Wednesday, May 7, 2014

CANON OF FILM: "HOUSE OF GAMES"

HOUSE OF GAMES (1987) 

Director: David Mamet
Screenplay: David Mamet based on a story by Jonathan Katz and David Mamet



I wonder if we've just become a little too sophisticated in the art of the con nowadays for "House of Games" to truly effect us the way it originally did back in '87. Of course, a good reason why we are so knowledgeable is because of David Mamet. He's one of the greatest American writers/playwrights alive and arguably ever, and one of the best compliments a close friends of mine/co-workers ever gave me, was when describing my writing to an actress friend of hers, said that I wrote like David Mamet. On some level, all of Mamet's work  essentially revolves around a con of some kind. Somebody putting up a front or an image, a fake, in order to get something to work. Whether it's an actual con game like here with "House of Games" or "The Spanish Prisoner", or whether it's pulling a con on the public, like his script for "Wag the Dog" that he co-wrote, or his play about insurance salesmen "Glengarry Glen Ross" or even movie-making itself, the art of portraying a lie as reality, like his great comedy "State and Main". Even people trying to con each themselves into a life they think they want, the inspiration for his famous play "Sexual Perversity in Chicago", which he been adapted to film twice now as "About Last Night...".  "House of Games" was his directorial debut; his biggest film success previously was the screenplay for Sidney Lumet's courtroom drama "The Verdict". Based on an idea from Mamet and stand-up comedian Jonathan Katz (Yeah, for people my age, the one from "Dr. Katz: Professional Therapist") the film begins with Margaret Ford (Lindsay Crouse) a psychoanalyst who's also a highly-popular author, often getting requested for interviews while walking to her classes or to her sessions with her patients. Her book and her focus is on obsessions, and one of her patients is a compulsive gambler, Billy Hahn (Steven Goldstein), who isn't as taking to Margaret's therapeutic techniques, and soon reveals that's he's in $25,000 deep to a gangster. Intrigued by the underworld, she decides to confront the gangster, Mike (Joe Mantegna) who turns out to be a con man. It's hard to describe the rest of the movie, without going into too much detail, although I wonder now, if we really need to. Nowadays, with most con movies, we know a con is going on, the trick is to figure out how they're gonna pull it off, and how exactly the victim, might get revenge (If they can/do). That's the weakest part of "House of Games" Margaret's retribution at the end, it's not bad, but it's the least compelling part of the film. The compelling aspects are when we dissect or try to dissect the scams that are going on, and how, when things go wrong (or at least look like they will) do they find a way to get out of it. The trick to "House of Games" that we hadn't seen before, was the Margaret character, because she came into the underworld with an analytical approach to, wanting to learn and see how the cons were done; she, like Mamet before, was an outsider studying the art of the con. She first gets invited by Mike, to observe a poker game that Mike's losing badly to a Vegas gambler named George (Magician Ricky Jay, who also served as a consultant on the film, being a con expert himself.) who's being very careful to hide his tell of playing with his wedding ring when he's bluffing. When Mike leaves in the middle of the hand, George plays with his wedding ring, and Margaret tells Mike to pay off his overbet. This is the first con, or the beginning of the con, or maybe not. The problem with these kind of movies is that, while it's fun to rewatch a film, like "The Usual Suspects" for instance, which are about the con, it's ultimately empty to rewatch, because while we see how the con was perpetuated, ultimately, like a con, it's just a bunch of smoke and mirrors. Some slight-of-hand and quick-of-tongue, that creates the ultimate illusion. Even an obsession or an addiction, like the one that Margaret has, are often hidden with a quick misdirection, the same way no obsessive gambler, gambles in the open, they keep in private. "House of Games" gave us a new approach to the material of a con, Mamet's approach. In a way, it's the key to all of his work, not just the inner workings of a con, but his fascination with pulling one off. I think the best comparison film is Kubrick's "The Killing" but even in that one, we had an interest in the outcome. Same with "The Sting", and other classic capers of cinema. Mamet's is fascinated with the execution, the real art, not the morality or the characters involved. Probably because, when you're in a con, whether artist or victim, you're already manipulated and playing a character. The other great scene in the set-up reveals this, and show Mike waiting at Western Union, for money that doesn't arrive, but he befriends another patron, a young Marine, (William H. Macy, in one of his very first roles.) by making him empathize. When the Marine's money comes in, he insists on giving Mike some money. Interestingly, he doesn't, 'cause there is no joy in conning an honest man, especially when they really need it. No, they must have enough that they won't mind giving away his money, and that they'd be thinking that they'll be getting more later. The victim is possessed by greed and hubris. That's the trick to Mamet's works. They're great, and we're always looking for more than there is, but in actuality, when the pull the curtain, it's just a movie set. The audience is the greedy hubris victims to Mamet's cons.
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