Director: David Mamet
Cast: Lindsay Crouse, Joe Mantegna, Mike Nussbaum, and Ricky Jay
Runtime: 102 min.
by Brian Eggert
Original Release Date:
David Mamet is a magician whose tools are natural illusions; he has no need for snazzy computer-effects or pyrotechnics, because his magic resides in a foundational structure of dialogue and taut scriptwriting that operates to infer, telling you what without really telling you what. Meticulously planning how every actor will say each line in his “Mametspeak,” as it has been dubbed, he does not waste a word. We can not take a single moment or line in his films for granted. And only when we have observed his act in total can we reflect on his clever little details and fully recognize the scope of his magic show.
Mamet’s 1987 directorial debut House of Games contains motifs used throughout his subsequent films—most notably, the confidence game, or simply “The Con”. Mamet bestows his confidence in the viewer, helping us believe we are smart enough to keep up. We trust that he will take the narrative where it will impliedly go; all at once a turn occurs, changing everything in the film. Which leads me to another Mametism: giving the viewer the illusion of control when, of course, we have none. We are afforded false respect as members of an audience; Mamet seems to be generous, when really he has given up nothing. Without a doubt, House of Games employs The Con, except here it is but the means to conceal and reveal truths in an entrenched character study.
Mamet veils his main character, Margaret Ford (Lindsay Crouse, Mamet’s wife at the time), a practicing psychiatrist and author, behind cold ambiguity. The first scene shows Margaret signing her new book, Driven, a psychiatric study of obsessive compulsion, for a fan. From this onset, we can see Mamet demanded that Crouse mute her emotions. He believes there is no need for “feeling” with his dialogue; accordingly, Crouse’s speech is so blank it is almost monotone. Meaning is given through words, or lack thereof, as opposed to how they are spoken. Crouse has been criticized for these early scenes, since her acting is pointedly expression-deficient. She barely smiles and speaks like an automaton; her body language is static, signifying neither intro nor extroversion, nor typically male or female traits—Crouse gives an asexual performance. This suggests Dr. Margaret Ford has control over her emotions, unlike her subjects, whom we see range from an insane murderer to a suicidal, habitual gambler.
Margaret meets Mike Manusco (Mamet favorite Joe Mantegna), a gambler of sorts, in an attempt to “save” one of her patients who owes Mike a gambling debt. Cardplayer and “bad boy”, Mike sizes her up before they speak, and he agrees to write off her patient’s debt if she does him a favor. In Mike’s current poker game, his opponent, a Las Vegas card shark (Ricky Jay), has a “Tell” or giveaway. By reading the Tell, Mike can see if the gambler is bluffing, giving Mike the advantage, thus winning him a large pot. Since the gambler knows Mike has seen his Tell, when Mike leaves the room, Margaret can watch for it, inform Mike if it occurred, and assist him in winning the hand. Except, the Tell proves wrong and Mike loses. The Las Vegas card shark wants his victory money, six-thousand dollars, which Mike cannot cover. When the card shark pulls a gun and makes threats, Margaret takes out her checkbook to give a complete stranger her money.
Margaret exists in a kind of limbo where she feels helpless to assist her far-gone patients. She attained success with her compulsion book, but now she realizes that truly helping people is a delusion. Escaping into Manusco’s gambling lair, called “House of Games”, she finds herself enlivened by risk. Awakening into self-revelation, she thrusts herself into a den of thieves, drawn to Mike’s behavior, thrilled by it, and proposes that he be the subject of her next book—a look into the world of bad men.
Mamet carefully constructs Lindsay Crouse’s character, hinting at greater problems often overlooked by audiences preoccupied by aspects of The Con. Reading other critics’ reviews for House of Games, how disappointing that few of them mention the subtleties of her performance as described in Mamet’s script, mistaking it as poor acting. Rather, she follows Mamet’s faultless description and direction. Margaret chain smokes, so Mamet shoots several filled ashtrays, relating that she wrote Driven based on personal knowledge. She repeatedly “cracks out of turn” (a Freudian slip), which Crouse verbally underlines—her slippage becomes significant in the climax scene, making Crouse’s emphasis dramatically awkward in its spoken moment, but important later on.
Also, notice how when we see Margaret sleep—twice within the film—it is only on couches. Conceivably, this is an indication of claustrophobia; she resists sleeping where she is intended to, as the very idea is confining. We also see that her desk is turned toward the window, her back awkwardly facing her office door. Her claustrophobia demands that she look out a window to see open space, rather than looking up to the confines of her office. Furthermore, in two cases Margaret feels the need to escape: The first instance occurs in the mental institution where she works; she walks down a long corridor of cells, at the end of which an attendant labors to find the correct key to open the barred door. Margaret twitches with unease until it opens. Another case comes about in a hotel room, where a cop pulls his badge and intends to arrest Margaret and Mike. Margaret turns to Mike and says, “I’ve gotta get out of here.” Mike rushes the cop. Margaret dashes for the door on tenterhooks to get away, only in their tussle Mike and the cop block her leaving. A glint of light shines on her face, over her eye; escape is in sight, yet urgently unattainable.
Margaret also suffers from kleptomania, the symptoms of which become Mamet’s most concentrated warning sign. Her compulsion is handed-over from Mike, who, after they make love in another man’s hotel room, suggests that when people are fired they should steal something from their place of employment to feel superior. She looks over treats belonging to the room’s occupant: some cash, a comb, cigars and so forth are strewn out on a dresser. She finds a pocket knife and holds it as if it were a wondrous treasure. When Mike reenters the room, she quickly hides it away in her pocket. Another compulsion is born.
