David Mamet was born in 1947 in Chicago. After attending Goddard College in Vermont with future collaborator William H. Macy, he worked primarily as a playwright creating numerous plays including LAKEBOAT, OLEANNA, AMERICAN BUFFALO, SPEED-THE-PLOW, and GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS. This was the play that won him the 1984 Pulitzer Prize and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award. Despite his success with the theatre, he turned his attention to making films, and wrote the screenplays for THE VERDICT, THE UNTOUCHABLES, THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE, THE EDGE, as well as the film version of GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS (which featured 138 uses of the word “fuck,” or a derivative thereof). He also wrote the subject at hand: 1987’s HOUSE OF GAMES, which was his directorial debut. Recent films have included the Hollywood satire STATE AND MAIN, a political send-up WAG THE DOG, other con/caper movies THE SPANISH PRISONER and HEIST, and the Special Forces themed SPARTAN. Like many writers, he has had a thorny relationship with Hollywood going so far as to say in his recent nonfiction work Bambi vs. Godzilla: On the Nature, Purpose, and Practice of the Movie Business “Hollywood is like cocaine. You cannot understand its attraction until you are doing it. And when you are doing it, you are insane.” He is also deeply religious, and his faith has spurred him to write two books about Judaism: Five Cities of Refuge: Weekly Reflections on Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomyand The Wicked Son: Anti-Semitism, Self-hatred, and the Jews He has taught at the Yale School of Drama and founded the Altantic Theater Company in New York. He is also a student of Jiu Jitsu.
Dr. Margaret Ford is a best-selling psychologist. One of her patients falls into a debt he can’t repay. To help him, she enters the titular den of iniquity, and agrees to help “Mike” in a high-stakes card game in exchange for her patient’s marker. The card game is a scam, designed to rip her off. She figures it out and presses Mike for more information on confidence games. She soon finds herself in bed with him, and caught up in a high-stakes swindle. Things go south and she ends up paying him off, only to learn that the entire thing has been an elaborate ruse to bilk her of her money. She then takes revenge upon Mike, shooting him. She returns to her life apparently without consequence.
As I watched the film, I couldn’t help but think ahead and see the ending coming from along way off. Mamet tells me I’m watching con men, men whose vocation revolves around deceit and trickery. The title is “House of Games” and I’m not going to let my guard down for a minute until I’m sure I’m out of it. I don’t know that I totally buy that a woman like Ford wouldn’t be at least as suspicious. But while I may lack her years of professional psychiatric training and best-selling book, I have watched enough caper flicks to be on the lookout for the twist in the tale, the dupes, flim-flam, and misdirection that the narrative requires her not to notice. Movies like Matchstick Men, Nine Queens, and Confidence have primed me to be on the lookout for characters like Mike. Maybe the Ford character should have spent more time in movie theaters. Maybe I’ve just been spoiled by the movies that came later. In a lot of ways, HOUSE OF GAMES suffers from its own influence. That is to say that this movie came out in 1987 and was a solid influence on films that came later like THE USUAL SUSPECTS an the other films I mentioned. Having seen them first, Mamet’s film can feel a little derivative even though it is deriving from itself.
House of Games was the first film that David Mamet directed, and in many ways that shows. Some of the lighting is harsh. The acting can often seem forced and wooden, making the audience conscious of the theatrical unreality. This is a staple of Mamet’s work, but with different directors the effect can be less jarring and can more easily communicate the tough (usually) guy posturing and macho profanity of his characters. Even the later films he directed show a subtler grasp on the actors’ reins, although the delivery remains deadpan rat-a-tat-tat. Mametspeak, as it is sometimes referred to, is full of weird pauses, overlapping dialogue, staccato exchanges of profane insults, and stylized slang. It isn’t realistic, but realism isn’t the primary goal. It is a theatrical impression of tough slang. Roger Ebert describes it thusly:
“There is a teasing quality to Mamet’s presentations that reminds me of a skilled magician, meticulously laying out his cards while telling us a story. We know the story has nothing to do with the cards (“The Queen of Diamonds decided she would have an affair with the King of Hearts . . .”). The story is a diversion. The real story is, what’s happening to the cards? What is he really doing while he’s telling us he’s doing something else? The magician’s voice never sounds as if he really believes the Queen and King are having an affair. There is a slightly mocking, formal quality to his speech. He is going through the ritual of telling us a story, while meanwhile operating in another, hidden way.”
