Appellate Judge Tom Becker kept coming back to this movie like a dog to its own vomit.
Nothing is as it seems.
As the author of such classic plays as American Buffalo, Glengarry Glen Ross, and Speed the Plow, David Mamet is one of the most distinctive voices in American theater. His plays are driven less by incident than by character and language, and explore how each informs the other. His trademark staccato dialogue does not flow naturally from the mouth of every performer, and there is a small group of actors who are Mamet stock players, frequently appearing in his works. His protagonists, generally, are men, with female characters often serving as catalysts for their interactions.
In 1982, Mamet received acclaim and an Oscar nomination for his screenplay for The Verdict, which was a character study disguised as a courtroom drama. In 1987, he directed his first feature, House of Games, from his own script. House of Games is also something of a character study, but it's set far outside the law.
Facts of the Case
Dr. Margaret Ford (Lindsay Crouse, Places in the Heart) is a psychiatrist and author, with a new book entitled Driven: Obsessions and Compulsions in Everyday Life. Intelligent and authoritative, but brittle and distant, she is like a runner sprinting toward a wall. Her closest, perhaps only, friend is Maria (Lilia Skala, Lilies of the Field), a professor who seems to be mentor, conscience, and surrogate mother.
During a session, a patient threatens to shoot himself because of an enormous gambling debt. Margaret talks the gun away from him, but he challenges her: What is she actually going to do to help him? So she seeks out the House of Games, the bar where Mike (Joe Mantegna, Things Change), the man who holds the debt, holds court. Pitting her academic intellect against his street smarts, Margaret finds herself immersed in a subculture of the marginalized and the marginalizers, crooks and con artists.
Margaret becomes intrigued with this dark side of the world—and the dark side she finds in herself.
As a society, we deplore con artists. They are heartless types who prey on the weaknesses of others. Those "weaknesses" are often otherwise healthy traits: kindness, sympathy, attraction, and, most importantly, trust.
As moviegoers, we adore con artists. In films like The Sting, Paper Moon, The Flim-Flam Man, and The Grifters, they are smart, soulful, and sexy. Conveniently, their "marks" are often a greedy, unsympathetic lot who deserve the fates dealt them by our duplicitous heroes.
In the world of David Mamet, everyone has a con, whether it's within the law, without the law, or around the law. In House of Games, Mamet doesn't just explore the con, he dissects it, with Mike providing textbook-ready examples for the Ivory Towered Dr. Ford, who is so enraptured that she would like to write a book about the workings of con artists. Mike becomes both her tour guide and spirit guide, opening up his penny-ante world and his nickel-plated heart. Margaret becomes sorcerer's apprentice to a corrupt and corrupting wizard.
Mantegna and Crouse, along with Mike Nussbaum (Fatal Attraction), who plays an old-time scammer, were longtime Mamet collaborators. Crouse was married to the writer for many years; Mantegna and Nussbaum starred in the original production of Glengarry Glen Ross, for which Mantegna won a Tony Award. Mamet's stagy dialogue sounds much more natural coming from the men than from Crouse, whose deliberate rhythms play up the artifice of Mamet's stylized writing. This is also consistent with her character. Margaret seems to be acting her life rather than living it, and she's a supporting player in her own world. As she visits her dark side, she begins inching herself toward the spotlight.
But the real show here comes from Mamet, who gives us a twisty plot that stays just to the left of convoluted, dialogue that creates its own universe, and lots of tips of the hat to classic noir and Hitchcock. It's Mamet's funhouse, and the writer/director has a good old time keeping us off kilter.
Criterion continues their tradition of providing excellent releases for films that might have otherwise been shortchanged in the DVD gold rush. The transfer is very good, and the mono audio track just fine. Although there are no subtitle options on the menu screen, there are English subtitles accessible from the remote. We get some nice extras with this set.
First up is a feature-length commentary by Mamet and actor Ricky Jay, who is a recognized authority on sleight-of-hand. Mamet starts with the premise that all film and drama are essentially cons, because an audience is asked to suspend disbelief and accept what is being presented. From there, the two offer some background and anecdotes, but this is really a look at and breakdown of the cons presented in the film. I enjoyed this track quite a bit. Mamet and Jay are not self-consciously playing for the microphone or simply rehashing what's on screen.
In one scene, Nussbaum's character demonstrates a con for Margaret. Ricky Jay came up with one that is actually used pretty frequently, then decided to create his own so as not to reveal the tricks of real con artists. As an extra, we get the storyboard for the original con.
The "making of" feature, "avid Mamet on House of Games," is unusual in that it is not a polished puff piece from the studio. This is a very low-tech video made by the producer and his wife during filming. Essentially a home movie—it looks like it was shot on BetaMax—the poor quality actually helps create a more intimate and immediate sense of the production.
A pair of interviews with Crouse and Mantegna features the actors' recollections of making the film and working with Mamet through the years. There is the trailer that, typically, gives away too much, and we also get a 28-page booklet featuring an analysis by Kent Jones, editor-at-large of Film Comment, and Mamet's original introduction to the published screenplay.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
While I don't necessarily agree with some critics that there is underlying misogyny in much of Mamet's work, House of Games could make a case for their argument. Crouse's Margaret is profoundly unfeminine, with her stiff speech and movement, close-cropped hair, and form-obscuring outfits. Severe and neurotic, she seems victimized by her accomplishments rather than fulfilled and is willing to take some extreme risks when a man pays her attention as a woman. This might have made more sense had the film been set in the 1940s or 1950s rather than in 1987. The only other female characters are Maria, who is a prototypical mother figure, and one of Margaret's patients, a disturbed young woman whose downfall seems to be rooted in sexuality. The men, crooks and cons all, are a far more healthy and appealing bunch.
A good con is dependent on the swindler being able to second-guess the mark through a combination of psychology, timing, and, it seems, luck. Some of the cons pulled here are awfully elaborate, to the point that they defy logic. Some none-too-bright choices by characters that otherwise seem fairly smart tend to point up the manipulations of the screenplay. House of Games is a fun puzzle, but if you think about it too much, you might feel conned yourself.
House of Games is an engrossing and entertaining movie given a worthy treatment by Criterion. Recommended.
The verdict is…uh, wait a minute. You got change of a twenty?
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Scales of Justice
• Audio commentary by David Mamet and Ricky Jay
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