House of Games

January 2, 2012

If, in this world in which all new movies look alike, you’re interested in a film that stands alone, look no further than House of Games. David Mamet’s film is a remarkably intelligent and tantalizing piece of work; not arty or intellectual, just refreshingly made for people with brains.

Mamet is perhaps the best American playwright now going (American Buffalo and the Pulitzer Prize-winner Glengarry Glen Ross). But he’s written some fine screenplays of late, including The Untouchables, The Verdict, and the excellent 1981 remake of The Postman Always Rings Twice. House of Games is his first job as movie director (from his own script, naturally).

Mamet’s work explores the darker territory in human existence, and often the American Bad Dream. House of Games follows an uptight psychiatrist (Lindsay Crouse) into a city night world, where she becomes involved with a group of con men, and particularly with a darkly magnetic gambler (Joe Mantegna).

The reviewer’s lot is a difficult one here, because House of Games contains a number of delicious con games, sometimes one on top of another. It would be bad form to reveal too much, or anything at all, about the storyline.

But it can be said that Mamet leads his heroine into a mysterious game that includes extortion and murder, and the change wrought on this careful woman—who writes the kind of facile self-help books that don’t seem to have helped her at all—is fascinating to watch.

The movie takes place in an anonymous city, although it was filmed in Seattle. Cinematographer Juan Ruiz Anchia manages to make Seattle’s inner city look a lot more romantically mysterious than it really is.

As a first-time director, Mamet is not afraid to make some unusual choices. For instance, Crouse plays her character in a deliberately stylized manner, with a disquieting emotionlessness and an exaggerated precision of speech. This isn’t realistic, but it sets us up for her eventual coming apart. (Crouse and Mamet are married in real life, by the way.)

Mamet also gets a wonderful performance from longtime collaborator Mantegna, as well as from Mike Nussbaum and Ricky Jay, who play other slippery con men.

Of course, Mamet has given them some chewy dialogue to play with. It’s as though he were crossing the dialogue form a film noir of the late 1940s with today’s sharpies. When Mantegna eyes Crouse in a sleazy pool hall and says evenly, “Aren’t you a caution,” he sounds like a hep cat from another time.

Apparently Mamet has a life-long interest in gambling, con men, and poolrooms (when he learned that a sequel to The Hustler was in the making, he was greatly disappointed to find out that someone else had already written the script). But in House of Games he registers, among other things, his admiration for actors. In many ways the movie is about different kinds of acting, from the kind we do to keep our everyday lives together, to the kind of performing that is the profession of all con artists. The con game, as Mamet proves here, is acting of the most dangerous kind.

First published in the Herald, October 15, 1987

The movies directed by Mamet have a weirdly honed quality that isn’t like anybody else, and House of Games remains one of his best as director. I wonder why he shot it in Seattle?