Criterion Review: Get Played by Mamet’s HOUSE OF GAMES

Like most, if not all, movies about con artists, David Mamet’s directorial debut, House of Games, now available from the Criterion Collection, is itself a con-job. If you go in with your defenses up, it won’t be too hard to spot the major gambits that are going to get deployed over the movie’s runtime, but that isn’t a particular deal-breaker. Mamet’s less interested in the craft of con than he is in the seductive allure of taking a walk on the wild side. To that end, Games fits in neatly with his other plays and movies that follow ice cold hard case customers who break bad (or who are already long past over that particular line) and then have to muddle through the fallout.

The particular hard case of this particular long dark night of the soul is Dr. Margaret Ford (Lindsay Crouse, Mamet’s wife at the time). Margaret is a respected psychiatrist riding a wave of success after the publication of her book, Driven, about compulsive behaviors. But despite her professional high-standing, Margaret is dissatisfied with her life and aimless in her career.

She gets an unexpected direction when one of her patients (Steven Goldstein) brandishes a gun and declares that he is desperate for money to pay off a gambling debt. Margaret takes it upon herself to visit the particular wretched hive of scum and villainy where the debt was incurred, the titular House of Games. And that’s where she meets Mike (Joe Mantegna).

Mike introduces himself as the owner of Margaret’s client’s debt, a debt he offers to forgive if Margaret will help him in an upcoming hand against a wily card shark (Ricky Jay, because of course Ricky Jay is in this movie, as this character). See, everyone has a tell, Mike explains, and he needs Margaret to help him spot Ricky Jay’s (this is all pre-Rounders, when poker was still this rarefied, somewhat exotic game, and anyone really good at it seemed to be just shy of a wizard).

Except Margaret turns out to be a little sharp an observer. She sees through the hostile confrontations between the various players and susses out that everything happening in the House of Games is just that, a game, meant to rob of her. But rather than be put out by the deceit, she’s intrigued. Soon she’s pressing Mike to show her how the world of con artists and grifters work, and Mike is all too happy to show off to a pretty lady with a keen eye.

But it’s not too long before things begin to spiral out of control with no clear exit in place. House of Games is a con movie, but it would be wrong to say that it has “plot twists” in the traditional sense. It’s hard to imagine Mamet believing an audience would be credulous enough to fall for some of his plays here. Instead, he’s interested in how Margaret and Mike respond to the way the game changes underneath their feet, the way they break or don’t when things get really tough. To that end, House of Games at times plays like a riff on The Sting made by and for sociopaths, in which every trick is a sadomasochistic power move and only the most cold-blooded is going to walk out alive.

As a director, Mamet brings cool confidence to what’s ultimately a small movie. He’d grow as a visual storyteller, with movies like Spartan and Redbelt demonstrating an icy reserve that at times feel impenetrable before the big picture coalesces together. Cinematographer Juan Ruiz Anchía doesn’t have a ton of capital-g Great credits to his name, but he shot both this and James Foley’s eventual adaptation of Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross. Both films could have been static and insular, given Mamet’s origins on stage, but Anchía cross-pollinates the drama with flushes of noir. Cigarette smoke perpetually curls in ceilings, and even scenes in daylight have a cool remove.

Mamet’s signature is his dialogue, excuse me, his fuckin’ dialogue, and he’s got it going at full blast from moment one. There are points where the writing is so stylized as to be impenetrable, and while Crouse strikes a distinctive film presence with her close-cropped hair and suits, she is at times swallowed alive by the demands of the script. Margaret would be a tricky character regardless, but Crouse seems to be at a loss as to how to make those words sound at all natural coming out of a human mouth. Mantegna fairs better, (he was fresh off winning a Tony for the stage production of Glengarry) and also has the benefit of being able to bluster through the most tangled bits of verbiage on macho energy alone. Neither actor ever comes across as 100% comfortable with the script or their screen partner, and it leaves a troubling hole where the film’s curdled black heart is meant to be.

Weirdly, the actor who seems most at home with Mamet-speak is Ricky Jay, in his film debut, in his relatively small role. Jay (who does not appear to have aged a day between this 1987 film and his death last year) understands that you can’t allow any hesitation when handling material like this. He tears into his every line with both teeth, ferocious in one moment, eyes twinkling with a hustler’s delight in the next. He turns Mamet’s words into fiery, profane poetry. No wonder he fit in so well on Deadwood.

As we’ve come to expect from Criterion, the package is immaculate. It’s hard to imagine the film ever looked better than it does on this transfer, with every frame of grime-soaked beauty lovingly touched up. The disc also comes with a commentary from Mamet, interviews with Crouse and Mantegna, and an essay by critic Kent Jones.

It’s a slick movie with an ugly soul. Mamet seemed to delight in seeing just how far he could push his protagonists, just how far they could take their blood-sport before leaving lasting scars, and then going beyond even that. House of Games eventually expands to include life and death stakes, and maybe the sickest joke of the entire enterprise is that even at that level, it’s still always a game. Mike and Margaret make an awful kind of sense together, as both prove to have appetites that run towards the carnivorous.

House of Games isn’t replacing Gambit or Soderbergh’s Ocean’s 11 atop the list of all-time great con-man movies, but it’s vicious in a way I can’t help but savor.

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