Smelling a rat in ‘Homicide’

Oooh, I smell research!

I have tried, I really have, but oh, David Mamet, I just am not one of your fans. But if you do happen to be a fan of Mamet’s patented staccato speech patterns and twisty-turny plots and self-important awareness, that’s cool with me. We’ll just agree to disagree and not talk about Mamet when we meet up at dinner parties, ok? 🙂

The Mamet in question is the 1991 film Homicide, starring Joe Mantegna as conflicted Jewish cop Bobby Gold, and the other usual suspects of a Mamet film. Yeah, I’m probably going to get all kinds of cranky and all-capsy with this one. Fair warning. But bear with me, because there is an interesting library scene in this one.


So I won’t get too much into the plot, because really, what’s the point? It’s all a mirage, anyway. It’s a David Mamet film. The puzzle-within-the-puzzle-within-the-other-puzzle-you-didn’t-see-coming IS the point. Suffice to say, Detective Gold is investigating a minor case and gets involved with a secretive Jewish group, which makes him question his faith and self-worth, yada yada yada. Along the way, Gold finds a piece of paper with the word Grofaz scrawled across it, and later, about an hour in, some random Jewish shopkeeper tells him the word was another name for Hitler. Oooh, I smell research!

Librarian in Homicide
What? I’m a librarian. Sweater vests are awesome.

The camera immediately cuts to a man, a young white male, all buttoned-up, writing out what Grofaz means on a chalkboard (see above). At first, I was thinking, “Teacher?” But it turns out he’s the head librarian at a special library for Jewish studies, listed in the credits simply as Librarian (Steven Goldstein). The librarian reveals that Grofaz is an acronym for Größter Feldherr aller Zeiten, translating roughly to “the greatest strategist of all time.” I was intrigued.

But then the camera revealed a cigarette in the librarian’s hands. A cigarette! A smoldering flame around archival posters and propaganda ephemera. Dude, I know this is a Mamet film and all that, but seriously?! A cigarette in a modern library full of priceless archives? Nuh-uh. Not buying it. SMELLING A RAT #1.

So the reel librarian continues to puff on that cigarette, telling us all about the Grofaz strategy, which apparently was “an interesting attempt” by a special division of the Propaganda Ministry that “didn’t particularly take.” This mini-lecture takes us through most of the special library, where we get vistas of dark wood paneling, rows of tall bookcases, study tables, books piled up, etc. Plus, we get a split-second glimpse of another assistant in a white coat back in the maps room, listed as Library Technician (Andrew Potok).

Looking at archival posters in Homicide
Looking at archival posters

Finally, head librarian stubs out the cigarette before reading from a “very rare” poster that highlights the Grofaz (see above).

Bobby Gold:  What do you have on the use of this word? Currently. Particularly in conjunction with anti-Semitic acts.

Librarian:  As I said, it’s an arcane usage, but we’ll look. We’ll take a look.

The librarian calls out to a colleague in the stacks. An older, grey-haired lady dressed all in grey (Charlotte Potok as Assistant Librarian) comes out of the stacks, carrying a clipboard and looking very serious (see below). The head librarian rattles off some directions, finally instructing her to “Bring it all,” and also instructs Gold to wait.

Assistant librarian in Homicide
Assistant librarian in Homicide

So while Gold is waiting (impatiently, I might add), he encounters some additional attitude from a Hasidic Jewish scholar, who basically ridicules him for not being able to read Hebrew. As he gets up, the scholar asks Gold to replace a book for him on the shelf. WTF?! Nuh-uh. (Side note:  We librarians generally prefer it if you don’t reshelve materials on your own. We are better able to make sure that items are placed back in the right locations, no offense, plus we also get to collect browsing stats. It’s a win-win for us, trust me. And don’t ask other patrons to shelve stuff for you. That’s just rude.)

And OF COURSE, while Gold is placing the book high on a shelf, he just happens to overhear a suspicious conversation between the head librarian and the grey lady assistant. SMELLING A RAT #2. 

Assistant Librarian:  The material on anti-Semitic acts.

Librarian:  Yes. I thought we had quite a file of current —

Assistant Librarian:  It was requested by 212.

Librarian:  212 wants it? [looks at envelope on clipboard]

Assistant Librarian:  Yes.

Librarian:  Loaned to 212 now? Fine. Then just pull the file.

Gold steps out as the grey lady steps away, and the librarian tells him, nope, they got nothing on the anti-Semitic acts in relation to Grofaz

Gold:  Nothing?

Librarian:  No.

Gold:  This is official police business.

Librarian:  Officer, you know I’d help you if I could, but as I said, it was rather arcane material. I’m sorry.

Gold:  Well, if there’s nothing you can do, there’s nothing you can do. Thank you.

Librarian:  Not at all. If there’s anything else I can help you with, let me know.

The librarian — after lighting up yet ANOTHER cigarette — walks down some stairs, leaving the clipboard and file out in the open. Yeah. Sure. SMELLING A RAT #3.

Librarian smokes in the library in Homicide
You know what you can do for me? You can take that cigarette out of your mouth.

So, OF COURSE, Gold leafs through the oh-so-conveniently-placed clipboard (see above), and spots an address with “212” in it. The next shot cuts to him at that location, and the plot continues to twist from there.

I’m sure you can tell by now how much this brief scene in this Class III film irritated me. The smug and dismissive attitude of this (mis)Information Provider librarian. The way he waved off his assistant. The clunky scene where the scholar tells him to shelve the book. Leaving the clipboard out. The cigarettes. The way the library is portrayed as yet another establishment — like the boys in blue? — insulated by its own rules and reasons and secrets, too easily influenced by outside pressures.

At the very end of the film, where Gold has lost everything, he gets handed a file. The final close-up reveals a newspaper advertisement for Grofazt, a type of pigeon feed. Was it all a set-up? That gotcha! moment so typical of Mamet. But what’s the point?

Looking for clues on how to answer that question, I did watch the other special features on this Criterion Collection disc, and I also rewatched the library scene with commentary by Mamet himself and co-star William H. Macy. The writer/director highlights Goldstein as the “go to Jew” in the Mamet acting company, and he calls out the “great Charlotte” who played the Assistant Librarian. Although Mamet states that the library scene is pivotal in the transition of Gold’s character (where does the hero belong? etc.), he also refers to the reel librarian as “head of the Jewish whatever-it-is.” Sigh.

And he addresses the smoking, too, in this commentary:  “That’s why I used to do a lot of writing in law libraries around the country, because they let you smoke in them. And also they didn’t ask you for any identification, because you know, who would pretend to be a lawyer?” How long ago did Mamet write in law libraries? The 1960s? The 1970s? Surely that has changed by now. And by the way, law libraries are NOT the same thing as special archives libraries. No smoking allowed!

William H. Macy’s reaction to the smoking? “It is an odd choice. Took poor Stevie about 10 years to quit smoking.” Because of this film?! Poor guy. And thank you, William H. Macy, for also thinking all that smoking in the library was weird. Also, you’re the best thing in this movie. Bless. ♥

Misspelling in the Homicide gag reel
Spelling matters, y’all

One last side note: In the gag reel in the Criterion Collection dvd, Goldstein initially misspelled Grofaz as Grozaz (see above). Woopsie. 😉

Sources used:

  • Homicide. Dir. David Mamet. Perf. Joe Mantegna, William H. Macy and Vincent Guastaferro. Triumph Releasing Corp., 1991.

Author: Jennifer

Librarian, blogger, movie lover

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