If you have seen playwright, screenwriter, and director David Mamet's later film, "The Spanish Prisoner," a clever story of deception and duplicity, you will have a good idea what "House of Games," 1987, his first directorial effort, is all about. It's one part Hitchcock, one part film noir, and one part "The Sting," making for a heady mixture of dark, intricate thrills. As with so many of Mamet's films, there is a certain detached quality about it, too, a distancing he creates between his characters and the audience, which is also part of the fun. One thing: "House of Games" will keep you on your toes and guessing from beginning to end, meaning there's seldom a boring moment to be found.
Lindsay Crouse and Joe Mantegna star in what is essentially a cinematic duet. Crouse plays a psychologist, Dr. Margaret Ford, who has just published a best-selling book called "Driven: Obsession and Compulsion in Everyday Life." After working with a patient who is a compulsive gambler and claims he is going to be killed for money he owes, she seeks out the man to whom he owes the money, an apparent gambler named Mike (Montegna), to tell him to leave her patient alone. I say he's an "apparent" gambler because it turns out Mike is not a gambler at all but a con man. He hangs out at a bar appropriately called the "House of Games."
After their introduction, the psychologist finds the life of a con artist fascinating and asks if she can do a psychological study of the confidence business. Then, she gets involved with him in an elaborate con game. She gets sucked into his milieu. Or perhaps suckered into it would be more precise. And she loves it. To tell you any more would be to spoil the surprises, so let it suffice that the plot takes on a number of twists and turns before arriving at its surprising and unexpected conclusion.
Crouse, at the time Mamet's wife, plays her role coolly, her psychologist character very intelligent, very much outwardly in control, but inwardly quite insecure. She is not sure of herself, her profession, or her effects on her patients. She doubts she can even help them anymore. Mike, on the other hand, is extremely sure of himself. He knows he's a criminal and isn't afraid to admit it. In an ironic shift, he also appears to know more about human nature than the psychologist. He explains to the doctor that the con man gives his mark confidence, and he is up front in telling her, "Don't trust nobody."
The story attempts to suggest that we can't hide who we are or what we want. Nothing is as it appears to be. The whole world is a house of games, games we all play, things we all hide. Ford even goes so far as to wonder if the practice of psychology isn't really anything more than a socially acceptable con game. In a life on the edge of collapse, her chance meeting with Mike is like a breath of fresh air. But, remember, reality and appearances can often be quite different.
The atmosphere of the film is properly dark. Ford notes the necessity to be in dark places to do dark deeds when she steps into Mike's shady climate of scruffy taverns and smoky gambling dens. The movie's soft jazz background score perfectly complements the restrained, unobtrusive tone of the story as well.
The drawbacks of a Mamet mystery are here, too, and for some viewers they can be somewhat off-putting. As usual, his characters speak odd, overly precise dialogue, spitting out words in terse, staccato cadences, often with a complete lack of inflection. Maybe it's the playwright in him that forces Mamet to make us listen to his words rather than only to react to his characters' feelings. It may also be off-putting to some viewers that as we come more and more to expect to be fooled, so we begin to anticipate and question every move and action in the plot. Rather than just accepting what is happening, we tend to say to ourselves, "I will be on my guard; I refuse to be taken in. Mamet will not fool me this time; I am too clever for him." And Mamet knows this and dares us to anticipate him. Thus, the movie itself becomes a "house of games," constantly keeping us alert, constantly pulling us into its sport.
The picture, displayed in a 1.69:1 widescreen ratio, is lucent but slightly soft and blurred. There are some shimmering lines here and there, especially noticeable in the chrome trim along the sides of cars and in Venetian blinds, always hard to reproduce. The image is fairly clean and clear of grain, though. A standard-screen version accompanies the widescreen, but it can be safely ignored.
The monaural sound does little but communicate dialogue, with a bit of background noise noticeable from time to time, hiss and low-level rumble mostly. The noise mysteriously comes and goes.
There's almost nothing in the way of bonus items, either. English, French, and Spanish are the spoken language choices, French and Spanish subtitles, twenty-four scene selections, and a theatrical trailer. That's about it.
Incidentally, you might look for William H. Macy and J.T. Walsh in minor roles along the way. Keeping a sharp eye open and a clear head about you is prerequisite to enjoying the film. If not all of "House of Games" holds up to later scrutiny, it isn't for Mamet's lack of trying. It's not only a clever whodunit, it's a clever "why'd they do that?"