Homicide: David Mamet’s Morality Tale, Starring Joe Mantegna

In Homicide, David Mamet’s modern morality play, Bobby Gold (Joe Mantegna), an exemplary Jewish detective, defines himself in terms of his work–he is a tough cop.

When Bobby stumbles onto a shooting of an elderly shopkeeper in the Jewish ghetto, his boss assigns him to investigate it. Removed off an important case to handle a minor one, he’s offended. “I’m ‘his people” Bobby tells his boss, “I thought I was your people.” Clearly, Bobby’s reference group is his overwhelmingly gentile fellow cops; his partner is Irish.

The victim’s relatives pull strings at City Hall to keep Bobby on the case, hoping that a Jew will take it more seriously. Utterly assimilated, Bobby resents their efforts to define him by race. At first, Bobby thinks they are hysterical, lacking any ground for the suspicion the crime was motivated by racial hatred, but then he comes across evidence that validates their claim. Gradually, Bobby’s resentment yields to curiosity about his Jewish roots, and in due course, his value system shifts, leading him to betray everything he has believed in, including loss of professionalism and a conversion that’s psychologically unconvincing.

Mamet teaches a truism of urban survival, showing, as John Sayles did in City of Hope and John Guare in Six Degrees of Separation (directed as a movie by Fred Schepisi in 1993), how in the big city, everyone is related to everyone else and yet everyone is alone. Mamet’s examination of Bobby’s tormented identity is sincere, but he turns earnest, making Bobby and the other Jewish characters self-righteous. Sloppy, contrived plotting and a pat resolution might explain why the film failed commercially.