Google+ Cinema Viewfinder: DVD Review: Homicide (1991)

Thursday, September 17, 2009

DVD Review: Homicide (1991)

The great cinematographer Roger Deakins (No Country for Old Men), best known for his collaborations with the Coen Brothers, contributes some of the most essential cinematography in David Mamet's oeuvre with his work on Homicide. I say essential because in Mamet's work it is his clipped iambic pentameter that is usually front and center, even when the film falls into the "con game" subgenre he often explores. Unlike one of the more prominent examples of that genre, The Spanish Prisoner (1997), Homicide is an unusually personal film for Mamet in that he confronts some deep-seated issues with his Judaism through one of his favorite alter egos, actor Joe Mantegna. The cast is also heavy with many of his repertory players like Bill Macy, Ricky Jay, and Rebecca Pidgeon. However, I was mystified by the end. Maybe I wasn't watching closely enough, but I'm usually attuned to Mamet's con games. So why did the ending go over my head? Did I blink and miss something? Did Mamet fumble it? If any of my readers will take the time to explain it to me, it would be very much appreciated. In the meantime, those familiar with the movie will find much to reward them in the Deakins camerawork with Criterion's fantastic new DVD, as the screen grabs below prove. Pay particularly close attention to the way the shots have recurring images that build chronologically to form layers of symbolism and thematic concerns worth explaining.


Unknown said...

I just watched the top notch Criterion edition myself and I think that the con game present in this film is that Ricky Jay and his group basically con Mantegna into destroying the secret neo-Nazi printing press by appealing to his buried, conflicted feelings of his religious heritage. I think the key is the bit where Mantegna talks about how he was bullied as a child, which explains why he grew up to be a cop so that he couldn't be bullied anymore. However, in the process he buried who he was, where he came from, etc. that the murder of the shopkeeper re-awakens.

However, he was being manipulated by Ricky Jay and co. and the film's gut punch at the end is when I think Mantegna's character realizes this and also realizes that in process he has basically destroyed his own life in the process (without going into too many spoilers, here).

Does that make any sense?

Tony Dayoub said...

That's it?

But what about that last screen grab above? And he sees the guy who broke his holster being transferred to another jail. Some kind of larger con seems to dawn on Bobby Gold after he sees this picture with the pigeon feed named Grofazt and the man being hauled off.

How do these moments fit in relation to your explanation?

Unknown said...

Well, if you recall when he went to the library the man told him that Grofazt was another word for "Hitler" and this lead to the chain of events of Bobby bombing that neo-Nazi printing press. As result, the guy in the library was setting Bobby up, appealing to his sense of justice. Perhaps that last shot with picture of pigeon feed suggests that Grofazt doesn't mean what he was told and that it was just another part of the con to get him to do their bidding.

Tony Dayoub said...

I see why'd you say that. It was my initial impression also.

But a quick fact-check reveals that the term was legitimate. And the movie seems to set up the fact that the librarian was actually helping Bobby until the moment he is directed not to (which Bobby overhears when he puts the book back... a moment he never would have been privy to unless he hadn't gone there at the request of the rabbinical student-which makes me think this is the true start of the con).

Don't get me wrong, the film is still excellent, but I'm wondering now if Mamet fumbled some revelation.

Unknown said...

Hrmm... good call on the fact-check. It would seem odd that Mamet would drop the ball on a crucial plot point detail like that one. But I do feel the same way you do about this film. It still has a lot to offer.

Mars said...

I say the film has a old testament vagueness. The Grofaz thing was all coincidence . The guy at the beginning who broke his holster told him he'd show him the true nature of evil. By the end he found that what was most evil was what the WH Macy character says about about the whore cumming with the customers.

Ryan Kelly said...

My interpretation of the ending varies from J.D.'s, in that I think the ending just reveals that all the evidence he saw of a larger plot was a coincidence. No great anti-Semitic conspiracy, just random chaos. That was the way I saw it, anyway.

But perhaps more importantly than any plot resolution, the movie brings up troubling questions of identity and ethnicity, and it's a movie that shook me up in a way few others have.

