30 March 2009

Movielog, House of Games

House of Games, 1987
Written by David Mamet
Based on a Story by Jonathan Katz & David Mamet
104 minutes

This was probably a much better movie twenty years ago.

That's not to say that David Mamet's debut feature as a director is bad per se, for it's very clearly not. But it's been imitated so often (and talked about so much) that it's easy to see through most of the plot, the ingenious nature of which is one of the primary reasons to see the movie. Watch this, I'm about to spoil the movie for you: it's a con game movie that contains cons within cons. A clever idea that's been done so many times since that when you see the relatively simple way it's done here that you'll probably see the twist coming a mile away. House of Games is in many ways a victim of its own success.

Lindsay Crouse (Mamet's real-life wife of the time) is a psychiatrist named Margaret Ford who works mostly with criminals and is also the writer of a best-selling self-help book. When a gambling-addict patient of hers pulls a gun in their session and threatens to kill himself, she talks him down by asking how she can help him. He replies that he owes some guy twenty-five grand, and if he doesn't pay by tomorrow he'll be killed. So how, exactly, can she help him?

She uncharacteristically goes to the House of Games, a seedy low-rent bar in the bad area of town, and confronts "Mike," who is the holder of her patient's debts. Mike (Joe Mantegna) is an intelligent, suave gambler who quickly informs Ford that her patient's total debts to him run to no more than $800, and if she'll help him to catch a "tell" in another poker player (Ricky Jay, with a lot more hair than we're used to seeing on him these days) he'll forgive the debt. She's charmed as well as fascinated, and agrees to the subterfuge.

This decision will lead to a series of cons as she falls deeper and deeper into Mike's world, and it's in the details of the con games that most of the pleasure of House of Games comes. The con men are charming and intelligent, and their dialogue oozes with the kind of rapid-fire wit that Mamet is famous for producing. The confidence game, you see, is about giving trust to others, knowing that they will reciprocate in kind. In the film's most famous sequence, Mike talks a Marine (a very young-looking William H. Macy) into giving him such cash in a Western Union station, explaining to Ford afterwards how the mechanics of the con actually work. Later, when the dollar amounts go up and the stakes are much higher, similar mechanics are none the less at work.

Mamet is known for being a highly functionalist director, but he also has a bit of an eye for composition, drawing from noir in his framing and editing style. Even the characters are somewhat noirish, although I think that the plotting comes more from Hitchcock than Hawks. The film's final sequences are more character-based and suffer from the somewhat thin characterizations, but I think that the actions are still interesting and (like many Mamet characters) very conductive to conversation.

House of Games is not as fresh as it would have been upon release, but it stands as one of the greatest of the con-man movies, and deserves to be seen for its ingenious construction as much as for anything else. Probably of more historical interest than current, but fans of the genre will consider this a must-see.

Rating: B

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