House Of Games (1987): The dark and disturbing world of the confidence trickster

I’ll make no secret of the fact that I’m a David Mamet fanboy. Be it the respective white-collar and blue-collar depictions of duplicitous hypermasculinity in Glengarry Glen Ross and American Buffalo, the highly confrontational examination of racial identity and manhood present in Homicide and Edmond or the crafty just-for-fun hijinks of the excellent Heist, the Bard of Chicago has rarely failed to impress. His work frames a kind of back-alley, street-wise psychoanalysis that transforms the viciousness of dry-behind-the-ears cynicism and resentment into perfect staccato poetry. Much of the dialogue in his standout plays has come under considerable scrutiny for paying no mind to linguistic sensitivity around certain concepts, but this doesn’t necessarily amount to an endorsement of vitriol, just a no-bullshit, terse depiction of how many people feel and think, and that’s a trait I’ll always respect.

His most famous cinematic endeavour is his directorial debut no less, using his very own original screenplay to completely knock it out of the park during his first time in film-craft’s hot seat. With a fiendishly clever plot, compellingly mannered performances that have a strangely addictive air of functionality that makes you feel appropriately manipulated and a very dry, very mean sense of humour, House Of Games is a singular neo-noir with a plethora of imitators that can only fail abysmally in comparison.

Margaret Ford (Lindsay Crouse) is an esteemed Seattle psychiatrist who has recently attained success with a best-selling book on the topic of obsessive-compulsive disorder, but despite a very comfortable income and substantive relationships in her life, she is feeling utterly bereft. Existence for her is a state of unfulfilling tedium and she feels a fraud for getting rich from penning a book that details things that she’s never experienced. Older colleague and mentor-of-sorts Dr Littauer (Lilia Skala) strives to help Margaret feel proud of her accomplishments and generally happy in life, but the latter possesses an itch for excitement that simply cannot be scratched in her current routine.

One afternoon, Margaret is in session with a patient named Billy Hahn (Steven Goldstein), a disturbed and erratic young man who relates a sensation of all-encompassing doom and reacts to her questions and statements with a frantic and defensive pessimism. Billy brandishes a pistol and announces his intention to commit suicide, informing Margaret that he is broke and owes a serious amount of money to a dangerous local criminal who is liable to do some god-awful things to Billy before he kills him.

Beset by her irrepressible urge to shake things up and sensing an opportunity to give someone ‘real’ help, Margaret convinces Billy to hand over the gun and go home, promising that she will do whatever she can to assist. Later on, she visits the pool hall that serves as the main hangout of the aforementioned creditor, Mike (Joe Mantegna). Quick-witted, sarcastic and intimidating, Mike is amused and intrigued by her ballsy decision to confront him and threaten him with police exposure. Curious to see what buttons he can push, Mike makes a proposition: He will forgive Billy’s debt and leave him alone if Margaret will sit in with him in the poker game that is underway in one of the back-rooms. Mike is convinced that a rival player has a particular ‘tell’ when bluffing his hand of cards, and wants Margaret to sneakily corroborate it so he can walk away with a cool $6,000.

Unbeknownst to her and us, Margaret is about to be taught a few things regarding her own addictive personality in a world predicated on smoke and mirrors. Mike reveals his true profession as not one of petty loan sharking as first thought but as the leader of a crew of tightly organised con artists. In something of a Faustian bargain, he takes her under his wing and seduces her with an exposition of lucrative manufactured drama, bluffs and an unapologetic insistence on yielding to one’s darkest desires and instincts. The ultimate game in this house is one of total and complete manipulation, and it provokes Margaret to ponder whether her prim and sophisticated status is just as much of a veneer as the elaborate scams that Mike and Co. pull off to make a living.

One must always tread carefully when discussing a film that hinges on surprise, House Of Games being structured like the most tantalising puzzle as opposed to a straightforward slice of escapism. What can be discussed is the razor-sharp dialogue and deceptive style of performance that act as a veritable showcase of Mamet’s artistic idiosyncrasies. Plenty of detractors have decried his habit of making things intentionally stagey, finding the slightly stilted delivery to be distracting and antithetical to audience immersion. It’s another instance where I couldn’t disagree more, and will go so far as to say that I relish this particular method of execution.

What common ground would a psychiatrist have with a confidence man? Well, for one thing, both professions require the ability to essentially act as an instrument upon other human beings, steering them in the direction that you need them to go in and acknowledging that revealing any truth about oneself utterly defeats the purpose of the exercise. Both are fundamentally built on manipulation, the former observing, deducing and then attempting to influence stability, the latter observing, deducing and then taking you for everything you’ve got. The coldly cynical mind might summarise psychiatry as being a sanctioned confidence game itself, bilking you out of your lucre in exchange for a clinical and inhuman calculation of your problems that might not even do anything to help. Having conditioned herself to articulate every thought and emotion in this inorganic manner, Margaret strives to read every single person and situation while oblivious to the fact that she is constantly being read in a superior fashion.

In a show-stealing performance, Mantegna counterbalances Crouse’s icy naivete with a silver-tongued parlour act, one where every utterance reflects not only truths about Margaret but also about us. ”The things we want, the things we need, we can do them or not do them but we can never hide them” is what he tells a perplexed Margaret as he effortlessly circumvents her blank countenance and guarded demeanour. In a perverse illustration of mentorship, Mike displays a canny ability to recognise every unspoken motivation and relays how easy it is to exploit once you know what you’re looking for, suffusing this knowledge with an air of smart-arsed contempt when he says to Margaret ”You think I’m just a bully? What, you’re not gonna let me carry your books?” during their first meeting. It is snide and dismissive without being directly abusive, framing Mike as a counterintuitively appropriate life coach. He retains a smug wit when it comes to the predictable nature of people, but what he knows about them could fill several books. He and his guys are a deeply nasty lot, almost making you feel dirty to admit that watching them pull the wool over your eyes is nothing if not deeply exhilarating.

Subverting the American New Wave, Mamet resurrects the best kind of Golden Age noir tale, complete with the acting style, and supplements it with a strange, profane and obfuscating script where every word and glance is a red herring…or is it? As is only the proper way, Mamet utilises the artifice to leave the viewer in a constant state of cloudy discomfort as to how much of what we’re seeing on-screen has something iffy about it, not knowing if it’s a ruse or a ruse about a ruse. Veteran character actors William H. Macy & J.T. Walsh also have small yet valuable roles, the former cropping up in a terrific scene that almost plays like an instructional vignette about Mike’s trade. The power of language renders the film itself as a con where the viewer is given an illusion of control, the author’s sly hand working moods and sentences that will implore you to re-watch for clues, not that Mamet is the type to say whether or not there are any. This one changed the name of the cinematic con game, and it’s never been the same since. A vital and unique ride indeed.

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