism in his city, and finally discovers a group of Jews who, far from being passive victims, have instead taken it upon themselves to defend their community, Bobby finds his conceptions of Judaism and his own identity turned upside down.  Of course, this is a David Mamet movie, so rather than leading to a joyful epiphany and a happy ending, Bobby’s personal upheaval leads him to more tumult than ever before.

There are aspects of Homicide that don’t work as well as they could.  While Mamet’s dialogue is gold in the hands of Joe Mantegna and William H. Macy, some of the supporting players don’t do quite as well.  There are also some of the least-convincing Jewish characters assembled on-screen that I have ever seen.  Joe Mantegna is, of course, not Jewish but Italian-American, and even though Ricky Jay IS Jewish, his attempts at speaking Hebrew with an Israeli accent leave much to be desired.  I also found the staging of some of the action sequences, particularly the film’s climactic shoot-out, to be weak in the extreme.

But these are minor quibbles.  While perhaps not as tense or gripping as some of Mamet’s other work, I love that Homicide has some serious issues to tackle above and beyond telling a simple murder mystery.  The film is complex and sophisticated, and has nary a hint of schmaltz.  It builds to its larger questions slowly and confidently, and avoids giving Bobby (and the audience) any easy answers or quick-fix solutions to the difficult problems presented.

Homicide is a difficult, challenging film, and every time I watch it I wrestle anew with the issues presented.  The Jewish characters who Bobby encounters over the course of the film are a complex bunch.  Some are sympathetic, such as the Klein granddaughter (Rebecca Pidgeon).  Then there’s the Orthodox scholar who Bobby encounters in a Jewish library.  When the man discovers that Bobby cannot read Hebrew, he is shockingly disdainful.  “You say you’re a Jew, and you can’t read Hebrew,” he says.  “What are you then?”  I’m not sure that Bobby is deserving of such contempt, and I don’t think such an attitude reflects all that well on the Jewish community being represented.

Then, of course, there’s the group of Jewish vigilantes that Bobby discovers towards the end of the film.  It’s a shocking moment, when we learn that this group of American Jews have taken the law into their own hands in an attempt to protect the Jewish community in their city.  On the one hand, for much of the film we, like Bobby, have been gradually shown the reality of terrible antisemitism, even today in the United States.  When Bobby discovers the hidden room behind a storefront where hate-filled bile is printed on pamphlets and signs, the moment is staggering to the audience and to him.  On the other hand, a group of Jews who go around blowing up buildings isn’t all that favorable an image, either!  A viewer must struggle with the questions this depiction of Jewish vigilantes raises: not only the issue of whether, within the narrative of this film, we feel their violent actions are justified — but also whether one feels that this fabrication on Mamet’s part (I don’t recall ever reading of Jewish cells blowing up buildings in American cities) affects one’s overall judgment of the film.

Heady issues.  Luckily they are paired with an eminently watchable, fast-paced tale.

I’m pleased to have had a chance to watch this film again.  Bravo, Criterion Collection!! The film looks phenomenal on the new DVD, and I’m happy to add Homicide to the David Mamet section of my DVD shelf.

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