in Criterion Month

House of Games (1987)

Me choosing House of Games for Criterion Month is the equivalent of closing your eyes, throwing a pile of DVDs in the air, grabbing one, and then deciding to watch it. Before yesterday I knew slim to bupkis about this film. I knew it was the directorial debut of acclaimed playwright/Jiu-Jitsu master David Mamet and that it fit my theme of “First Time Filmmakers”. As for what the film was about and who was in it, I had no clue. I know now, and I am Jiu-Jitsu kicking myself for not discovering this movie earlier.

I was worried after the first ten minutes of House of Games. We are introduced to a Dr. Margaret Ford (Lindsay Crouse), a successful yet unfulfilled psychiatrist. One day, Margaret learns her patient Billy is in danger because he owes $800 to a criminal named Mike (Joe Mantegna). Margaret promises to reach out to Mike and meets with him in a shady pool hall to discuss the money. I was worried at this point because I sensed a typical crime film. Though just as Margaret discovers, not everything is as it seems on the surface.

Mike is a charming yet strong-willed figure who promises to call off Billy’s debt if Margaret pretends to be his girlfriend in a high stakes poker game. Mike tells her there’s a player named George (Ricky Jay) who has a tell–fiddling with his gold ring–when he’s bluffing. They devise a plan to wait until a big hand, have Mike go to the bathroom, and Margaret spot the tell. Margaret sees the tell but Mike can’t match the bet. Margaret, confident that George is bluffing, says she’ll write a check for the remaining $6,000 if Mike doesn’t win the hand. Mike loses. So Margaret has to pay up… until she notices the gun that George threatens Mike with is a squirt gun. She pieces it all together.

The plan wasn’t to con George, the plan was to con Margaret into giving Mike, George, and a third player, Joey (Mike Nussbaum), $6,000 of HER money. Brilliant. I the viewer, just like Margaret, fell for the whole thing and was delighted to discover that the movie that I thought would be a typical crime film is actually about con artists. Which you think would send Margaret the other way, but instead, she finds herself drawn to these men and the various cons they run. What follows is a series of “Confidence Games” that Margaret plays a part in. Though the further she follows, the more trouble finds her.

This movie is great because there’s no way to tell where it’s going at any given time. The film, like Mike (not that film), is trying to misdirect you. It’s trying to gain your confidence in thinking the story is going in one direction only to pivot, and it does so with a murderers row of talented character actors; Joe Mantegna, Ricky Jay, Mike Nussbaum, and later JT Walsh and an early appearance from William H. Macy. The performances are good but only as good as the scenarios they are put in and the scenarios are great.

As a filmmaker, I’m a big fan of Mamet’s tips on directing. I’ve never read Mamet’s book “On Directing Film” (I ordered a copy right after I watched the movie) but I am familiar with Mamet’s philosophy on “How to Make a Scene”. Watching House of Games I couldn’t help but recall how Mamet explains that good movies are simply writing good scenes with a beginning, middle, and end and stringing them together. Some of Mamet’s pointers for doing this are; remove every part of the scene that is not essential, be blunt, and find the objective in every scene. These aren’t Mamet’s only tips for scene building but they are my favorite, in particular, “Find the objective”.

“Find the Objective” means that in every scene you must have one character that is trying to achieve something by the end of the scene. That’s how you build drama. Mike in House of Games is trying to pull off a con, or some variation, in many scenes and we as viewers are invested in that outcome. A lot of people give Mamet credit for his punchy dialogue or “Mamet Speak” but I find his skill as a scene builder to be even more impressive. The man knows how to carry a scene and I’m willing to follow all the twists and turns.

Any more discussion of the plot of House of Games would be a disservice to anyone who hasn’t seen it. It’s a film best experienced by going in cold. All I can say is like a Jiu-Jitsu chop to the back of the head, be ready to be surprised.