House of Games (1987)

Mike and Dr. Margaret Ford
As an expert authority on the nature of compulsive behavior, psychologist
Margaret Ford (Lindsay Crouse) is quickly drawn into the deceptive world of a
con artist named Mike (Joe Mantegna), who teaches her the finer points of
poker in this scene from David Mamet's House of Games.

Copyright © 1987 Orion Pictures Corporation. All rights reserved.

Stats: 102 minutes, Rated R, Color. Available on Videocassette and Laserdisc. Also visit its Internet Movie Database Entry.

Leonard Maltin Review: 3 stars out of 4
Uptight female psychiatrist (and best-selling author) becomes involved with a slick confidence man and his "team," and quickly gets in over her head. Fascinating Hitchcockian tale by David Mamet, which also marks his film directing debut. Many of his stage cronies are on hand, notably Mantegna, in a dynamic performance, and Crouse, then Mamet's wife.

Roger Ebert Review: 4 stars out of 4
This movie is awake. I have seen so many films that sleepwalk through the debris of old plots and secondhand ideas that it was a constant pleasure to watch House of Games, a movie about con men that succeeds not only in conning its viewers, but also in creating a series of characters who seem imprisoned by the need to con or be conned.

The film stars Lindsay Crouse as a psychiatrist who specializes in addictive behavior, possibly as a way of dealing with her own compulsions. One of her patients is a gambler who fears he will be murdered over a bad debt. Crouse walks through lonely night streets to the neon signs of the House of Games, a bar where she thinks she can find the gambler who has terrorized her client. She wants to talk him out of enforcing the debt.

The gambler (Joe Mantegna) has never heard anything like this before. But he offers her a deal: If she will help him fleece a high-roller Texan in a big-stakes poker game, he will tear up the marker. She does so. She also becomes fascinated by the back-room reality of these gamblers who have reduced life to a knowledge of the odds. She comes back the next day, looking for Mantegna. She tells him she wants to learn more about gamblers and con men, about the kind of man he is. By the end of this movie, does she ever.

House of Games was written and directed by David Mamet, the playwright (Glengarry Glen Ross) and screenwriter (The Untouchables), and it is his directorial debut. Originally it was intended as a big-budget movie with an established director and major stars, but Mamet took the reins himself, cast his wife in the lead and old acting friends in the other important roles, and shot it on the rainy streets of Seattle. Usually the screenwriter is insane to think he can direct a movie. Not this time. House of Games never steps wrong from beginning to end.

The plotting is diabolical and impeccable, and I will not spoil the delight of its unfolding by mentioning the crucial details. What I can mention are the performances, the dialogue, and the setting. When Lindsay Crouse enters the House of Games, she enters a world occupied by characters who have known each other so long and so well, in so many different ways, that everything they say is a kind of shorthand. At first we don't fully realize that, and there is a strange savor to the words they use. They speak, of course, in Mamet's distinctive dialogue style, an almost musical rhythm of stopping, backing up, starting again, repeating, emphasizing, all the time with the hint of deeper meanings below the surfaces of the words. The leading actors, Joe Mantegna and Mike Nussbaum, have appeared in countless performances of Mamet plays over the years, and they know his dialogue the way other actors grow into Beckett or Shakespeare. They speak it as it is meant to be spoken, with a sort of aggressive, almost insulting, directness. Mantegna has a scene where he "reads" Lindsay Crouse - where he tells her about her "tells," those small giveaway looks and gestures that poker players use to read the minds of their opponents. The way he talks to her is so incisive and unadorned it is sexual.

These characters and others live in a city that looks, as the Seattle of Trouble in Mind did, like a place on a parallel time track. It is a modern American city, but like none we have quite seen before; it seems to have been modeled on the paintings of Edward Hopper, where lonely people wait in empty public places for their destinies to intercept them. Crouse is portrayed as an alien in this world, a successful, best-selling author who has never dreamed that men like this exist, and the movie is insidious in the way it shows her willingness to be corrupted.

