When is a con not just a game? When does curiosity cross the line into obsession? David Mamet’s intriguing thriller House of Games (1987) tries to answer these questions, and throws some additional puzzles into the mix. Lindsay Crouse plays Dr. Margaret Ford, a therapist who has just written a book on addiction. One of her patients is Billy, a gambling addict. He tells her that he owes a large sum of money to people who are going to kill him because he can't pay off his debt. She decides to intervene and heads to a gambling club called the House of Games, where the people Billy owe the money to hang out. There she meets an enigmatic con man named Mike (Joe Mantegna), who agrees to forgive Billy’s debt if she’ll pose as his girlfriend in a high stakes poker game, and watch for his opponents “tell.” After a surprise revelation at the end of the game, Margaret asks Mike to educate her on the art of the con. Her goal is to write a book about the world of con artists & criminals…but this is a request that the good Dr. Ford may come to regret.
What follows is an elaborate game of lies, misdirection & double-crosses, as Margaret gets drawn deeper into Mike’s world. She becomes obsessed with him, and gets addicted to the high she feels from getting away with a con. When a scheme to obtain a large sum of money goes wrong, she finds herself trapped in a web of deceit & murder. Just how deep is Margaret willing to go to understand the mind of a criminal? Can she extricate herself from the labyrinthine trap she's fallen into...and does she really want to? House of Games is an intriguing study of the contrasting personalities of the two lead characters. There's Crouse’s Margaret, a tightly wound professional who understands obsession because she's an obsessive herself; and Mantegna’s cynical yet magnetic con artist, who’s got a devil-may care attitude and is always one step ahead of the game …or is he? To say too much more about the plot would spoil the fun; let’s just say you’ll enjoy this visit to the world of con men, grifters & their unlucky marks.
This film was playwright Mamet’s (Glengarry Glenn Ross) directorial debut, and he does a fine job bringing his twist-laden screenplay to life. Mamet has a true gift for wordplay, as he’s shown in so many of his stage plays & films. While some have criticized Mamet’s dialogue for being overly stylized, I think it’s perfect for this kind of story. The cast gets the cadences & feeling of the words just right. Much of the insight into these people comes from dramatic pauses, a look, or a line of dialogue that might have a double meaning, which is another Mamet trademark. The gritty cinematography by Juan Ruiz Anchia neatly captures the seedy look & shadowy corners of Mike’s world. The movie has a real film noir look & feel to it, which is well suited to the dark themes of the story. House of Games is a fascinating thriller, and it gets even better upon repeat viewings; it's a personal favorite of mine.
The performances are outstanding: Crouse (who was Mrs. Mamet at the time) gets a fantastic part to play; Mantegna shows us the star quality that led to so many other memorable roles after this film’s release. And there are some great supporting performances, including Ricky Jay, a young William H. Macy, and the late, great J.T. Walsh. The film is available from The Criterion Collection in an excellent DVD special edition. Extras include commentary from Mamet & Jay, a documentary on the making of the film, interviews with Mantegna & Crouse, and the film’s original trailer. If you’re looking for a smart thriller with an edge, House of Games is a safe bet. On another note: if you enjoy this movie, you might want to check out noir-ish thriller from Mamet, The Spanish Prisoner, which was released in 1997, and stars Campbell Scott & Steve Martin. Here’s a link to The Criterion Collection's site entry for their edition of House of Games: http://www.criterion.com/films/831-house-of-games.