House of Games (1987)

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*. I like how Kent Jones begins his Criterion essay on this film by saying “In 1987, nothing else looked or sounded quite like House of Games.” I can second that, as the impression it made when it came out really was striking. It seemed like quite the smartest thing around and I can remember friends quoting lines from it for weeks.
*. But then along came Tarantino. Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. Dialogue that had seemed to set a standard for colloquial naturalness and native intelligence came to seem staged and artificial. Mamet made us feel like we were listening to a play: lines being delivered as though they were being read in front of an audience rather than bickering, arguing, or trying to make a point in the up-close, intense immediacy of film.
*. In addition, and at roughly the same time, neo-noir and thriller plots started picking up speed and became ever more complex, piling twists upon twists. In the rear-view mirror, the cons in House of Games seemed crude and obvious. How could Margaret not see through Mike’s simple scheme?
*. The fact that his game was so quickly overtaken is not Mamet’s fault. And to be fair I think a lot of his stuff holds up well. But coming back to this one after many years I found it had lost a lot of its edge.

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*. It’s a film with a basic conceit, which Mamet explains throughout his DVD commentary. That conceit is the equivalence of drama, magic, the con game, and psychotherapy.
*. In each case the author/director/con man’s mission is to fool someone who, consciously or not, wants to play along and be fooled. As Mamet puts it, “what do you do to get someone to suspend their disbelief?” “The central question of drama” is also the central question of the con and the magic trick, it’s all about manipulating one’s audience or “mark” by controlling what people see.
*. The psychiatrist is in the same business, a magician and confidence trickster who holds out the (false) hope of changing people’s lives, making them better, through suggestion. The trick is in getting people to believe there’s a cure/answer to their problems, and who doesn’t want to believe that?
*. The mythic role of the director in this magician/con-man role was best exemplified by Hitchcock. He was the master manipulator, the one who would play his audience like a piano. And, in films like Vertigo, he even made that manipulation his theme. Mamet (and, later, David Fincher) would make it an obsession. Behind the film is the Magus, who is really the director as God.

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*. The director as God is something different, and I would say something less, than the director as artist. What I mean is that in films like this you’re watching a mousetrap. It may be wonderfully conceived and constructed, and do a great job catching mice (hooking and playing the audience), but it’s all artifice and doesn’t engage the feelings that much. I think this is what David Thomson means when he says that “Mamet has not established a character in movies as more than a cold, skilled mechanic.  The films he has directed are games, or intrigues, but neither playful nor absorbing.” Which sounds like a lesser Hitchcock to me.

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*. Another thing Thomson (and almost every other critic) has to say about Mamet is that “Women are not quite [his] subject.” His is a man’s world. More than because she’s a professional entering an underworld of shady, criminal types, this is why Margaret doesn’t belong in the House of Games. In her real life she is surrounded by women: her mentor, her students, even her one patient at the prison, are all female. That is her proper sphere.
*. Though she does try her best to fit in, and Mamet does his best to help her. For starters, Lindsay Crouse is, as Jones puts it, “one of the least ‘girly’ actresses in movies,” and she’s deliberately made to seem downright mannish with her short hair, pantsuits, and smoking her cigarettes like a noir hero. (Mamet was conscious of this being a noir film, defining noir as “a conjunction of violence and irony”, meaning that there is no final justice and the world is just a cold, heartless place.)

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*. That Crouse isn’t presented in a sexual way makes Mantegna’s easy seduction of her more believable. There’s no mention of her having a boyfriend or being divorced. She’s a career woman, and romance has been put on the back burner. When awakened, however, a woman played with turns out to be worse than a woman scorned.
*. Mamet says that he wanted Margaret to be “a person who has a problem who happens to be a woman” and not a stereotypical woman’s role. I think this is disingenuous. There’s clearly a point being made about gender here. As he also says, “arguably the times when she feels strongest are when she’s wearing a skirt, the times she’s being taken advantage of is when she wants to put on the slacks.” Keeping this in mind, note how she appears at her girliest at the end, with earrings like lifesaver rings and wearing an open-back floral-print dress. Mamet will, however, leave matters of “feminist literary theory” to the viewers.
*. There are matters of interpretation here that can’t be that easily dismissed, however, and they even go outside the frame of the film. Crouse was married to Mamet at the time and though hers was clearly the leading role he only mentions her name once in his entire commentary and says nothing about her performance.
*. When Crouse took the part she was concerned that the character of Margaret wasn’t the hero. Her fears on this score were assuaged but I think her first impression was correct. At the end of the film she clearly is a villain, while Mike redeems his heel behaviour by refusing to beg for his life. He has played the game fairly, by his own code, while she is being a spectacularly poor loser.

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*. There’s a final point that relates to the ending. Mike’s defence is in a great tradition of such criminal types: arguing that there was nothing personal in the con and that it was all just business. This is a line that goes back to The Godfather (at least) and it makes me wonder how ironic it’s meant to be.
*. It seems to me a very American sentiment. Not for these hoods the argument that they were just following orders. That wouldn’t fly. But making money? Pursuing their self-interest? Since when is that a crime? Since when is that wrong? It’s business, which is beyond good and evil. They’re just playing the game.

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