By Matthew Sorrento | September 15, 2009

As Mamet writes, so he directs – his shots get to the point, usually one we don’t forget. In his book On Directing Film, the playwright/screenwriter-director stresses the importance for actors to perform “uninflected physical action,” and hence not over-emote a scene. After writing a dramatic narrative for clarity, he realizes it in a similar manner. His writing sounds clipped yet precise, never vague, subjective, or overreaching. His filmmaking style is so direct that his visceral insights come fast and sharp, his final resolutions appearing like a controlled beatdown – and rarely a sledgehammer to the head.

Hardly a secret, Mamet came to the film medium late, after years of writing for the stage. He’d already created some of his finest work there, including his slow-burning “American Buffalo” (which premiered in 1975) and his masterful statement on the very American archetype, the salesman, in “Glengarry Glen Ross” (a Pulitzer Prize drama from 1984, and finely brought to the screen in 1992 by James Foley). Mamet’s first film as director, “House of Games,” is a sharp melodrama with dramatic heft behind it. He never forgets to create action, but his stage work always ends up as character-based drama – tough matter for plot-driven mainstream cinema. Yet Mamet approaches the conventional territories as a workman, as usual. After all, his first screenwriting job, for director Bob Rafelson, was the 1981 remake of “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” a narrative that practically constructed a classic crime mythos. Lately Mamet’s busied himself with his television series “The Unit,” for which he serves as frequent scriptwriter. (In his introduction to the collection Five Television Plays, he swears the medium would have been his primary interest if he hadn’t stumbled across the stage when young.)

After writing and directing the quiet drama “Things Change” for the screen, Mamet returned to crime convention with “Homicide” (1991), with the seamy types now cops instead of criminals. The film begins sharply, economically, typically Mamet. True to his directing dogma, “Homicide” concerns the actions of cops in the eponymous police division. After a blast of an opening scene, in which the force raids an apartment to get a high-profile drug dealer, curt cuts of dialog and profanity fly around the precinct. Detective Bobby Gold (Mamet vet Joe Mantegna) is hot on the case, until he’s reassigned to the murder of a Jewish candy store owner. Certain names in Mamet are like badges that cannot be removed. And Bobby’s ethnicity isn’t overlooked. Having been called a slur by his African American boss earlier in the film, Bobby reads his reassignment as further hazing. Yet an anti-Semitic flier posted on the shop wall suggests much more hatred is behind the crime. It eventually makes the detective reconsider his own ethnic identity, which brings on a full reevaluation.

During a scene where Gold visits the victim’s home, he falls into the precinct’s routine of bigotry. When he thinks he alone – and “backstage” – on a phone call to his partner, Tim Sullivan (William H. Macy), Gold drops a self-hating remark that suggests the Jews have been responsible for their own persecution. His boy’s-club laughter turns to horror when he sees the daughter of the murdered woman standing quietly in the room, eyeing him as if he were a Nazi war criminal. Bobby’s haunting question to himself – Who are you? – is interrupted by a perpetrator on the roof. He swallows the question as duty calls, but it doesn’t go down easy.

Bobby soon commits to the case, even if his partner wants him to double his time by hunting for the drug dealer. Here Mamet begins raising the theme from his well-oiled plot. Bobby reveals an underground criminal network residing on the side he doesn’t suspect. Hence, “Homicide” uses a noir-style procedural to tap into an issue broader than the underground crimes of the old days. The film’s ambitions are like those of the classic private eye film “Chinatown,” which unearths corruption on the political level. Mamet, a pro-Zionist Jew, reveals the film’s thematic heart – how a race can bargain and survive in a world where anti-Semitism will never die. To the film’s credit, it focuses more on the man in question in lieu of just critiquing the world he inhabits. The thematic development is a clever move on the filmmaker’s part, though the plot’s revelation comes as a heavy blow, not swift enough for the film that frames it. Bobby’s newfelt guilt halts the well-paced film still. It’s satisfying in its style, but not quite in the narrative payoff.

A follow-up to Criterion’s 2007 release of “House of Games,” this set offers less extras than we’ve come to expect from fine DVD boutique. A booklet essay by critic Stuart Klawans is insightful yet overpraising, while fans of Mamet will enjoy a short featurette of interviews with his lesser-known favorite players. A commentary track by Mamet and William H. Macy (who dons his usual cop-‘stache in the film) is an informal, seemingly unplanned session, a meet-up of two old friends. (Macy, after all, inspired the writing of “American Buffalo” before starring in the premiere.) But both parties drop some great comments. “Back in the days when we smoked in movies,” Macy says, indicating Mantegna’s character. “Today, he’d die.”

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