Saturday, July 30, 2011

A Homicide moment

Homicide: Life on the Street remains one of my favorite TV series of all time. After mourning the reduction to a cardboard cutout of the John Munch character in his post-Homicide incarnation, I revisited a few episodes from the series' early years. I ran across a scene that captured the show's greatness, and incidentally touched on three of my favorite characters.

(WARNING: Spoilers ahead if you've never seen the 3rd season episode "Crosetti.")

Shift commander Lt. Al Giardello has happened upon Det. Stan Bolander in a hallway. Bolander is in charge of investigating the recent death of fellow detective Steve Crosetti.
Giardello: Any word from the medical examiner about Crosetti? About the cause of death?

Bolander: Not yet. I asked Scheiner to be thorough -- to be sure.

G: I know everybody's on you to do right by Steve, to make sure it doesn't come out a suicide.

B: Is that what you're asking, Lieutenant? To make it a murder? A murder with no murderers, a murder that can't be solved? [pause] If you order me to do it, I'll do it; I mean, hell, my clearance rate is so low these days, I mean, one more open case ain't gonna make any difference.

Now, everybody says, you know, "do it for Steve." And I keep thinking, I mean, if he chose to commit suicide, what right do I have -- what right does any of us have -- to make that go away? [pause] I don't agree with what he did, but if that's his final statement, should I wipe that clear? Just for our peace of mind?

I mean, nobody wants to admit it, but everybody knows what really happened.

G: If it's ruled a suicide, his name will come off the board. If it's a murder, Crosetti's name will be up there all the time -- reminding us.

In the old days, the Italians wouldn't bury a suicide in the graveyard or consecrated ground. They'd take the body out of the village and dig a hole at the point where two roads crossed: il croce di due cammini, the crossroads. The Italians believed that if someone should come to the crossroads and choose to end his life, that he should be buried where those who had the strength to go on could walk over him.

B: [pause] The Italians are an unforgiving lot.

G: I know -- but we make great pasta. It balances out.

B: [pause] You want me to quit? You want me to stop my investigation?

G: [pause] No.
I love this scene for several reasons. First, Giardello is played by Yaphet Kotto, an actor whose magnificent physicality first caught my attention in Brubaker (I particularly remember his massive hands clapping at the end). Kotto's Giardello is a brooding presence hanging over Bolander, a physical manifestation of the psychological pressure the other detectives are bringing to bear on him.

Second, Bolander is portrayed by Ned Beatty. Beatty doesn't act as Bolander, he brings Bolander to shambling, cranky life, complete with fallen arches (or so I imagine from his walk); a deep sadness, after years of close encounters with violent death, masked by a gruff and often discomfited public face; and a bullheaded determination to do his job.

Third, this scene revolves around a man who isn't there, the erstwhile detective Steve Crosetti. In the truncated first and second seasons of Homicide, Crosetti was played by the criminally underrated Jon Polito. To lose Polito at NBC's insistence was a great disappointment, even though new cast member Isabella Hoffman did a fine job in her own right. The producers (Tom Fontana in particular, I believe) managed to turn this backstage turmoil to the show's advantage by making Polito's departure irreversible and permanent within the show's continuity. The fallout deepened our understanding of and appreciation for those who remained.

Fourth, Beatty and Kotto deftly used silence to give ideas and emotions a chance to sink in. The impact would have been much lessened if they both hadn't had a terrific sense of timing. (I suppose this could be a tribute to the editing instead.)

Finally, the issues raised are weighty and not easily settled. Is suicide a statement of strength or weakness? Is it more important to honor the (presumed wishes of the) dead, or to soothe the feelings of those who remain? Should those who "speak for the dead," in Pembleton's oft-quoted phrase, occasionally be silent?

It's the little moments that make for a great show. You can muster all the crazy situations you want (Homicide resorted to its share of gimmicks, like sniper attacks and serial killings), but in the end what matters is how well your characters stand when nothing much is happening. This scene is as representative as any of how great those "nothing much is happening" moments were on Homicide.

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