House of Games: Mamet’s Tale of Con Artists

Both fascinating and flawed, David Mamet’s House of Games is a conceptual movie about poker skills and con artists. In this deadpan, deviously comic melodrama, the players don’t withdraw. The script, which proceeds with twists and reversals, builds like a poker game in which the stakes get higher and higher. Mamet is obsessed with insidiously addictive game, in which the pot accumulates, tensions mount and tempers shorten.

Psychoanalyst Margaret Ford (Lindsay Crouse) has just written a new best-seller, “Driven,” based on studies of obsessive behavior. “You need joy,” says a colleague to the needy Margaret, as if she were prescribing medication. Through her compulsive gambler-patient, who’s suicidal, Margaret decides to investigate the world of crooked gamblers and swindlers–possibly for a new book. She does that with Mike (Joe Mantegna), a smooth-talker whose cool and anger she finds charming–he is an invaluable source of information, a perceptive reader of character.

House of Games is devoid of joy on the part of the actors. The New Yorker critic Pauline Kael has noted that through his cool distance, Mamet gives the audience the blueprint rather than the plot or feelings that go with it.

A control freak, Mamet dominates the actors–the flat performances are a stylistic statement. By turns comic, scary and bizarre, the dialogue is spoken in an intensely monotonous, self-conscious manner, and the harsh lighting emphasizes the deliberately artificial, theatrical nature. Though shot on location, in Seattle, there are no identifiable places–the physicality of the place is almost irrelevant to its characters.