There is in all of us a fascination for the inside dope, for the methods of the confidence game, for the secrets of a magic trick. But there is an eternal gulf between the shark and the mark, between the con man and his victim. And there is a code to protect the secrets. There are moments in House of Games when Mantegna instructs Crouse in the methods and lore of the con game, but inside every con is another one.

I met a woman once who was divorced from a professional magician. She hated this man with a passion. She used to appear with him in a baffling trick where they exchanged places, handcuffed and manacled, in a locked cabinet. I asked her how it was done. The divorce and her feelings meant nothing compared to her loyalty to the magic profession. She looked at me coldly and said, "The trick is told when the trick is sold." The ultimate question in House of Games is, who's buying?

CineBooks' Motion Picture Guide Review: 4 stars out of 5
Seldom has a playwright/director made the transition from stage to screen as deftly as David Mamet does in this psychological caper. The dialogue is vintage Mamet - to the point, funny, ironic, profane - and the characters are from his unmistakable universe - sardonic hustlers following "the American way," looking out for No. 1 and manipulating P.T. Barnum's plentiful suckers. House of Games occasionally has the feel of a play acted on life's stage, but the film is distinctly cinematic.

Driven: A psychologist, Dr. Margaret Ford (Lindsay Crouse), is also the best-selling author of Driven, a study of obsessive and compulsive behavior. As driven as her patients, she is virtually without a personal life, and her mentor and friend, Dr. Littauer (Lilia Skala), tells her to slow down and to enjoy her success. One of Margaret's patients, Billy Hahn (Steve Goldstein), a compulsive gambler, produces a gun and tells her that his life is in danger because he can't pay a huge gambling debt.

House of Games: Margaret goes to The House of Games and confronts the man to whom the debt is owed, Mike (Joe Mantegna), who tells her that Billy only owes him $800, but that he will wipe out the debt if she helps him win a big hand in a high-stakes poker game taking place in the back room. Margaret agrees to aid Mike, but the plan goes awry and Mike instead loses $6,000 to another player, George "Vegas Man" (Ricky Jay), who pulls a gun and demands immediate payment. Margaret agrees to cover the debt, then notices water dripping from George's gun and realizes that she is the would-be victim in an elaborate scam.

Confidence Tested: Instead of being angry, Margaret is captivated by Mike's charm and is also sexually intrigued. With vague thoughts about another book, she returns the next evening and asks Mike to teach her about confidence games. Noting that it's the victim who wins the con man's trust and not the other way around, Mike works a game on a Marine at a Western Union office. Then he and Margaret borrow a fancy hotel room and make love there. Leaving the hotel, Mike tells Margaret that she has to leave because a con is to take place in front of the hotel at that moment. She insists on being part of it.

One of the con men she's already met, Joey (Mike Nussbaum), appears with a conventioneer (J.T. Walsh), and the scam involves a briefcase full of money seemingly left by a man rushing off in a taxi. The four go to a hotel room to decide how to split the money, but Margaret overhears the conventioneer in the bathroom talking on a radio. He's a cop. It's a set-up. When he prepares to make the bust, she tries to force her way out of the door and in the struggle his gun goes off and kills him.

The others flee the hotel in a stolen car, but Joey has forgotten the money, which was borrowed from the mob for one night for the scam. Terrified, Margaret agrees to give them the money to cover the loan. Mike says that he and Joey are leaving town and the distraught Margaret returns to her office to destroy any evidence connecting her with The House of Games. She is visited by Billy, whom she sends away, but as he leaves, she notices that the car he is driving is the same one that she "stole" from the hotel parking lot.

Score Settled: That night she sneaks into the back of the tavern frequented by Mike. There, while hidden, she sees Mike, Joey, George, Billy, and the born-again conventioneer. The whole affair has been a confidence game, and she's the victim. She hears Mike say that he is going to the airport that evening and runs into him there "by chance." She tries to con him but tips her hand, and he confronts her with her failure. Pushed, she plays the trump card, shooting and killing him.

After a vacation, Margaret lunches with Dr. Littauer, whose advice she has taken and forgiven herself the unforgivable. "It's not as if you've killed someone," Dr. Littauer had said when Margaret tried to tell her unsuccessfully about the "dead cop."