That “hidden way” of storytelling is one of the things I like about the film. Nobody says exactly what they mean. They come at things from oblique angles using vague jargon, which is fitting for psychoanalysts and con men. Mamet has a habit of casting his wife as the female lead in his films, and his then-current wife Lindsay Crouse portrayed Dr. Ford. For my money, she took the repression angle too far and her performance hindered my enjoyment of the film. It’s not that I mind the clichés and stiff delivery. Mantegna makes it work, but this caper is told from the victim’s point of view and I found myself becoming alienated by her portrayal of Ford.
In the introduction to the screenplay, Mamet tells us that he constructed the film according to the Eisensteinian notion that no single shot should be evocative of any particular emotion. Rather, they should simply tell the story and advance the plot and evoke emotion cumulatively, as the audience fills in appropriate gaps and reads into the text of the film. This partially to downplay any lack of dramatic visual flair on his part as a rookie director, but also seems to betray his attachment to the role of writer. It seems he directs his actors along the same lines, not allowing any one performance to be emotive or particularly evocative in any one scene. Rather, he attempts to build a coherent whole from the deadpan performances and implicitly challenges the audience to read into the characters and grapple with the film to understand why they do the things they do. It’s no surprise that a playwright like Mamet would privilege the words on the page over the subtle interpretations of the actors. In fact, in his book about acting he advised actors to eschew emotional preparation and focus on performing the actions described by the author (p 64).
PSYCHOLOGY IN THE FILM
Obviously, having a therapist for a protagonist will put an emphasis on psychology in the film. Dr. Ford is apparently successful in her work having written a best seller on the nature of obsession and compulsion. Despite her supposed insights into human nature, she falls for a swindler and gets taken for $80,000. Besides the irony of having an expert in human nature get played for a sucker, Mamet is making an implicit statement about the degree that anyone can be analyzed and understood in any meaningful way. Ford’s MD degree and (presumed) years of experience don’t help her spot the con game. But Mike is an experienced hustler and he fatally misreads her character and is unable to talk his way out of the airport scene. The film is full of “tells” and miscommunication and bad reads that the characters don’t pick up on.
That being said, the film doesn’t seem to me to be an attack on psychology and several themes surface in the story that Freud would have a field day with. Notably, Ford’s “cracking out of turn” or the “Freudian” slips she makes in her conversations betray deeper anxieties than the ones she expresses directly. There is also a definite “Elektra” dynamic at play, with Mike acting as a surrogate Father figure who not only shows her the ropes of his criminal dealings, but becomes a sexualized other that she desires. The character of Maria is clear maternal stand-in, offering her advice that borders on the permissive. She tells her to give herself joy, and to forgive herself for the unforgivable. Ford is looking for some recrimination; some sense of boundary from Maria, but all she gets is permission to act on her desires. Maria, in effect, tells her it is okay to sleep with Mike, forgive herself for murdering the cop, and accept her need to take objects like the lighter. Maria goes along with Mike, although they never meet, in allowing Ford to express desires and engage in actions that she shouldn’t.
Ford is a masculine character, from her short hair and chain smoking to the fact that the screenplay refers to her not by her feminine first name, but merely as the asexual, yet masculine-sounding “Ford.” She takes an aggressive tone with Mike when they first meet, posturing and ordering him around in her role as Billy’s protector. It seems to work, and she maintains her masculine identity for most of the film. She is also constantly writing, a male-gendered activity. She ends up taking a sheathed blade from the hotel room, later learning that it belongs to Mike. This occurs just before the final stage of the con game. Afterwards, when she follows the crew to their bar and listens to them they frequently refer to her as “the bitch.” It is only after this scene, wherein she comes upon the knowledge that the knife she took from the hotel belonged to Mike that we see her as in any way feminine. When she meets with Mike at the airport and in the final restaurant scene, she is wearing a dress. In some way, being with Mike enabled her to connect with the feminine part of herself, despite its disastrous consequences.