Seldom Scene
Movie reviews by Gerald Panio

Homicide (1991)

Let’s begin by confusing the issue. This is a movie review, so I’ll talk about books for a while. Trust me. You’ve probably seen copies of the standard movie review anthologies—Leonard Maltin’s Movie and Video Guide, Martin & Porter’s Video Movie Guide, Roger Ebert’s Movie Home Companion–at your local bookstores. All three are useful, and Ebert’s in-depth reviews should be required reading for anyone who loves movies. Life, however, is incomplete without its guilty pleasures. Like cheesecake. Now, the chocolate cheesecake of movie review anthologies has got to be VideoHound’s Golden Movie Retriever and its mini-commentaries on 22,000 sublime, incomprehensible, insupportable, mundane, dubious, or outrageous motion pictures. From Zhang Yimou’s 1987 Chinese classic Red Sorghum to Red Skelton’s Funny Faces 3, from Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window to La Sombra del Murcielago (“Monsters and Mexican wrestlers fight over a woman. In Spanish.”), the Retriever is a dangerous book to leave on the bathroom shelf (provided that you have a bathroom shelf big enough to hold it). Making the book even more of a guilty pleasure is an extensive Category Index listing pictures with related plots: Mad Scientist movies, Yuppie Nightmare movies, Rebel With A Cause movies, Rebel Without a Cause movies, etc. I’ve no bones to pick (pun intended) with the Hound’s 350 chosen categories; it’s just that they missed one—Movies That Treat Their Protagonist With Unspeakable Cruelty.

David Mamet’s Homicide (1991) belongs in Category 351. I haven’t seen a good film hurt its main character so badly since Peter Yates took Robert Mitchum for a hard fall in The Friends of Eddie Coyle. If you thought King Lear had a rough time of it, try walking a mile in Detective Robert Gold’s shoes. A top hostage negotiator for the Baltimore police department, with 22 citations for valour, Gold (Joe Mantegna) seems to have done everything right for his whole life except to find a meaning for it. He’s always been “first through the door” in a violent standoff–because of how little he ultmately values his own life. He’s a good negotiator–because he himself feels trapped. When a middle-aged man in a lock-up suddenly goes berserk and slashes him across the head with his own gun, Gold is angry not at the pain or the act, but at the fact that once again the universe seems to have randomly singled him out as the patsy.

Gold’s lapsed Jewish heritage doesn’t help matters. Prejudice against Jews within the police force has warped his career. Thinking he is alone on the telephone in the opulent library of the home of an elderly Jewish woman whose murder he is investigating, he indulges in his own bitter anti-Semitic diatribe: “These are not my people, baby…so much anti-Semitism the last 400 years we must be doing something to bring it about.” The woman’s granddaughter overhears him, and when she asks “Do you hate yourself that much? Do you belong nowhere?” he cannot respond. Near the end of the movie, the black fugitive he’s hunting asks him much the same question. His answer is almost, but not quite, the cruellest moment in the film.

Aside from his partner, Tim Sullivan (William H. Macy), with whom he engages in some easy banter that’s Homicide‘s best dialogue, everyone Gold meets seems bent on cutting out the hollow centre of his soul with both the keenest and bluntest instruments possible. The murdered woman’s son, a wealthy Jewish doctor, tells him: “We’re always making it [anti-Semitic conspiracies] up—is that right? It’s always a fantasy, isn’t it?” A black government official dismisses him contemptuously as a “little kike,” while members of a militant Jewish self-defence society reject him as a coward with no loyalty to his own people. His own superior officer buckles to pressure from above and pulls him off a case he is instrumental in breaking wide open. Gold’s not even safe in a library. As he stands there waiting for some information, a young Hassidic student lectures him on the comparative symbology of the star on his detective’s badge and the mystical Star of David (something about “the impossibility of deconstructing pentagrams”), walking sadly away when he realizes Gold cannot read Hebrew.

With every step Gold takes, Mamet collapses his world further in upon itself. Paranoia turns into genuine conspiracy, and conspiracy turns back into illusion. Every act of loyalty is an act of betrayal. Neither victims nor killers are who they should be. Smiling grandmothers pose in old photographs lovingly cradling Thompson machine guns. As with any tragic figure (and Homicide is such a fine film because its protagonist is a tragic hero), Gold’s only defence against the Furies is ignorance of their existence. Once he starts to see them, he’s doomed. Gold’s partner tries in vain to keep their life-saving, ironic distance intact (“You’re better than an aquarium. There’s something happening with you every minute.”). It’s too late.

Where Gold’s going, even your own mother turns you in. The simplest things you leave undone undo you.

Finally, listen for the silences in this film. They counterpoint the violence of action and language. Alaric Jans’ minimalist musical score (solo piano much of the time), plays softly against backdrops of urban decay, deserted rooftops, tenement halls, and moneyed salons. Music, cinematography, decor fuse. I loved the tone of this movie. And because I can’t think of where else to mention it, I also loved Mary Jefferson’s embittered portrayal of a ghetto mother standing by her son. By the way, you probably want to know The Meaning of It All. In Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy it was 49. In Homicide, it’s pigeon feed. That’s right. Pigeon feed.

Looking Back & Second Thoughts

[Homicide is now out as a Criterion disk, which means no easy access unless you shell out big bucks or can access Filmstruck streaming services. I’ll get a hold of a copy eventually, but have struck out here for the moment.]