Twists and Turns: Though Mamet is no stranger to screenplays (having written The Verdict, 1982, The Untouchables, 1987, and Bob Rafelson's The Postman Always Rings Twice, 1981), House of Games is his first try behind the camera. The film was originally set in Chicago but because of lower production costs it was filmed in Seattle on a budget of between $5 and $6 million. In the tradition of Alfred Hitchcock, Mamet worked from his own storyboards, which meticulously detailed how he wanted each shot to look.

With cinematographer Juan Ruiz-Anchia, Mamet created a neon-lit world of glistening streets, smoky, dark rooms, and occasional glaring daylight. Shadows lurk behind characters or cloak their faces and their intentions. This is not a world of half truths, but a wooden nickel world of deceit where lies are as intricately staged as a play. His screenplay also is airtight, as laden with traps for the viewer as it is for Crouse.

Although the dialogue often departs from a wholly naturalistic approach, Mamet is not asking to be judged realistically, he is after deeper psychological truths, matters that are rationally insolvable. In this respect he has brought his theatrical approach to the screen, but despite his contention in Writing in Restaurants that "fantastic cinematography has been the death of the American film" he has brilliantly exploited the visual potential of the medium to tell his story and reach for his truths.

Mantegna and his cronies are like a troupe of performers mounting a command performance, but their objective isn't dramatic truth or Crouse's applause, it is her fortune. Through her contact with them, she comes to question her own usefulness to her patients, wondering if she isn't just running a game on them, giving her own performances for $75 an hour. The elaborate twists and turns of the plot are reminiscent of The Sting (1973), yet the psychological element of House of Games sets it apart, and there is something of Persona (1966) in Crouse's attraction to and identification with Mantegna.

Outstanding Cast: The cast, made up mostly of actors who have worked with Mamet in the theater, deliver outstanding performances. Mantegna is suave, savvy, and, in an odd way, plainspoken, as the con man who is as much a streetwise philosopher as a hustler, predatory without being malicious. Crouse, Mamet's wife, plays her therapist as a study in directed composure and sexual repression who, captivated by Mantegna and his exciting, shadowy world, falls prey to the very obsession and compulsion she has clinically chronicled. Shifting from her world to his, Crouse believes (and the audience with her) that she is savvy enough to survive, and because of this her anguish over her catastrophic failure is even more affecting.

Nussbaum, Walsh, Skala, and Jay (the author of Cards as Weapons) also give nicely understated performances in supporting roles. Some of the card players in the back-room game are Mamet's real-life poker-playing buddies in Vermont.

Cast List
Lindsay CrouseDr. Margaret Ford, Psychologist
Joe MantegnaMike
Mike NussbaumJoey
Lilia SkalaDr. Littauer
J.T. WalshBusinessman
Willo HausmanGirl with Book
Karen KohlhaasPrison Ward Patient
Steve GoldsteinBilly Hahn
Jack WallaceBartender, "House of Games"
Ben BlakemanBartender, "Charlie's Tavern"
Ricky JayGeorge, "Vegas Man"
Scott ZiglerWestern Union Clerk
W.H. MacySgt. Moran
John PritchettHotel Desk Clerk
Meshach TaylorMr. Dean
Johnny S.B. WillisHotel Doorman
Josh ConescuGarage Attendant
Julie MendenhallLate Student
Rachel ClineStudent
Patricia WolffPatient, Dr. Ford's Office
Paul WalshMan in Restaurant
Roberta MaguireRestaurant Hostess
Jaqueline de la ChaumeWoman with Lighter
G. Roy Levin, Bob Lumbra, Andy Potok, Allen SoulePoker Players
Production Credits
ProducerMichael Hausman
DirectorDavid Mamet
ScreenwriterDavid Mamet
EditorTrudy Ship
CinematographerJuan Ruiz-Anchia
ComposerAlaric Jans
Production DesignerMichael Merritt
Set DesignerDerek R. Hill
Special EffectsRobert Willard
CostumesNan Cibula

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