Words are the trained fleas in David Mamet’s sidewalk circus—dirty words, often bloodstained, usually swarming, that perform their acrobatic stunts for gawkers who will likely get their pockets picked. That’s the reputation, anyhow. More than thirty years after he made his name, “Mamet” to most people still means the playwright of incantatory, foulmouthed masculine aggression: author of the grimly chucklesome American Buffalo and Glengarry Glen Ross, with their low and middling businessmen raging and scheming for money, and also of the Hollywood satire Speed-the-Plow, with its nicely tanned producers doing the same. From the latter play, and an associated history of authorial grumblings, many conclude that Mamet has resigned himself to performing his film work with the left hand, leaving the right to collect the checks.
He will license others to translate his playwright’s words into movies, but he won’t stoop to direct these films himself—except when he does, as with the deliberately stagelike Oleanna. Otherwise, it’s commonly thought that he tosses off his directorial film projects as entertainments (in Graham Greene’s sense of the term) that are frankly, if playfully, constructed as con jobs on the audience. Outwardly, these films bear a resemblance to Mamet’s plays, in being about men (except for the female lead in House of Games) who live in a gritty, present-day America (except for the genteel, century-old English milieu of The Winslow Boy) where nothing matters more than the ruthless professionalism of both the author and the protagonist (except in the political thriller Spartan, where the whole point is to see professionalism do itself out of a job). Unlike the plays, though, Mamet’s films are said to be best when they revel in their own compromised and mercenary nature, as if they were cinematic auto shows—gleaming displays of plot machinery set up to give you pleasure in being sold a bill of goods. In this view of Mamet’s film career, The Spanish Prisoner, his romp through the deceptions of an utterly corrupt world, must be his exemplary picture—unless, of course, it would be another elaborate con game, the political satire Wag the Dog, which someone else directed, based on a novel that Mamet didn’t write.
For the record, I enjoy the auto show, flea circuses, and especially The Spanish Prisoner. But, that said, I also happen to think that each of Mamet’s films is an exceptional case, and that his 1991 Homicide may be the most unclassifiable of all. In setting and social milieu, it seems to conform to the received Mamet image, with its cops who can make “thank you” sound like the swish of the gelder’s knife, and its nameless, menacing city that’s all antiquated storefronts and squat apartment buildings. Here, in an African American ghetto that was once (like so many others) a Jewish neighborhood, the last holdout from the earlier residents, an elderly grandmother, has been gunned down in her corner candy store; and here the stereotype of the Mamet film ends—because the main cop, who is Jewish himself, turns out to be strangely distractible. Although he starts out in this neighborhood in pursuit of a notorious drug dealer (Ving Rhames), the cop soon turns aside to chase a shifting, ambiguous idea: of the grandmother’s killer, of the grandmother’s purpose in life, of himself. As he does so, Homicide begins to reveal itself as the David Mamet film where the game playing is least flagrant but the personal stakes are highest.
Start in the usual place: with language. The protagonist of Homicide, Detective Bobby Gold (Joe Mantegna), is a man of words, known to his colleagues as the Mouthpiece and the Orator, having developed a specialty as a hostage negotiator. You’d think someone with his reputation might be the most agile of Mamet’s verbal gymnasts, and yet it’s his partner, Tim Sullivan (William H. Macy), who keeps the wise one-liners snapping out at funny angles. Gold is the plainspoken one, given to statements that are no more colorful than “What did I ever do to you?” and “I’ll catch the killer.” Like many of Mamet’s characters, Gold tends to speak repetitively, blurting sentence fragments in a stop-and-start rhythm; but whereas in Mamet’s other plays and movies this verbal tattoo can strike the ear as authorial pattern making, in Homicide it seems more like the stylized representation of a stammer, which Gold, in his forties, still hasn’t overcome. The man brings no great fluency to his negotiations and drives through no tricky S curves in his speech. His gift, in Mamet’s script and Mantegna’s performance, is sincerity: a habit of living in his words more than using them. You’d think his fellow cops would sneer, if they weren’t exchanging grins about how well his negotiations go over.
Gold inhabits his language; and so this Jew experiences a kind of eviction in Homicide when he’s confronted with words he supposedly owns but can’t comprehend. First, when visiting the family of the murdered Jewish grandmother, he witnesses a long, apparently eloquent speech addressed to the mourners that he can’t penetrate, because it’s in Yiddish. He’s reduced to asking a bystander to interpret for him—a request that makes him further vulnerable, since he’s a cop admitting inadequacy to a conspicuously attractive woman, who then presses her advantage by refusing to reveal part of the meaning. This isn’t the only event to knock Gold off balance in this long, complexly organized scene, but it does throw a special weight against him. He’s forced into recognizing his ignorance of his grandparents’ tongue, though earlier that day he’d had no trouble at all understanding “kike.”
If Gold’s encounter with Yiddish is unsettling, then his run-in with Hebrew leaves him utterly unmoored. By the time it occurs, he has grown obsessed with the case of the murdered woman—a case that at first meant nothing to him, and still means nothing to his colleagues—and so he has come to a Jewish research library, hoping to decode one of his scant clues. For his pains, he gets something else he can’t decode: the biblical text that an Orthodox scholar has been excitedly studying at a nearby desk and now wants to share. The answer we seek is here, the man insists joyfully, right in front of us, do you see? as he thrusts before Gold an annotated page of the book of Esther. The mood changes instantly when an abashed Gold confesses he can’t read a word. “You say you’re a Jew, and you can’t read Hebrew,” the stranger says in a softer voice, pitched between sorrow and contempt. “What are you, then?”