Tony Dayoub said...


I'm starting to lean in your direction. What's great about the film is how it's open to such widely varied interpretations.

And of course, the exploration into identity is a trademark of Mamet's, but the way he marries it into Jewish self-loathing makes it personal, and raises the film to the level of one I'd highly recommend regardless of my confusion with its plot.

jblack said...

I'm a Mamet fan, but this is a bungled, failed screenplay. Time and again, I was driven out of the narrative by questions and by almost comically improbable happenings, and the last straw was the pigeon feed ad, which can have zero meaning (unless it is an in-joke about Mamet's taking up with Rebecca Pigeon). The most that can be offered as explanation is that it is a coincidence--but one which sends Gould on an absurdly well plotted quest. How on earth could Ricky Jay's group KNOW that Gould would join, would insist on doing the bombing and what had they to gain from it? It was a pretty simple act, and using a cop is hardly something they would need to do, even if they could count on all the other pieces of the Rube Goldberg mechanism to work perfectly. I've always disagreed with those who say any text is good which may be interpreted in hundreds of different ways, according to the reader/viewer. No. Such works are manifestations of artists too undecided (or cowardly) to commit to a single line of agument. I think that here, the writer has not come to terms with his identity as a Jew, and that his ambivalence invades his normally concise and ruthless dramatic logic.

Anonymous said...

The ending confussed the hell out of me, It just went over my head, all I can think of it is, everything he was going after was nothing but his imagination running wild. Love the movie. just was odd ending.

Tony Dayoub said...

Glad I'm not the only one.

Raishad JaBar Glover said...

I think the analogy is we are birds however sometimes we get Grofazt to eat.

Anonymous said...

In my view, the key to understanding the Grofaz/Grofazt question is to see where Gold got the reference from in the first place. It is in a piece of torn paper that is written on, folded up and held by a paperclip. Someone has obviously went to the effort to write that down and hold it together like that.

It is also dry and in good condition, which it would not be unless it was dropped recently. The fact that it is right where the stranger was last seen by Gold indicates that it very likely was dropped by that stranger, and intended to be found by someone. Couple that with the gunshot. It was meant to be found.

What can we infer from that? Well, whoever it was certainly didn't sneak around on top of a building, firing guns just to have someone read some scrap of a shopping list to buy Grofaz(t) chicken feed.

The only real question: was the scrap of paper dropped by a Neo-Nazi intending to intimidate, or was it dropped by the Jewish underground as part of a con to get the police to take the case seriously? It seems unlikely that this gun went off exactly when there just so happened to be the detective in charge of the case at their house. Based on that, probably the latter is more likely, especially considering how is certainly conned by them at least once in the movie.

So where did the Grofazt pigeon feed thing come from? Well, it is typical of the mediocre intellects in the police force to make such a determination. It seems likely that whoever chose to write "Grofaz" and rip the paper so close to the "z" probably chose the Grofaz knowing that the police would choose the obvious, non-conspiratorial relation of "Grofaz" to "Grofazt" chicken feed. Even though it makes zero sense at all in the context in which it is left there.

So we can surmise that whoever chose that message wanted plausible deniability, and knew enough about typical police level intellects and behavior to know that such a threat would not typically be investigated by the police. They would have been familiar with the layout of the rooftop, knowing that someone kept pigeons there.

Anonymous said...

If this is the work of a Neo-Nazi, he is obviously intelligent... and psychopathic. Not only that, he is extremely familiar with obscure Third Reich history. And coincidentally of course, the student at the local Jewish library just so happens to be able to instantly recall the meaning of "Grofaz" without even typing it into Google! It must be Gold's lucky day to find such an omniscient genius, in fact he should go out right now and buy a lottery ticket at this very moment while his luck is still this unimaginably good!

So in my view, the answer is that the gun on the roof was fired by a member of the Jewish underground, and that same guy dropped the scrap of paper. The word "Grofaz" was chosen to mean both Hitler and be plausibly deniable as "Grofazt", and the explanation that the typical police officer would lean towards (less work, less thinking).

