House of Games

Lawrence Russell

House of Games (1987) writ. & dir. David Mamet (from the story by Jonathan Katz and David Mamet) cine. Juan Ruiz Anchia edt. Trudy Ship music Alaric Jans star. Lindsay Crouse (Dr. Margaret Ford), Joe Mantegna (Mike), Steve Goldstein (Billy Hahn), Mike Nussbaun (Joey), Ricky Jay (George/Vegas Man), Lila Skala (Dr. Maria Littauer), J.T. Walsh (business man/cop)


House of Games is a deception-within-a-deception, just like Double Indemnity and other classics of film noir. Most of the action takes place at night, in dimly lit taverns, back rooms, streets and alleys, the standard venues of film noir crime. While Mamet is less concerned with creating a stylistic votive to the film masters of the past, his dramatic method is nonetheless a basic inversion of the noir film. The dupe is a woman rather than a man, while sex remains the real currency in the transaction, even though money remains the modus operandi.

If the noir thirties and forties saw a man as the professional who gets used, the eighties has a woman. Dr. Margaret Ford (Lindsay Crouse) is typical of the American cultural inversion... and typically she's a psychologist, the favorite refuge of the female occult personality. If her entanglement with the slick conman Mike is a searing attack on the notion of female emancipation, then Mamet seems to confirm the feminist dialectic by allowing the doctor a measure of revenge, even if it comes from a bullet rather than a psychiatric end-game.

Crouse and Mantegna

When a young male patient called Billy Hahn (Steve Goldstein) visits Margaret Ford in a panic, telling her that he's incurred a gambling debt of $25,000 to a man named Mike and will be killed if he doesn't pay it, the psychiatrist is placed in a put-up or shut-up situation:

Billy: (bitterly) You do nothing... you and your book... it's a con-game... you know dick.

He pulls out a gun and threatens suicide.

MF: (firmly) You give me the gun and I will help you -- I swear to help you.

And why not? Dr. Margaret Ford is the model of the eighties educated female: a smart, professionally empowered member of the secular priesthood of psychiatry who has recently published the hip tome, Driven: obsession & compulsion in everyday life. Nice little book, nice little practice, nice little life.

Dr. Margaret Ford the final con

But... if you were her, would you respond to the challenge? Would you be equipped to handle the jungle?

When Billy leaves her office, MF checks her notes, sees the address of The House of Games, the gambling club where her desperate young patient hangs out. That evening she heads out into the wet, shadowed noir streets, finds the seedy pool hall/tavern that hosts the gambling den... and thereby enters The House of Games and comes face to face with the seminal challenge of her life.

His name is Mike (Joe Mantegna). He materializes from the smoky back room like a demi-man, shrouded in shadow.

Mike: Wha tha fuck is it?

MF: You threatened to kill a friend of mine... he's a sick kid.

Thus the pedigreed mistress of the head game enters into a wild adventure with the street-coarse master of the con game... and who is to say what is the difference and what is the reality? Once again the mystical pulse of sexual attraction arranges the dominant and the sub-dominant, the deceiver and the deceived, the sadist and the masochist within the peculiar chromaticism of the sexes. And once again the action exists as a play-within-a-play, a game-within-a-game.

"You want to see how a true bad man plies his trade?"

The street savvy Mike quickly draws the insular MF into his world by revealing some of the secrets of the con game. First he enlists her aid in reading the body language of a poker player from Vegas -- she enters the back room, poses as his girlfriend, enters into the con. According to her new friend Mike, if the Vegas player fidgets with his gold ring, then that's a "Tell", a sure sign that he's bluffing. Sure enough, the Vegas man twiddles his ring while Mike is in the can, and on his return MF urges Mike to call the bet. The bet is now $6,000 and MF, the affluent voyeur, quickly agrees to guarantee Mike's hand.

Mike: (spreads his cards) Triple aces, beat 'em, my friend.

Vegas: (spreads his) Club flush... (rakes in the chips) Thank you very much. Next case....

