Television tends to trump movies when it comes to staging richly detailed cop dramas, but David Mamet’s 1991 film Homicide is the rare big-screen policier that can stand up to The Shield, The Wire, Hill Street Blues, and Homicide: Life On The Street. What makes Homicide especially impressive is that while Mamet has written and directed terrific movies before and since, he’s rarely shown such ambition. As a playwright, Mamet has wrestled with big themes, but as a filmmaker, he’s favored small, finely crafted genre pieces, noteworthy for their intricate plots and punchy dialogue. On a fundamental level, that’s all Homicide is too. Mamet places Joe Mantegna front and center as a sensitive, smooth-talking plainclothes detective who gets pulled off a flashy case in order to work on a minor, inconvenient murder mystery. The plot is fiendishly clever—full of misdirection and unexpected turns, culminating in a devastating ending—and the dialogue contains some of Mamet’s choicest one-liners. (On the rivalry between law-enforcement agencies: “The FBI couldn’t find Joe Louis in a bowl of rice.”) Outside of the mannered, staccato, typically Mametian acting, Homicide has the flavor and feel of reality. It’s one of the greatest “pull up a barstool and let me tell you the damnedest thing” cop anecdotes of all time.
It’s only after Mamet gets the audience hooked on the plot that he refashions Homicide as a hard-edged inquiry into prejudice and political idealism. While investigating the death of an elderly Jewish shopkeeper, Mantegna discovers a shadow world of Zionists and anti-Semites at work in his city. As a Jew himself—albeit one who’s spent most of his life trying to distance himself from his heritage—Mantegna is attracted to the idea of take-charge covert commandoes who have their own close-knit community and codes of conduct. Mantegna is caught between these new people he admires and the brotherhood of blue he’s been trying to impress his entire adult life (including his partner, William H. Macy, who admits that he doesn’t understand why Mantegna is getting so worked up), and eventually, both blame him for circumstances beyond his control. “Do you hate yourself that much?” asks a family member of the murder victim, provocatively. “Do you belong nowhere?”
As is Mamet’s wont, Homicide contains no extraneous shots or scenes. Every piece of visual information is significant, even if viewers don’t always realize how significant until the movie ends. Cinematographer Roger Deakins shoots government office buildings and tenements with subtle gradations of light and shadow, finding specificity in multiple shades of brown. But for all Homicide’s narrative precision and unsettling soul-searching, what’s most alluring about the movie is the way Mamet cuts through to the societies that exist within our own, right next to where we live. On the DVD commentary track, Mamet mentions a cop friend who loves his job because “You knock on any door, and the person who opens it has to tell you a story.” In Homicide, Mamet shows that there’s a wealth of stories out there, known to few. You can hear them yourself, if you find the right door.
Key features: A blooper reel, a chummy commentary track featuring Mamet and Macy, and insightful interviews with some of Mamet’s regular actors.