#3: Homicide (1991)

Homicide (1991)
101 mins.

One Line Synopsis

A Baltimore cop (Joe Mantegna) becomes torn between what he thinks is a major murder case and the death of a old Jewish woman with a family that has strong political connections.

What Did You Miss?

Although it takes place in gritty Baltimore and centers around the homicide detectives, Homicide is not connected to the mid-to-late 90s TV show of a similar name. Despite that fact, if you ever enjoyed Andre Braugher & Kyle Secor’s aggressive, visceral cases you will probably enjoy David Mamet’s third directorial effort.

If nothing else, I can’t think of a movie that has a story centering around an underground, American-based Israeli counter-racism intelligence unit lurking in the shadows. The movie is full of excellent hints and clues, not the average run of the mill crap but unintelligible clues at first look that make perfect sense when they are revealed.

One great scene involves Mantegna running into a religious man studying the codes of the Book of Esther. When trying to explain its intricacies of the text to Mantegna, he implores him to read the text himself. Mantegna tells the man that although he is Jewish, he can’t read Hebrew. The pious man retorts, “You say you’re  a Jew, and you can’t read Hebrew. What are you, then?”

What are you is the essential question for almost everyone. It is such a striking question, in a pivotal and pitch perfect scene. It is a scene that usually is some lame revelation of a missing fact in the average writer’s hand but Mamet turns the scene into something immensely more meaningful. It is a wonderful, essential scene of exposition in film. An early inkling of some of Mamet’s writing on essays on antisemitism that have popped up throughout his career.

The film also features the always excellent supporting man in William H. Macy (another Mamet favorite) as Mantegna’s partner. His role is memorable for its high-speed style retorts and commentary. The film is full of fast-talking, overtones of strong racial and anti-semitic overtones (the Jewish “k” word popped up at least fives time, haven’t heard it in so long it still shocked me).

Next time, you’re sitting in front of the TV, waiting for an intelligent “cop torn between allegiances film,” slip in David Mamet’s Homicide and enjoy. Maybe even make it a Mamet marathon. A few nights filled with House of Games, The Spanish Prisoner, Spartan, and Homicide sound like a perfect way to spend a weekend.

Additional Thoughts:

  • David Mamet’s recent output has been a mixed bag of late; the good – he created the excellent, yet overlooked TV series The Unit, the same goes for the the “spook”-jive lingo of Spartan and the bad – the boring comedy of State and Main and the overrated, boring MMA-flick Redbelt.
  • Homicide is a the type of film that no longer gets made due to the ridiculous amount of police procedurals that have filled the airwaves in the last twenty years  (weren’t there 14 Law & Orders, 9 CSIs, along with NYPD Blue, the previously mentioned TVHomicide: Life On The Street). Even though new ones pop up every year with a few new twists like Life (a personal favorite), Life on Mars (time-traveling cops), The Unusuals (a mid-season replacement a few years back about quirky cops on quirkier cases), the art-form of a quality, intelligent cop movie. These films come in one of two flavors these days, the super-cop type like the Die Hard series or the dirty cops like Training Day and Brooklyn’s Finest.
  • It is amazing what an amazing director can do for an average actor. Mantegna has two truly excellent film performances and they were both before 1992 and under the direction of David Mamet, this film and the excellent con-man flick House of Games. Even though he is still working and recognizable, this is a man who really hasn’t had a quality performance in 20 years. Ok, I’ll give you Airheads! But in 1994 Mantegna starred in Baby’s Day Out as Eddie the Kidnapper and it’s been all downhill from there. Who thought all these baby movies were a good idea? This era gave us the Baby’s Day Out , the Look Who’s Talking series, Baby Geniuses, all leading up to the penultimate over-exposure of a terrible idea with those E-trade talking baby commercials. Let’s ban the talking babies for a few decades.
  • Another thing to keep your eyes out for is the excellent low light cinematography as most of the movie takes place at night, in the shadows with limited lighting. It’s not surprising to see Roger Deakins as the cinematographer, who has long been the Coen Brothers go-to behind-the-lens man take Mamet’s vision and give it a complementary visual palette.
  • The film is available on the Criterion Collection and includes this excellent, insightful essay by Stuart Klawans.
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