Any power that could elevate Margaret above her patients, or Mike, is denied by her kleptomaniac guilt. Her psychiatrist friend, Dr. Littauer (Lilia Skala), suggests that when someone has done something awful, they must forgive themselves. In the final scene of House of Games, Margaret has long since forgiven herself for her misdeeds throughout the narrative. Self-clemency washes away whatever crimes she may have committed, giving way for a guilt-free, amoral existence.
Mamet’s writerly signature is his dialogue, as it is often the stoppage point from where people can accept or deny his work. Using sometimes an untraceable plays on words, his characters speak in amalgamated clichés manipulated so that their meaning changes given the context. The line, “Thank you, sir, may I have another?” in House of Games is both ironic and tragic given its post. Placing weight on a specific word adjusts its meaning, and Mamet acknowledges that. He likes to encircle entire strings of conversation around the meaning of words, such as when Mike explains The Con to Margaret, saying “It's called a confidence game. Why? Because you give me your confidence? No. Because I give you mine.” Concentration on a word as an idea lends to Mamet’s blatant repetition, which is more like a pulse or musical tempo than reiteration. Filled with half-finished sentences and assumed thoughts, he forces us to consider the power of language. We are meant to deliberate over intended and possible meanings conveyed in Mamet’s lingo, and so his words, more so than visuals or actors, are the most important element in his pictures.
Mamet grew up in Chicago where he began a career writing for the stage. His plays Sexual Perversity in Chicago (later made into the film About Last Night…) and American Buffalo gained him instant acclaim in the late 1970s. Founding the off-Broadway Atlantic Theater Company, Mamet was introduced to a number of his later stock company, including players Joe Mantegna and William H. Macy. While in Chicago, Mamet surrounded himself with real-life gamblers, magicians, and sleight-of-hand experts that would later give House of Games unflinching authenticity. Ricky Jay, another of Mamet’s reserve of film actors, is the magic consultant on films like The Prestige and The Illusionist. Jay divulged tricks of the trade—old tricks to him, new to us—for Mamet’s film, particularly the ins and outs of various Short Con strategies.
Mamet began his scriptwriting career in 1981 with an adaptation of The Postman Always Rings Twice, starring Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange in a lusty interpretation of the already classic film. The next year, he wrote The Verdict, another adaptation, but this time he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. In 1984, the play Glengarry Glenn Ross earned Mamet the Pulitzer Prize for drama, forever making him a credible voice in American cinema and stage; the excellent film adaptation directed by James Foley was released in 1992. Mamet later worked as Hollywood’s go-to script doctor, sometimes taking uncredited work, such as rewriting John Frankenheimer’s last great film Ronin under the name “Richard Weisz”. Within credited scripts for The Untouchables, Hoffa, The Edge, and Wag the Dog, we see signs of Mamet’s dialogue guiding other directors to focus on words, rather than the action responding to them.
Offering instruction on his approach, Mamet wrote essays and lectured on screenwriting, most notably in the book On Directing Film, taken from Mamet’s time at Columbia University, which features some of the best, harsh advice young directors should consider when writing and directing a movie. In his lectures, he talks at length about not necessarily showing the audience actions or time, but rather denoting them with detail. For example, in Mamet’s 2004 film Spartan the camera briefly passes over a broken door frame and inside cops stand about: This tells us a raid has occurred. Showing the raid is a pointless piece of action, unimportant to the story; whatever information derived from the raid—that is the meat, which Mamet is so eager to cut into.
Mamet’s films involve all kinds of cons and never are they limited to just poker, heists, double-cross, et cetera. In Mamet’s State and Main, we see a Hollywood film crew tempt an idealistic writer, swindling the writer with words, promises, and fame—a moral con—until his ideals match their own. With Homicide, perhaps Mamet’s most underappreciated masterpiece, a detective’s lawful ideals are shattered by his dedication to Judaism. The Spanish Prisoner, a sort of younger brother to House of Games, Mametmakes every frame another clue into a con of corporate intrigue. Or take Spartan, where Mamet resists revealing the name of his “McGuffin” throughout most of the picture.
The director’s frequent cinematic sleight-of-hand proposes that we focus on trickery and shocking plot developments in House of Games, whereas the brooding examination of Dr. Margaret Ford describes the film’s true intention. We are not following twists; we follow a character. The film’s structural con plays the audience, consuming us in Lindsay Crouse’s adventures with bad men, though her role is a victim and finally a self-possessed kleptomaniac. The Con relies on giving trust, which is ultimately abused; or in Margaret’s case, providing her patients with the impression that her psychiatry will help when she knows it will not. She swindles her patients into believing they need her. After being conned herself, Margaret realizes that she too is a variety of conman, thus she can later accept her own kleptomania and daily deceit of patients via guidance. In turn, Mamet cons the viewer, suggesting the film’s narrative surrounds The Con, whereas the composition of the narrative presents the development of Margaret’s psychological state. The Con informs the character, not the reverse.
House of Games refrains from disclosure, admits nothing forthright, and yet tells us everything we need to know. We pick up clues along the way, thinking we know where Mamet is going—we never do, though. For every revelation there is another lie, so confessions seem temporary at best, even when they are true. And because of this, House of Games is mistaken as a film about The Con, versus the complex character study it is. Mamet’s characters are conduits for his language, which more than camerawork, costumes, or minimalist art direction, is the apex of his films. Within cinema’s pointedly visual medium, a small number of directors have commanded audiences to focus on words rather than pictures. Mamet’s wordsmithing chimes like visceral poetry, keeping tempo as the film’s percussion, making his voice one of the most pronounced in modern film.