“It’s called the confidence game. Why? Because you give me your confidence? No, because I give you mine.”
David Mamet was already an established Broadway dramatist and Hollywood screenwriter by the time he made his directorial début with HOUSE OF GAMES. He was awarded the Pulitzer prize for GLENGARRY GLENROSS, his brilliant play about the venality of aggressive salesmen chasing the big real-estate deal. James Foley directed the screen version in 1992 with some career-best performances from the likes of Jack Lemmon, as Lavine, a sales man who has lost touch and struggling with a financial crisis; he’s desperate to get back to his former glory. Kevin Spacey is Williamson, the passive aggressive office manager, who can barely disguise his hatred of the sales team. Al Pacino is hypnotic as the star salesman Roma, who charms his customers by exposing and exploiting their every weakness, until they yield to his desires. Roma doesn’t attend the standout moment when Blake, played with great verve by Alec Baldwin, arrives from downtown, Mitch and Murray, on a “mission of mercy” to motivate the team. Mamet wrote his monologue for the screenplay (it doesn’t appear in the play) and it sparkles with wit and quotable twists on management speak, delivered with such verve and relish that it unbalances the rest of the film. Although it is brilliantly done, the rest of the action cannot shake off its origins; it feels like a stage performance that has been recorded, rather than a film.
HOUSE OF GAMES is a more cinematic, film noir experience (although it has been adapted for the stage). Margaret Ford, played by Mamet’s then-wife Lindsay Crouse, is a psychiatrist and best-selling author of ‘Driven’ a pop-psychology book about compulsive behaviour. She is compelled to help one of her clients who has built up a huge gambling debt. He is anxious about the threat to his safety if he isn’t able to meet the demands of the mysterious loan-shark ‘Mike’. She is drawn into the seedy world of House of Games, a gambling den in the darkness on the edge of town.
The film sparks to life as soon as Joe Mantegna appears as Mike who offers to write off the debt (that isn’t as big as her client suggested) in exchange for her consultancy. He invites her to watch a poker game and to use her skills in psychology to observe ‘the tell’ of a big roller visiting from Las Vagas. She enters the game and seals her fate.
Mantegna has a genuinely intriguing charisma and a real flair for those weird turns of inflection, overlapping patter, mis-quoted idioms and mid-sentence emphasis that Mamet has made famous. Its not naturalistic, but there is a deceptive authenticity to the dialogue. The charm of this film is that we are let into the world and shown how it works. Ricky Jay who plays the high roller is better known as a conjurer and he acted as a consultant on the set-ups for the con-tricks that Mike pulls. He once said, something like, magicians practice the most honest of entertainment as the audience know they are being lied to, whereas other art-forms are not as candid.
Mamet has a feel for cinema and how the form demands drama to hold the audience’s attention which he developed writing the scripts for THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE (1981), THE VERDICT (1982) and THE UNTOUCHABLES (1987). He doesn’t much care for mood scenes, or dialogue that doesn’t advance the drama, so his début is very taught – a tightly packed 90 minutes of dramatic turns. HOUSE OF GAMES isn’t a twisty story that pulls the rug from the audience; its structured as a series of deceptions and deceits that are layered on top of each other. There’s no definite article to the title as Mamet seems to be suggesting that there is game-playing in psychiatry and the practice of film-making itself.
At times there is that delicious feeling you get when you feel part of the act, but it is part of Mamet’s elaborate con, because he’s constantly questioning the characters and their assumptions about themselves and subtly he turns the questions on the audience and asks them questions about themselves and their complicit role in the nature of cinema. But, at the end, like Margaret we realise that it’s too good to resist.
The audience is being hustled. It’s a bit like FUNNY GAMES (1997 and 2007) without the finger-wagging, or Nazi egg-borrowers, or anything else in FUNNY GAMES. It sounds confusing but it’s a deliberate mis-direction … if you’d like to check your watch …
- house of games (itsawonderfulfilm.wordpress.com)
- Woody Allen On Sondheim, Mamet & Mel Brooks (broadwayworld.com)
- Cate Blanchett to star in David Mamet’s next film, BLACKBIRD!!! (aintitcool.com)