by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: David Mamet
Cast: Lindsay Crouse, Joe Mantegna, J.T. Walsh, Ricky Jay
My Rating: 8/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 96%

PLOT: A psychiatrist is led by a smooth-talking grifter into the shadowy but compelling world of stings, scams, and con men.

I’m sitting here trying to figure out how to summarize the story of David Mamet’s House of Games without giving away plot points, and it’s virtually impossible.  Mamet’s screenplay is composed almost entirely of double-crosses, triple-crosses, short cons, long cons, and the kinds of surprises that are greatly diminished in their description.  Remove one surprise, and the whole thing collapses like a house of cards.

A distinguished psychiatrist, Margaret Ford (Lindsay Crouse) pays a visit to a handsome con artist, Mike (Joe Mantegna), on behalf of one of her clients, who is distraught because of how much money he owes to Mike.  Dr. Ford is unexpectedly intrigued by Mike’s business methods, Mike senses this, and takes her to a back room where he and some other gentlemen are playing poker.

(These men don’t talk much, but when they do, it’s almost exclusively in poker patter.  “A man with style is a man who can smile.”  “Damn cards are as cold as ice.”  “The man says you gotta give action to get action.”  “Everybody stays, everybody pays.”  It’s like they learned how to talk from watching endless episodes of the World Series of Poker on ESPN2.)

Mike makes a deal with Margaret: if she helps him beat the hot player (Ricky Jay) at the table, he’ll tear up her patient’s marker.  The hot player has a tell when he’s bluffing.  Mike will go to the restroom.  If the hot player shows the tell, Margaret will tell Mike, and Mike will beat him because he’ll know he’s bluffing.  Mike goes to the bathroom, the hot player reveals his tell, and Margaret tells Mike when he comes back.  The hot player raises the pot, but Mike can’t cover it.  Margaret comes to the rescue: she’ll stake Mike with her own money.  But, uh oh, turns out the hot player wasn’t bluffing…and now Margaret owes $6,000 to a total stranger.

And that’s where I have to stop. If you think I’ve given too much away, you’ve got to trust me – I haven’t.  That’s barely the preface.  What follows is a character study of a woman who suddenly realizes that, after a lifetime of helping patients, she needs some kind of release, a change in routine.  Mike can provide this much-needed change.  The fact that it involves conning innocent people out of their hard-earned money is incidental.

Her fascination lies in Mike’s method.  For a great con to work, you can’t take someone’s money.  They have to give it to you.  They have to trust you to do the right thing.  The trick is working out how to gain the other person’s confidence without them realizing what’s happening.  We are shown two or three examples, and they’re all brilliantly sneaky.  At one point, Mike tells Margaret the cardinal rule of the con: “Don’t trust nobody.”  After watching this movie, I can’t say I agree 100% with this credo, but a healthy dose of skepticism never hurt anybody.

So how does Margaret square that credo, or anything about Mike’s lifestyle, with her profession?  She helps people for a living.  Her livelihood depends on getting strangers to trust her, but not to take their money…although let’s not forget she is well paid for her services.  Is her fascination with Mike an acknowledgement of the similarities between the two of them?

The screenplay doesn’t provide easy answers.  When we get to the final shot of the film, we can clearly see the choices Margaret has made, but it’s still unclear as to why she made them.  This is one of those movies where the complexities only really come alive during lively discussions afterwards.

Before watching it for this review, the last time I had seen House of Games was over thirty years ago.  At the time, I was unimpressed.  I originally gave it a 2 out of 10 on the IMDb website.  It was slow, the actors looked like they were giving bad performances, and nobody talked like real people talked.

Since then, I’ve had the opportunity to see not one, but three films by a French director named Robert Bresson.  (Bear with me here, I do have a point.)  Bresson, who was active mainly in the ‘50s and ‘60s, was famous for his method of shooting scenes over and over again, take after take, until all emotions had been drained from the actor.  His philosophy, in a nutshell, was that, in a film, the story isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.  If a screenplay couldn’t carry an emotional impact just by virtue of the story alone, if he had to rely on someone’s specific performance to make the movie work, he wasn’t interested.  The results are films that are curiously compelling, despite their utter lack of anything modern audiences might recognize as a typical acting performance.  His films are routinely included on the most prestigious lists of greatest films ever made; seven of them made it onto the 2012 critics’ poll by Sight & Sound magazine, a feat unequaled by any other director.

Sitting down to watch House of Games for the first time in three decades, after having seen Bresson’s films for the first time, I think I see what David Mamet was going for, in this, his directorial debut.  The actors aren’t quite dead-panning the entire time, but their performances (with one or two necessary exceptions) are pared down to the bare minimum of emotion.  Vocally, they’re angry, curious, flirtatious, what have you.  Facially, they’re ciphers.  Which, if you’re a good con man, that’s exactly what you want to be: a blank slate for the unlucky mark to interact with, then forget immediately.

I think back to those poker players and their mournful aphorisms, always said in nearly monotone.  And then I think to the film’s finale when Margaret believes she might be able to turn the tables on Mike (long story), and as the frantic words come out of her mouth, there’s not a smidgen of emotion on her face.  Like…a poker player.  Neat.

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