Lindsay Crouse and Joe Mantegna in 1987's "House of Games".

House of Games August 23, 2015 

Dr. Margaret Ford (Lindsay Crouse) has it all. A world famous psychologist, she has recently become a best-selling author for her acclaimed self-help guide; money visits her bank account like a pestering pack of termites. Most would find her status enviable, but an inscrutable discontent jangles around in her psyche on the daily. She chain smokes not out of enjoyment but out of boredom, as if it’s the only sort of release she finds in her comfortably mundane life.


A rush of adrenaline comes out of nowhere one afternoon when a young patient admits that his pressing anxiety is not a matter of mental health but of fiscal responsibility.  A compulsive gambler, he owes a sinister figure named Mike (Joe Mantegna) $15,000.  If he fails to meet Mike’s demands, his short life will end with a quick blast and a shallow grave.  He’s terrified.  


Seeing opportunity to further her knowledge, Margaret decides to take matters into her own hands and confront Mike at the House of Games, a gambling joint stationed in the seedy part of town.  Dressed sleekly and clutching her cigarette like a gun, she looks like a femme fatale hungry for an entree of trouble — and, during her consequent meeting with Mike, she maintains an authoritative confidence sexy in its feral sharpness.  But Mike isn’t impressed by her viciousness, maintaining that her client only owes him $800.  So he cuts her a deal: if she assists him during a game of poker, spotting for nervous ticks and catching the bluffs of his main opponent, he will pretend as though her patient’s debts were never owed to begin with. Margaret, turned on by the new excitement of the situation, agrees but ends up getting more than she bargained for. After the game ends and her bluff spotting fails, she, reluctantly, is forced to cover for Mike and write a check for $6,000 to his violent rival.  


Not so fast, though. Before she hands the dough over, she notices water dripping from the gun of the adversary. A fake. The entire plan, it seems, was a ploy. A con man, Mike, in reality, was planning to grift her out of thousands, everyone in the room a part of his slick team.  Rather than hold contempt for the man, though, Margaret finds herself erotically infatuated with his level of cerebral strength: the thrill of the con is exactly what her predictable life needs.  She begs for more, to become a part of Mike’s tricky world of double-crossing.  He agrees — but it doesn’t take long for the normally icily confident psychologist to find herself way in over her head.


House of Games is the kind of movie you have to continually remind yourself to pay close attention to, as one quick diversion can completely spoil an eventual twist in the mind games.  The repeated cases of whiplash in the plotting are far too ingenious to miss out on.  Most grift central films are glittery cases of shimmering fuckery, wrapping their convolutions in packaging so keenly stylish that sly thievery suddenly holds a sort of vogue nonsense too good to be true.


But House of Games, like the best of neo-noir, centers itself in a dark world of Lichtenstein paintings without pop art cheer; we are always aware that danger is lurking in every corner and that everything on display could be part of a complex con.  Not once do we feel at ease during its cool 101 minutes — we feel as though Mantegna is pulling a fast one on us once again, that the at-once brilliant and naïve Crouse is going to get duped after a stretch of safety.   


The smarmy smoke-and-mirrors attitude of David Mamet, a then-exclusive screenwriter making his directorial debut, is so terrifically confident that he becomes the ultimate con man — if he weren’t such a gifted writer/director, he easily could have found his calling tricking wealthy old widows out of their fortunes.  The clipped diction of his writing would seem stilted if placed in the hands of an unknowing filmmaker — so dependent on italics and extended metaphors is his screenplay that his actors don’t so much act his lines out as they do chew on them.  Mamet is more concerned with the mind games that come along with the plot twist of a con, and so the dialogue, a wily combination of street punk toughness and intellectual zing, makes every situation metamorphosize into something more subversive and more literarily minded, modern art infused into the devious mind of film.  Mamet views linguistics as if they were a weapon, not a way to emotionally express one’s self.  


House of Games is a psychological series of cat-and-mouse, seduction chasing our common sense away as we find ourselves in the wrong over and over again.  Deception isn’t normally a fun pastime in the film industry, but Mamet is a master of deceit; we want him to play us like a piano.  The excitement never ends — House of Games is a masterpiece of the plot twist.  A+