Next case. MF has been had and when the volatile Vegas gambler pulls out a gun and demands her check for six grand, the ugly reality of the situation almost has her conned... until she recognizes the gun is fake, merely a plastic water pistol. You might think this is odd, as the gun MF confiscated from her patient Billy Hahn is real, and as Hahn is part of the con, why is this gun fake? The symbolism is its own justification, as the plot will be a dialectical movement of the real and the unreal.

"The necessity of dark places to transact a dark business...."

MF accepts this attempted deception good naturedly, is soon sharing coffee and secrets with the boys. It's also not long before she's in bed with the chameleon Mike, the man with a deck of personae to suit whatever scam the occasion calls for. Good subject for a book? She thinks so. The user and the used is a game in which identity is a matter of perception.

The action throughout is driven by Mamet's characteristic dialogue, that fusion of brutal idiomatic conversation and the mannered exchange. Not everyone likes it. It often seems stilted, even dysfunctional, like a failed attempt at the theatre of manners. Yet it's this contradictory formalism that makes a Mamet drama a deeper exchange in human communication, like a combination of speech and thought. The language of the inner being is formal, a dream code of nuclear thinking... whereas the language of the outer being is metaphor, all raw emotion rather than academic reason.

In House of Games, language is more than just talk. As Mike instructs MF in the methodology of the Confidence Man, you realize he is the Archetypal Man, a predator who exploits the psychology of body language. A tip of the nose betrays which hand a coin is concealed in, a blush a sexual desire... some you know, some you think you know. There's an infantilism in the method, a forgotten or suppressed way that you only use by occasional instinct.

A female patient says, "He says, I can make any woman a whore in 15 minutes." She is a victim of some man, some trauma, some double-think. Her condition is a condition she will share with her therapist.

Night. Rain. Charlie's Tavern. MF writes in her notebook: "The necessity of dark places to transact a dark business...." And Mike materializes at her table masquerading as a waiter. He says, "You want to see how a true bad man plys his trade?"

inversion, projection, compression, elaboration

The ending of this superb film drama begs comparison with the benchmark Double Indemnity. When Walter Neff shoots his double-dealing lover Phyllis Dietrichson in the final clinch, his action expresses the cynicism of a generation who have committed and lost. Love in a free market economy is a Freudian hedge fund, a strategy of loser takes all. The femme fatale is the manipulator and her men are her marks. In House of Games, Mike is the homme fatale, a ruthless inversion of a tradition, yet a very familiar figure in the culture of love and crime.

But patsies will revolt if given a chance. Just as Walter Neff is allowed to set up his own final double-cross, so too Dr. Margaret Ford. Of course MF's is a con and she works it with the driven precision of a top graduate in the school of revenge. Mamet's sociology here is more ambitious and overtly political than Wilder's, a paradigm of the eighties if ever there was one. MF enters Charlie's Tavern by the back door, listens in as Mike and his gang of con artists joke and mock her gullibility as they pass around a copy of her book Driven. One of the boys asks Mike how he knew MF would go for the 80 thousand con. "Go for it? says Mike. "The broad's an addict."

House of Games

MF the addict is waiting for Mike the grifter at the airport that night with a bag she says has a quarter of million in it, her entire savings... and the silver automatic she confiscated from Billy Hahn. This gun is not only a part of the first con, but also her first theft (as Mike the Master once said to her: "I read a book once. It said this: if you get fired from your job, take something from life, something, a memento, a pencil... assert yourself."). When she cons Mike into a "restricted area" of the terminal and shoots him, it's not only an act of hatred but also one of political opportunity.

Mike dies an incorrigible. He even taunts her, the depth of his male contempt a misogynist war-cry: "Please sir... give me another." As he lies twisted and dying in the corner, his pain is his sneer. And she gives him another bullet -- inversion, projection, compression, elaboration. Gender inversion is one thing, phallic projection another. In the American free market, a woman with a hand gun is the first sign of a post-gender economy.

Utterly unsentimental, the ruthless feminist gestalt is the flavor of the era. Whereas Phyllis in Double Indemnity dies in love or feigning love (Walter doesn't believe her), Mike dies a pure criminal, a loveless entrepreneur who steals trust as a profession. But he's a classic Mamet male -- a reptilian operator who only sheds his tail in order to conceal his position.

© LR 90/2000


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