Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
David Mamet's first directing effort House of Games is an intimate thriller written in the playwright's signature style: in-your-face character confrontations and almost ritualistically formatted dialogue. A medical professional yearns to break out of the rigid controls set on her life. To help a patient, she goes to a gambling club and inadvertently finds the adventure and danger missing in her life. Although House of Games can seem a cold intellectual puzzle, its dramatic architecture is admirable. There are no unessential pieces, and any thorough description of the plot would ruin surprises for new viewers.
Psychoanalyst and successful author Margaret Ford (Lindsay Crouse) feels stifled by the problems of her two troubled patients, a murderess in a prison ward (Karen Kohlhaas) and Billy Hahn (Steven Goldstein), a potentially violent gambler. Margaret doesn't feel she can really confide in her best friend, Dr. Littauer (Lilia Skala), and goes to a gambling club called The House of Games to talk a rude operator named Mike (Joe Mantegna) into forgiving Billy Hahn's gambling debt. Margaret becomes fascinated by Mike's dangerous life as a gambler, which fulfills her need for risk and thrills.
David Mamet's work may have its detractors but his style is entirely his own. His growing popularity among theater students and professionals relates to the fact that that the mechanisms energizing his plays are easy to identify and analyze. Theme and character are almost indistinguishable. Margaret Ford feels overwhelmed by her psychiatric duties and takes it to heart when her young patients accuse her of being clinically distant from their problems. Colleague Dr. Littauer recommends that Margaret seek her happiness separate from her work. Excited by the promise of adventure and bolstered by the illusion that she's the equal of any situation that might arise, Margaret walks into the House of Games and goes face-to-face with the intimidating Mike. Margaret wants Mike to forgive her patient's gambling debt. Mike proves that the debt is much smaller than her patient has claimed, and offers to relent if she'll do him a favor. He explains that a card player seeks to recognize little clues that betray when an opponent is not telling the truth, as when they bluff about the cards they hold. The clue is called "The Tell". Mike needs help in reading an opponent in a critical card game. Will Margaret play along with him?
House of Games is like the con game tales The Flim-Flam Man or The Sting, except that Mamet is running a much more sophisticated con game on the audience. Early in their relationship Mike tells Margaret that he's a criminal and that the first rule she needs to learn is not to trust anybody. It's a fine puzzle movie, one certainly sharp enough to snag most viewers with its sudden reversals. Mike's cohorts are an entertaining group of confidence tricksters.
House of Games is a beautiful display of Mamet's strengths. His theme is the relationship between trust and deception. Mamet makes us aware that working a con game is a lot like acting in a play, and that a play is very much like a con game. Making a movie that surprises an audience requires the skills of a con artist, because an audience is asking to be 'taken in.' Mike explains that every con requires the voluntary cooperation of the victim. We're fooled as easily as are Mike's victims, time and again. The puzzle has several layers and we are active participants. Mamet doesn't cheat by withholding essential information.
David Mamet's mannered dialogue continues to split the jury. His characters speak in exaggerated, overly explicit sentences and use convoluted syntax. In tight conversations, the characters mirror each other's phrases by repeating them with a different stress, as if externalizing their own mental processes. Most stage plays aren't this stylized; what plays as artificial or stilted for some is great writing for others. It's Mamet-speak, and it's instantly recognizable.
Viewers looking for sentimentality or a reassuring moral will be disappointed, as the illicit activity on Mamet's nighttime streets is strictly prey vs. predator. The characters are always asking one another what they want, and it is assumed that actions are always determined by selfish desires ... the story has little sense of human charity. Margaret has written a best seller about mental health but no longer believes that she's doing anything good for her patients. She instead seeks fulfillment through Mike's dark games. They sneak into someone else's hotel room to sleep together, and back each other up in deceptions with dangerous adversaries. Margaret's having a good time, until one of Mike's supposed patsies turns out to be a policeman laying a trap.
Director Mamet does show a few weaknesses. In the first card game Margaret watches for George to exhibit "The Tell" by playing with a ring on his finger. We can clearly see what George is doing but the editor can't resist cutting to a big close-up of the ring. Mamet could have allowed us to interpret the action on our own, and this sudden need to be explicit indicates a touch of storytelling insecurity. It's Mamet's own "Tell."
Elsewhere, the high caliber of acting cannot hide some fairly clunky details. When we realize that every character is a utility player, Lilia Skala's nurturing mother figure becomes an obvious structural tool to 'illuminate' Margaret's character. The con artists pull off perfect jobs and then give the game away by driving key vehicles at the wrong time and hanging out together where the victim can find them. The screen action is so concentrated that Margaret's character cannot even take out the trash without making three separate story points. Margaret smashes her framed diploma, ashamed that she's betrayed her professional oath. Although Lindsay Crouse handles the moment beautifully, it's really not all that different from the laughable scene in the old noir film Decoy, where a doctor shows his self-disgust by shattering a copy of the Hippocratic Oath.
Those are tiny details in a debut film that any director would be proud of. Linday Crouse and Joe Mantegna are a riveting pair of romantic grifters, and House of Games is a wickedly clever thriller that deserves its favorable reputation.
Criterion's DVD of House of Games is a flawless enhanced transfer with excellent mono sound. The slick, dark photography of Juan Luis Anchía provides a fine backdrop for Mamet's story. The extras package includes exactly what Mamet's fan base wants to see, good interviews with actors Lindsay Crouse and Joe Mantegna. David Mamet is featured on a vintage promo featurette and provides an entire commentary aided by actor Ricky Jay, who was also a consultant on the various con games used during the plot. Storyboards for an alternate, unused con game demonstration are present, as well as the film's trailer.
Disc producer Abbey Lustgarten packs an insert booklet with an essay by Kent Jones and reprints David Mamet's introduction to the film from the published screenplay.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
House of Games rates:
Supplements: Comentary by David Mamet, new interviews with Lindsay Crouse and Joe Mantegna, 1987 featurette and trailer, storyboards, essay by Kent Jones.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 8, 2007
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson
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