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That David Mamet is one of the greatest writers for the stage and film we’ve seen in the past 30 years is well known. But, in 1987, he was a playwright who dabbled in screenwriting and no one had seen him direct anything not on the stage. Thankfully, Mamet was so in demand that he could make a demand to direct his first film, which debuted 30 years ago this weekend. The movie is called House of Games and Mamet proved that not only was he a master of words, but he could direct the hell out of a movie.
House of Games stars Lindsey Crouse, Mamet’s then wife, as Margaret Ford, a successful psychiatrist and author who is stuck in a rut. The success of her book has her longing for more excitement in her life, as returning to her routine of seeing patients holds little of anything new for her. Even when one of her patients, an inveterate gambler, pulls a gun and threatens to kill himself, Margaret seems non-plussed. She manages to get him to give her the gun, and then finds that he is on the verge of suicide over a debt he owes to a gambler.
Frustrated with her inability to actually affect positive change in her patient, she decides that she might be able to rid him of his debt and give him a chance at recovery. That night, she arrives at a bar ,called The House of Games, where she quickly finds the gambler, Mike (Joe Mantegna), who holds her patients’ marker, though the $25,000 he claimed to have owed is only a mere $800.00. Mike offers to wipe the debt clean if Margaret helps him in a poker con against a rich Texan he’s playing against in a back room. She agrees and the real plot of House of Games begins to whir into motion.
Joe Mantegna is a terrific actor, but he's never been better than when directed by his friend, Mamet. Mantegna walked the boards for numerous Mamet productions in Chicago and New York and he understands Mamet’s rhythm in a way that few other actors have ever taken to it. Not the most handsome guy, Mantegna manages to come off sexy in House of Games for the sheer ballsy confidence of his con-man character. When he reads Lindsey Crouse’s tells and explains to her how he knows that she wants to sleep with him more than she wants to write a book about him, it’s a scene as hot as any sex scene.
The dialogue and the con-man theory on display in House of Games is far more important than the film’s plot. When the twist happens at the beginning of the third act, it’s hard to feel sorry for the person who is being conned, as it feels as if it should have been obvious. A scene where the con is laid bare while a character listens from a safe, hidden, distance plays as darkly comic rather than a shocking reveal, and I can’t help but feel that Mamet intends it just that way.
The best part of House of Games for me, however, is the shocker of an ending. I won’t spoil it here, as I am eager to encourage you to see this 30-year-old gem, but I will tell it is a real stunner — a blunt and unexpected way to bring an end to one of our main characters. The two performances at the center of this final conflict are pitch perfect and Mamet’s staging is flawless in the way it convinces us things won’t happen the way they actually do end up happening.
House of Games is unquestionably one of the best films of 1987. Mamet’s direction and writing could not be more spot on and, while some may find the central con a little obvious, I prefer to see the humor of it. In that way, it works brilliantly. That the film was not nominated for a single Academy Award in 1987 is an absolute travesty. Then again, the stage vet Mamet has yet to get the respect he deserves from Hollywood. Here’s hoping he gets his due one of these days.