By Marc S. Sanders
David Mamet is one of the most renowned writers of the last fifty years. The first film he directed was for his script, House Of Games, with his wife at the time, Lindsay Crouse, and Joe Mantegna. It’s also important to point out that he recruited well known con artist and card trick player Ricky Jay to consult on the film and join the cast. When you are constructing a film about the confidence game, a guy like Ricky Jay, who is widely known for his slight of hand and scam artistry, is important to ensure your story remains solid and airtight. (Note: seek out videos of Ricky performing eye popping card tricks and magic on You Tube. He’ll make you believe that you’ve never seen a card trick before because not many come close to his mastery with a deck in hand.)
House Of Games plays like an instructional or “how to” video demonstrating how to be a successful con artist. Crouse portrays a psychiatrist with a best-selling book titled “Driven” that focuses on obsessive behaviors. One of her clients reveals that his compulsive gambling habits have put him $25,000 in debt with a card shark. Crouse takes it upon herself to confront the card shark (Mantegna) on behalf of her frightened client. Shortly thereafter, he’s got her acting as his wife to determine if the guy at the other end of a poker table is bluffing. Then he’s introducing her to his con artist buddies, and she is becoming enamored, not only with him, but with the art of the con and the steal. Her mundane life gives her the urge to see more.
The other Unpaid Critic, Miguel, recently reviewed this picture. At the time of this writing, I have not read his review, but he forewarned me that the performances are stripped down to nothing. Mantegna and Crouse are left bare to just delivering Mamet’s dialogue. Miguel hadn’t liked this film the first time he saw it many years ago. On my first viewing, this past week, I was engrossed. However, I could foresee the ending as quickly as the film began. I dunno. Maybe it’s because I’ve seen several con artist films before like The Grifters and the granddaddy of them all, The Sting. Films that focus on the best liars seem to always move towards a twist where even the viewer is scammed. It’s fun to participate in the activity.
With House Of Games, the sequence of events move step by step. Following the two characters’ introductions to each other, Mantegna is caught in the middle of doing another con but now he’s reluctantly forced to include Crouse in on the game. This time it is seemingly much more complex and grander than the first time they worked together at the poker table. It also gets all the more confusing when an unexpected murder is involved. This con spells out a long night for the couple who are also falling for one another.
Miguel is right. The performances are most definitely stripped down and often the dialogue is wooden. Crouse and Mantegna are deliberately flat. I don’t even think they laugh or smile if I remember correctly. It is likely because Mamet wants the viewers to follow along and pick up on how a successful con job is meticulous in its methods. A con artist is not going to make waves with loud, angry monologues or passionate seductions and outrageous silliness. What’s important is that everything that plays out seems convincing with no distractions that lead to doubt. So, when the only African American in the cast (extras included) leaves a key on a hotel counter, you notice it. It happened for a reason. Later, when the characters come upon a BRIGHT RED Cadillac convertible, you are going to remember it. A Swiss army knife with tropical artwork on the handle. A gun metal briefcase with a large amount of cash. A gun. A murder. Props and scenarios guide Mamet’s picture. Not the characters.
Fortunately, the film remains very engaging. As well, while I could figure out what was being played here during the entire course of the picture, as a viewer I had no choice but to feel proud of myself for uncovering the puzzles and riddles at play. For me, watching House Of Games was like answering “Final Jeopardy” correctly when none of the contestants on screen had a clue. At least I was smiling by the end.