House of Games
August 17, 2007
By the time he wrote and directed his first film, House of Games (1987), David Mamet already had an illustrious career as an award-winning playwright and Hollywood screenwriter. Directing this movie would allow him the kind of creative control over his own material that he enjoyed in the theatre. Mamet was able to do this by keeping the budget down and surrounding himself with actors that he had worked with in the past.
House of Games takes place in one of Mamet’s favourite worlds – that of con men and criminals. Dr. Margaret Ford (Crouse) is a no-nonsense psychiatrist and successful author leading a routine existence. She is, what one of her patients accuses, “exempt from experience.” An opportunity to acquire some arises when another patient, a compulsive gambler, tells her that he’s in trouble. He owes $25,000 by the next day or he will be killed. Her desire for experience, to sample real life outside of the safe confines of her practice, provokes Dr. Ford to seek out the gambler whom her patient owes money to at the House of Games, a seedy dive downtown.
She meets Mike Mancuso (Mantegna), a confident, articulate man who is impressed that such a prim and proper woman would have the courage to seek him out and then stand up to him. He agrees to forget her patient’s debt if she will help him out in a high stakes poker game that he’s currently engaged in by posing as his girlfriend and helping him beat a rival gambler (Jay). They develop a relationship and he teaches her a thing or two about human behaviour, like what is known as a tell, a gesture that people unconsciously do that reveals what they are hiding. Mike also provides Dr. Ford with a glimpse into the world of con men and confidence schemes which she finds intriguing because it is a foreign world to her. Also, Mike excites her because he represents a dangerous world that she has never been privy to before in her life. He also provides a catalyst to unlocking her repressed nature as represented in the conservative attire she wears and the short, boyish haircut that contributes to her hard, professional exterior.
House of Games showcases some of Mamet’s trademark tough guy dialogue that is always spoken in his specific cadence. Here is a memorable example of an exchange between Mike and a rival poker player:
Mike: I think you’re bluffing.
Jay: What are you, Joe Hep? I didn’t ask what you think! Raise, call or fold.
Mike: I should raise your ass. But I’m just gonna call. My marker’s good for a moment?
Jay: What is this marker? Where are you from?
Mike: Where am I from? I’m from the United States of kiss my ass!
It is how the actors say this dialogue that makes his films so interesting to watch. The rhythm is just slightly off kilter and delivered in an even and mannered way.
Lindsay Crouse is good as the repressed psychiatrist who exhibits a cold, professional exterior early on but that is gradually eroded by Mike’s charismatic charm. She (and we the audience) are fascinated by him and the world he lives in because it is so far removed from her own. Mamet regular Joe Mantegna is excellent as Mike, the savvy con man. His character displays streetwise smarts and it is easy to see why Dr. Ford is so easily charmed by his character. Mantegna reveals just enough tricks of Mike’s trade to draw Dr. Ford in but leaves others unexplained to maintain an air of mystery. Other frequent Mamet collaborators make memorable appearances: Ricky Jay and Mike Nussbaum as Mike’s partners in crime and William H. Macy as a gullible mark.
Like one of his later films, The Spanish Prisoner (1997), House of Games is not only about con games but is a con itself as we are taken for the proverbial ride right along with Dr. Ford. With such an emphasis on dialogue and character, it is often overlooked how well shot this film is as Mamet employs a dark, neo-noir atmosphere that is rich and textured and helps draw us into the criminal underworld that Mike lives and works in. House of Games is a very strong directorial debut for Mamet and would lead to many more efforts adding up to an eclectic body of work.
Easily, the highlight for Mamet fans is the audio commentary with the man and actor Ricky Jay. These two old friends engage in lively philosophical discussions on a variety of topics, including why President Bush is such a terrible liar, the art of the con game and why psychiatry is a scam. They talk about what makes drama work and how it ties in with the con game. Mamet is simultaneously witty and whip smart as he analyzes the themes of the movie without sounding pretentious. He also talks about the visual look and other films that influenced it. Ricky Jay talks about the nature of the con and some of the lingo involved while keeping Mamet talking by prodding him with questions. Mamet is his usual blunt self as he constantly talks about how Orion messed up distributing the film in this engaging and thought-provoking commentary.
There is an interview with actress Lindsay Crouse who mentions that Mamet wrote the role of Dr. Ford for her (They were married at the time) and says that he spent five years trying to get the film made because the studios found the material too dark. Crouse also speaks about her character and what motivates her throughout the film.
Also included is an interview with Joe Mantegna. He talks about his history with Mamet that goes back to Chicago theatre in the 1970s. He eventually appeared in the stage version of Glengarry Glen Ross when Al Pacino turned it down and went on to win a Tony for it. He talks about how he related to the character of Mike and recounts some amusing anecdotes about filming.
“David Mamet on House of Games” is 25-minute making of featurette that the film’s producer and his wife shot in Vermont while Mamet was preparing the film and in Seattle while he was shooting it. There is some great footage of Mamet and his buddies playing poker in Vermont. The same guys also appear in the film in the poker scene.
“The Tap” features the original storyboards to the short con that Mike and his group demonstrate to Dr. Ford but in order to protect the working con man, Ricky Jay changed it to another con called the Flue.
Finally, there is a theatrical trailer.