The family got the Jewish detective to be assigned to the case. When they gauged that he was giving the investigation short shrift, they realized that they could con him into pouring his heart and soul into the investigation with a little subterfuge.

Although my head hurts thinking about it, they knew that with Gold's intelligence and Jewishness it would be more effective to make a plausibly deniable message that a follower of "Hitler" was responsible for the crime. In fact, he did not even realize that there was a "Grofazt" pigeon feed.

As to whether the police caught the right guy, maybe, maybe not.

As to Gold's involvement with the Jewish underground, that was merely a break that went their way. They did set up the con, to get him interested in joining their secretive organization by leaving a trail of breadcrumbs easy enough for him to discover it himself. And they probably would have compromised him anyway, even if he had not insisted on bombing the shop. All it would have taken is a picture of him holding the bomb, in the car outside the shop.

Anonymous said...

I've thought a bit more about the plausible deniability aspect of Grofazt. At that stage the Jewish underground could not know whether Gold would suddenly discover his Jewish roots and be the willing pawn he would later become.

Posit this: Gold discovers the message on the roof, a message that is meant to be a sign for "Hitler". But instead of falling for it hook, line and sinker, he is immediately suspicious that another gunshot just so happens to occur when he is there at the house of the Jewish doctor. He thinks that it is a setup.

He decides to tell the other cops at the station about how there was this elaborate setup to get him to take the case more seriously. They discover the Grofazt pigeon feed relation, helped if necessary by the Jewish family in question. They immediately dismiss Gold as being paranoid, and suggest he take some time off work.

Or say that Gold is introduced to the Jewish underground with their illegal cache of automatic weapons, their surveillance (some of which is very probably illegal). But say he is still too much of a cop to want to bomb a building, and backs out. He gets cold feet and decides to get the Jewish underground investigated instead.

At this point, the Jewish underground needs to become some figment of Gold's imagination in the eyes of the police. Plausible deniability for everything, including the message that started it all.

I have to say that this is a brilliant movie by Mamet, much better than the lowly 6.9 rating given on imdb. For most viewers it is obviously one big "whoosh".

To jblack: How exactly are the Jewish underground going to get Gold to join their movement? Jehova's witness style? That's just not going to be effective, IMO. Their "Rube Goldberg" way is actually more effective because he feels like he is discovering the links himself, in much the same way as a person playing a computer game uncovers a plot. There were probably backup clues in cases he was too dumb to pick on the clues that were dropped.

The other thing is - after Gold transferred the evidence of the illegal arms deals to the police, the Jewish underground probably decided that he could not be trusted. Certainly, after he refused to destroy the evidence, he could not be trusted.

The only dubious thing for me is that as a cop, Gold would rather bomb a building than make a piece of evidence disappear. Though who knows, maybe he has a change of heart, especially when he is made to feel less manly by the female agent.

Anonymous said...

Late to this discussion but I don't believe there's the depth of conspiracy in this film that there is in House of Games.

The guy on the roof is simply a guy on the roof, probably tending his pigeons. Note that Gold is pretty sure that the gunfire sound was a car backfiring.

Also note that there's a lingering shot on the roof of a bag of pigeon feed which is Mamet's nod to the fact that Gold's is soon to make the wrong decisions.

Having insulted the dead Jewish woman and her family in front of the dead woman's grand-daughter (and having earlier been insulted as a Jew by the FBI guy) Gold reaches the wrong conclusion about the meaning of Grofaz in his desire to find the killer.

Without that guilt he would probably never have gone back to the shop and found the list of names for which he was later blackmailed for.

His decisions cost him his homicide job, his partner's life, the life of Randolph (the police killer), etc.

The ultimate humiliation is the realisation that the Grofaz clue was not evidence of an anti-Semitic campaign against the family and yet Gold had reached all the wrong conclusions in an effort to atone and/or belong.

The man who killed his wife and child promised to explain the nature of evil to Gold. His glance at Gold at the latter's final realisation about his Grofaz interpretation perhaps suggests that the explanation points to wrong choices and coincidences in life, nothing more than that.