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Caleb Deschanel
Presidents Desk
DVD Playback
Easy Rider
Homicide
Samuel Fuller
ASC Close-Up
Homicide (1991)
1.85:1 (16x9 Enhanced)
Dolby Digital 2.0
The Criterion Collection, $39.98




The first half hour of writer/director David Mamet’s 1991 film Homicide is one of the most gripping, testosterone-fueled cop thrillers of the past 20 years. Jarring bursts of gunplay punctuate Mamet’s inimitable street poetry as Detective Bobby Gold (Joe Mantegna) and his colleagues hunt for a murderous drug dealer (Ving Rhames) in a sinister, unnamed American city. “We’ll bust this big criminal,” promises Gold’s partner (William H. Macy) in just one example of Homicide’s brash copspeak, “and we’ll swagger around.”

Just as the narrative seems to be reaching a profanity-laden crescendo, however, Homicide suddenly feints left. Gold is called off on a separate case involving a murdered, elderly, Jewish female shop owner in an all-black neighborhood. Indifferent to his own Jewish heritage, he initially resists turning his full attention to what looks to be a cut-and-dried case. But as subtle but seemingly unmistakable signs of a wider anti-Semitic conspiracy are discovered in the evidence, Gold is overtaken by a sudden, powerful fealty to his Jewish roots and an overwhelming need to take vengeance. What started out as an exciting cop thriller turns into a mysterious meditation on identity.

Homicide was only Mamet’s third effort as a director, after House of Games (1987) and Things Change (1988), but the film finds his abilities behind the camera reaching a new level of proficiency. The slight staginess of the famed playwright’s first two films gives way to a more fluid and assured visual style. Crisp, day-lit realism dominates the film’s bracing first half before giving way to harsher shadows and more solitary compositions during Gold’s psychological transformation. The detective is often framed in doorways and alleys in the latter half of the film, contributing to the feeling he is entering baffling worlds previously unknown to him. The strong and simple images by Mamet and cinematographer Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC, are fairly rendered in a clean transfer on this DVD although it might not be as punchy and detailed a presentation as we are used to by Criterion. Still, as Homicide has never before been available on DVD, one is simply glad this distinctive film is finally able to be viewed in a home-video format superior to battered old VHS copies.

The dual-layer disk offers a grab bag of modest supplements. “Invent Nothing, Deny Nothing” is a pithy examination of Mamet’s working methods by five members of his regular repertory troupe, including Mantegna and magician Ricky Jay. The most illuminating portion of the feature covers the way Mamet’s actors learn to deliver his stylized, riddle-like dialogue, with its strict cadences and almost percussive rhythms. Mantegna refers to the writer’s words as “hyper-realistic.” “If David could sum up his best direction (to actors) in three words, it would be ‘say the words,’” he says. “And rightly so. Because (everything) should already be in there. If an actor’s doing his job and he’s the right person for the role, he should have been able to decipher what’s going on in the words, and if there’s emotion involved, it should just come through.”

The real treat on the disc is a breezy and frequently humorous feature-length commentary by Mamet and cast member Macy (whose part as Gold’s gung-ho partner in the film was his first substantial role in movies) recorded in 2009. As the two colleagues have worked together continually for more than three decades, the commentary has the feel of a relaxed, off-the-cuff bull session between close pals.

Those viewers who have always puzzled over Homicide’s mercurial plot will find interest in Mamet’s revelation the movie’s structure closely follows Joseph Campbell’s theories in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, with Gold representing the hero facing a road of trials on a mythological journey. Mamet, who refers to Deakins as a “great artist,” expresses some strong opinions on contemporary cinematography at a couple of points on the commentary. He opines that “most movies today are over-lit and blown-out, and nobody’s paying attention to it. The reason is that everybody’s looking through the video-assist. They’re watching it on TV! (Cinema) is oil-painting, but they’re watching it on acrylics, so they don’t see the difference.”

Mamet also presents himself as somewhat of a staunch visual minimalist, asserting to Macy (who has directed one film) at one point, “If you ever hear the term ‘interesting’ on your set, disregard that person for the rest of the shoot. The words you want to hear are ‘simple,’ ‘direct’ and ‘clear,’ not ‘interesting’!” Mamet also reveals in the commentary he was coming back to Judaism at the time he wrote the screenplay of Homicide, which marks the film as perhaps one of his most personal works. “I was trying to figure out where I belonged,” he says, which is a pretty fair summation of the theme of Homicide.

Also included on the disk is a short gag reel, a few television spots for the film and an insightful essay on this ripe-to-be-rediscovered film by critic Stuart Klawans.

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