Movie Information

Genre: Drama, Crime
Director: David Mamet
Actors: Joe Mantegna, William H. Macy, Vincent Guastaferro
Year: 1991
Original Review: March 1993


Bloody Disgusting

With the occasional exceptions, such as the Alien series, I pretty much gave up on horror films in the late Seventies. The new stuff just grossed me out. But the genre’s done quite well without me, and I thought I’d list a few popular horror film sites for those with stronger stomachs or a fondness for self-flagellation. This first site is an entertaining grab bag of reviews, editorials, previews, etc. At the time I was writing this, there were features such as “The worst phone calls in horror history,” “Ranking the ‘Ring’ Films,” “Creative horror movie valentines,” and “Syfy celebrating Romero’s birthday with a 12-hour ‘Night of the Living Dead’ marathon.”


Science Fiction, Horror, and Fantasy Film Review

A bare-bones website with reviews and ratings of hundreds of films, as well as annual Best & Worst lists dating back to 1995.


Internet Horror Data Base

An take-off, featuring posters, trailers, biographies, reviews, Lists (Evil Doll Movies, Christmas Horror Movies, Clown Horror Movies, etc.), and sidebars with features like “Why Horror Movie Ratings are Insane,” “The Top Ten Stephen King Film Adaptations,” and “Ten Horror Movie Clichés That Still Work.”


“The First in Fright since 1979”

Originally a magazine, and now so much more. The content is similar to Bloody Disgusting, but also ranging into horror-related books, music, merchandise, etc.

Shock Till You Drop

“Your Portal to Horror”

A good source of articles on current events in the genre as well as retrospectives. As I wrote this, the site featured such articles as “The Full History of the Ring Franchise,” “Why Dawn of the Dead Still Matters,” and “Happy National Gorilla Suit Day! Here’s 5 Great Killer Ape Flicks!” top horror movie websites

A ranked listing of 52 horror-themed websites. You never know what you need….

Films Worth Talking About:

Poison, Delicatessen, Naked Lunch, Hook, Paris is Burning, Prospero’s Books, The Silence of the Lambs, Korczak, The Grifters, Hamlet, L.A. Story, Merci la vie, The Company of Strangers, Barton Fink, Jacquot de Nantes, Thelma and Louise, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, King of New York, Toto the Hero, Boyz N the Hood, [Truly, Madly, Deeply], la Belle Noiseuse, Let Him Have It, Raise the Red Lantern, Urga, My Own Private Idaho, J’entends plus la guitare, The Fisher King, Edward II, Van Gogh, Les amants du Pont Neuf, IP5, Beauty and the Beast, Cape Fear, Yentl, JFK, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café, The Doors, The Commitments, The Addams Family, In Bed With Madonna (Truth or Dare), Bugsy, For the Boys, Other People’s Money, Proof, City Slickers, The Adjuster

The Bigger Picture

Films: The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973), Glengarry Glen Ross (1992), Liberty Heights (1999)


Books: George V. Higgins, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, David Mamet, Bambi vs. Godzilla

The Word on the Street

“…it just keeps getting better and better.”


“…his tight dialogue creates wonderful tensions with a minimum of words….”


“In many ways this is Mamet’s last film. After “Homicide” Mamet would write a book in which he explains his new philosophy of film-making. From this point onwards he would strip his films down drastically. The lighting would be flat, the dialogue would be direct, the camera work would be virtually non-existent and the music would be minimal.

Consider this line from Mamet’s book: “Acting should be a series of simple physical actions. If the actor wants to know how he should walk to a door in the scene, the director should tell him, ‘Go to the door,’ and, if the actor presses on: ‘Go to the door. Quickly.’ Don’t act. Don’t emote. No motivation. No back-story. No character arc. No discovery. These are indulgences that cannot possibly be manifested physically. Just go to the door. Quickly. Cut. Print. Go home.”

Mamet’s new found philosophy – which he calls “heightened logic” – is important in understanding why his films are so self consciously artificial, why his stories all revolve around elaborate cons and why he directs such trashy material. On the surface, Mamet’s films are all about con-jobs, but covertly, they’re all about Mamet’s true passion: language. Language is often – if not inherently – selfish. To talk, especially in the way that Mamet’s characters talk, is to con. Stunted half sentences and droning repetitions aren’t there just for the fun of it. They are successful and less successful attempts at persuasion.

So thematically, Mamet’s films are all about “words”. Post “Homicide”, however, his directing style evolved in such a way as to eradicate everything that detracts from his words. By removing music, cinematography, acting, sound etc, you’ve essentially cancelled out the director’s “vision”. And after you’ve cancelled out a director’s “vision” and an actor’s “interpretation”, nothing remains but the writer’s words.

Another reason for the drastic change in style (post “Homicide”) is Mamet’s belief that neither film nor art has the power to educate audiences, change views or teach. Art, in his very pessimistic view, merely affirms the wisdom of the wise and ignorance of the ignorant. So instead of “content”, Mamet’s films have avoided “issues” entirely and become preoccupied with a kind of Zen like professionalism. His scripts are attempts to perfect the “word”. An effort to keep on working, for no better reason than to hone one’s personal skills.”


“Give me Joe Mantegna and William H. Macy as partners and I’ll guarantee that there will be a movie worth watching. Macy has been moving up the chain, and is brilliant here.”