Getting tough on the self-hating Jew: David Mamet's "Homicide" (1991)
"They said I was a pussy all my life. They said I was a pussy...because I was a Jew." So homicide detective Bobby Gold (Joe Mantegna) explains to a mysterious woman in a diner, in the aftermath of a fairly...let's say definitive action by Gold, a rather un-cop-like action at that. "And the cops, they'd say: Send a Jew? Might as well send a broad on the job. Send a broad through the door."
It's interesting, revisiting David Mamet's third directorial feature in the recent wake of Inglourious Basterds and its Nazi-scalping soldiers, its putatively Golem-like "Bear Jew," and so on. Although more complex, I think, than even Tarantino quite grasps, Basterds is, on a certain level, a piece of wish-fulfillment from the outside. It's not for nothing that the Lieutenant who hands the Basterd the instruments of their vengeance is a gentile (albeit a part-Apache gentile). Mamet's examination of Jewish self-hatred versus Jewish self-determination is much more of an inside job. On the commentary track of the new Criterion DVD (out September 8) that he shares with William H. Macy, one of the film's co-stars, Mamet recalls the beatings he endured as a kid from those who called him "Christ-killer," and owns up to conceiving this as he was "starting to come back to Judaism...trying to figure out where I belong." I haven't yet read Mamet's latest book of essays on the issue, The Wicked Son, but if I follow the trajectory of his thought correctly via that volume's reviews, I'd have to conclude that his notions concerning self-determination have only grown stronger.
In this film, Mamet's third feature, his attitude is harder to pin down, but the ambivalence on display is of the detached rather than tortured variety. Urban Detective Gold wants to bring in a murderous drug dealer, but circumstances throw him off that case and onto the murder of a Jewish grandmother in a depressed neighborhood. Thrown in with his "people" and not liking it, he begins, almost against his will, to discover a shadowy organization of Jews out to avenge any and all acts of anti-Semitism. Gold gets to his Rubicon when this group asks him to turn over a piece of police evidence to them. "Where are your loyalties," one of them asks. Well, that is indeed the question.
Of all of Mamet's self-written feature films, this strikes me as the most thoroughly,well, Mametian in terms of performance style and writing—the flat, almost incantory delivery of dialogue combined with the iambic rhythms and the repetition of phrases: "I'll find the killer. I'll find the killer, I swear." The effect is even more bracing than it was in House of Games, I think in part because House of Games was introducing viewers to an unfamiliar, circumscribed world—the mien of the super-secretive con man—that the viewer had few expectations about as far as behavior was concerned. Much of Homicide takes place in a precinct house and on the street, and the theatricality of the exchanges in these settings we're familiar with from cop shows and cop movies is bracing, maybe a little alienating at first. But it's Mamet's world, and he's got utter confidence about how things work in it, and the film builds a unique, almost hypnotic power. An unusual picture, a unique picture, one that's certainly well worth reviving a conversation about.