Spoken with a scholar’s precision: not “who” but “what.” And from Gold’s ensuing silence, we may judge that the distinction has hit home for the man of words. Language has given the Orator his sense of self among other men who seem no braver than he but are a little swifter at the brutal physical trade of being a cop, a little more adroit. Now, for want of language, Gold’s very status as a being in the world is at risk.
In the eyes of a social scientist, this crisis might be classified as just an aggravated case of sociolinguistics—the enforcement of group identity through verbal codes—but to Gold, there’s nothing academic about his problem. It’s been clear since the start of this film that social affiliation is fundamental in his world, whether the group in question is made up of black voters pressuring the mayor, wealthy Jews making demands on the police department, or local cops grousing about the interference of the FBI. To function, Gold needs to know what he belongs to, and that question was supposed to have been settled long ago, by the job. As his partner at one point remarks, “Bob, I am your family.”
Maybe so; yet Gold, in his sincerity, has told Sullivan to his face that there’s more to the murder of the grandmother than his partner can understand. In effect, Gold has declared that he might belong more deeply to the Jews than to the cops—a possibility that clearly troubles him, as such divided loyalties have been troubling movie characters ever since those silent two-reelers in which the Boy had to decide whether to take the Girl to a church social or spend the evening roaming the alleys with the Gang. Homicide is not at all unusual in setting up this sort of dramatic conflict, but it’s extraordinary in the way it puts the premise of that conflict into doubt. You watch the increasingly irrational process by which Gold, as if in a waking dream, decides his allegiances; you note the uncanny and unreliable character of the particular set of Jews to whom he eventually chooses to belong; and you begin to wonder whether Homicide may be a strange version of the Mamet con game movie, in which Gold is his own mark and the ultimate ruse is group identity.
Of course, an ordinary con game movie plays out as a string of tightly scripted events. There’s one of these in Homicide—a clever trap laid for the unsuspecting Gold—but the rest of the story is notable for being full of randomness and coincidence. Dumb luck sticks Gold with the case of the murdered grandmother, and at the outset, he’s plainly inclined to think that her death was just another meaningless piece of misfortune, of the sort he sees every day, that she was killed in her candy store simply because she was there—an old white woman, alone with money in the till in a poor black neighborhood. Gold seems puzzled, or maybe professionally disdainful, when her family immediately assumes a more coherent explanation: that she was gunned down because she was a Jew. A few hours later, he’s openly impatient when this same overbearing family begins complaining that they, too, are at risk of becoming victims, despite their wealth and ability to summon him at a moment’s notice. Anti-Semitism is not a fantasy, they insist to him, though they make the point with a scorn that this common, working Jew wouldn’t seem to deserve.
To do his job—the thing that everybody says he ought to do—Gold needs to know whether the specific anti-Semitism around this family is potential or actual, distant or immediate, imagined in a car’s backfire or glimpsed on the roof across the way. So he applies his cop’s empiricism to whatever shreds of evidence he can collect. The problem is that he contaminates the sample, mixing in a multitude of little clues from his own life: the tones of voice he’s noticed in his fellow cops, their expectations of him, that sudden interjection of “kike.” He can scarcely avoid the error, since the hypothesis he’s testing includes himself. But as he continues, empiricism itself breaks down, along with the responsibility the movie has been exercising toward daylit realism.
By gradual steps, Homicide leads Gold into a nocturnal milieu that seems as much psychological as literal, where he finds himself answering to a shadowy network of Jews. Whether he’s called them up out of his own need or has uncovered them through a determined decoding of clues (most of them vague and circumstantial) is very hard to discern. You could take these hidden plotters to represent, with slight exaggeration, a strain of actually existing Jewish activism, or you could just as easily see them as figures that have emanated from someone’s hallucination of a Zionist cabal.
That even the hint of a Jewish conspiracy should be conjured in Homicide may disturb some viewers, including, today, perhaps the author himself, who in recent years has issued a number of bluntly worded commentaries accusing virtually all critics of the State of Israel of anti-Semitism (or of self-hatred, if they’re Jews), and of having feeble brains haunted by The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Rather than address the merits of this position, I will merely suggest that it’s a mistake to identify Mamet the artist with Mamet the polemicist. Unlike the yes-or-no world of op-ed articles, the fiction he constructs in Homicide operates on a sliding scale of realism. It’s less essential that the covert Jewish organization in Homicide be good or bad, true or false, than that it attract and repel Gold, validate and betray him.
This being a movie, the best way to understand these ambiguities is to watch them play out—and that finally means going beyond the words of Homicide. It’s time to look at the pictures.
These turn out to be strikingly bold and fluid in the action sequences, with Mamet going so far as to drive us into a plot point through a controlled skid. In this, his third film as a director, he has clearly left behind any stage-bound beginner’s caution (having Roger Deakins behind the camera could not have hurt). More to the point, though, are the visual motifs that Mamet develops in Homicide, of the sort that do not announce themselves with a screech. He locates the action on rooftops, in basements, and above all on the thresholds of many, many doors: zones of access and passage, where you would not ordinarily linger. The fact that Bobby Gold can’t get away from these places says more than words can about this Jew’s liminal state.
I don’t think you can find such a profound, realistically motivated disquiet (or such a profound performance of it) in any of the other nine films Mamet has written and directed to date. You could, though, find something like this in his plays—not the famous tough-guy ones, but the domestic dramas set in middle-class Chicago. In the central part of The Old Neighborhood, and throughout The Cryptogram, you’re dropped through emotional trapdoors that don’t need gunfire or con games to trigger them, but only the words that anyone might use. Stammering, plainspoken, baffled, but somehow eloquent, Bobby Gold is secretly another of these nonstereotypical Mamet characters—even though he lives in the man’s world of a police thriller.
Stuart Klawans is the film critic at the Nation. He is the author of Film Follies: The Cinema Out of Order and Left in the Dark: Film Reviews and Essays.