Swindlers are nothing new in David Mamet’s world. They’re seducers by nature, and everyone — from the characters on screen to the audience watching them — hungers for seduction. We may tell ourselves we know better, that we would remain stoically grim in the face of a hypnotist or could spot the hidden ace in the sleeve of a magician. But in the end, every mark has a spider web of fears and lusts to exploit, and it’s a con man’s job to take them for a ride.

House of Games was the first ride Mamet gave to cinema audiences, breaking into the field with a film Roger Ebert would call “one of the 10 best movies of the year.” Despite a very bumpy opening that includes some cringe-worthy Mamet-speak, the story stands up well, plunging viewers into smoky pool halls where grifters hatch schemes within schemes. It’s undeniably a strong debut, subverting expectations while letting Mamet explore his pet themes and reviving the noir genre simultaneously. More than 20 years later, it still forces viewers to confront the deceit inherent in human nature.

That confrontation starts with the woman at the film’s center. Margaret Ford (Lindsay Crouse) is a psychiatrist who clearly enjoys being recognized from the back of her latest book as much as forcing breakthroughs in people’s lives. She’s dedicated enough to her patients that, when a young gambling addict tells her he’s $25,000 in the hole, she sets out to clear his debts to a shady card shark named Mike.

Mike, played with dangerous, back-alley charm by Joe Mantegna, is really the star of the movie. While we see the story through Margaret’s eyes, Mike is the one telling it, introducing her to an underground world she never knew existed while occasionally dealing pithy philosophy. In a nutshell: “Don’t trust nobody.”

That nugget of wisdom would serve Margaret well, but she’s hooked. Mike and his friends seem to possess a secret knowledge of the way people work, and she seeks them out, even hanging on Mike’s arm for a con job. In the process, a few uncomfortable truths are revealed both about her identity and the shadowy world Mike and his cohorts inhabit.

What makes the film work is how alluring that place is; the opening shot of The House of Games, a pool hall that serves as a grifter’s lair, would make Edward Hopper sigh. Steam drifts from sewer grates and neon glitters from behind dirty, dark windows. Mamet knows when to tighten in on these gritty details because this is his fantasy, and that aesthetic is what draws Margaret in, as well. At times it feels like an urban adventure story, like After Hours without the comedy: When night falls, the city reveals a place where “normal” rules don’t apply. Watching Margaret sharing hot dogs and sleight of hand tricks with these weary cons, gabbing until just before dawn, you can see her falling in love, the way they have, with a witching hour world they seem to conjure at will.

The pillars holding up that illusion include a cast of Mamet regulars and acting vets: Magician Ricky Jay, J.T. Walsh and Mike Nussbaum (who seems to channel every eccentric, chain-smoking Southern writer there ever was). William H. Macy also turns up for a brief turn as a well-meaning G.I. who falls for one of Mike’s ruses. But their combined efforts — even with Mantegna whisking us along — just aren’t enough to overcome the glaring crack in the film’s fa├žade.

Lindsay Crouse, Mamet’s wife at the time, just can’t hold up her end. To be fair, some of the problem is the clipped Mamet-speak that drives some viewers crazy. But mostly, it’s her acting: she comes off stiff and awkward for most of the running time, especially in the first few scenes of the movie, with a few moments that are groan-worthy. In the scene opposite the gambling addict, who also needs to take a language course in Mamet, they sound like two robots doing their best to imitate human emotion. Later on, she fumbles clunkers like “Let’s talk turkey, pal” opposite Mantegna, whose smoothness only makes it more noticeable. During a scene involving a dead man, there’s a close-up of Crouse’s face, which looks less horrified than bored. “Oh,” she seems to say. “A dead body. How droll.”

Fortunately, Mamet knows his way around drama, and there are few points on this thrilling, noir roller-coaster where the energy escapes his nimble hands. True, there are twists that can be guessed. Some viewers never seem to tire of awarding themselves gold stars for predicting each left turn. Do yourselves a favor and try to enjoy the magic Mamet has put on film. He might be trying to put one over on you, but like Margaret, you can’t help but grin instead of feeling cheated.

Andrew Good is a film critic and writer living in San Diego.

Post a Comment