I was struggling to describe what makes House of Games good to my mother. Over lunch, the day following Thanksgiving, describing what made the film function was a struggle.
Hearing the words came out of my mouth, they all sounded so bland. Something about the way con-man, therapist, cards, and others stumbled out as my rambling to my mom sounded unoriginal. It was hard to describe the spell it cast upon me.
When talking about David Mamet’s debut masterpiece, the words of Orson Welles immediately come to mind, in the introduction of his 1973 masterpiece,F for Fake. Welles tells the audience “Ladies and gentleman, by way of introduction, this is a film about trickery, fraud, about lies.” House of Games doesn’t announce this though. He opens by letting us meet Margaret Ford, a self-help writer and therapist. Lindsay Crouse as Margaret Ford is the weakest point of the film, giving us a robotic performance that doesn’t always work, which makes the first moments of this film off putting. We’re not quite sure what we are getting into as a audience, given the opening scenes, as we meet different of Ford’s patients, but as soon as Mamet almost loses us, we finally stumble upon the first plot point. Billy Hahn (Steven Goldstein), one of Ford’s patients, leads her to a underworld of con-men.
It all sounds too easy, a therapist goes to a seedy underbelly of society, chaos ensues. Before your mind wanders to Analyze This, the film picks up at these moments. The scene where we meet Joe Mantegna’s Mike. Mike is thrilling, primarily because Mantegna’s dry performance works perfectly to offset Crouse’s performance. He does this by creating a sense of command with his words. He perfectly portrays quiet confidence to a tee, perfectly enough to convince Ford to do a favor for him, which leads to the entire film, and the first con being set up. The following scene, with a excellent performance from the recently passed Ricky Jay as George, is one of my favorite of all time. The scene works with a swift and tense con that opens us to the word of deceit.
Mike brings Margaret into his world, and soon after a whirlwind of trickery, fraud, and lies, the film slowly spins a web of tight writing and deliberately quick plotting. Mamet also perfectly bypasses any caution the viewer would have towards the events unfolding, using pace at his advantage. The mind of the viewer never wanders over to the fast events, because new information is coming at you so rabidly. He writes the second act in a whirlwind that moves with such swift efficiency that as soon as it’s over, another con has been pulled on the audience. The second con in House of Games is the kicker, the one that brings us to end, but the tight writing is what really delivers us there. From the excellent final scene, to the plot resolution directly before, the entire 3rd act is thrilling and fascinating.
House of Games easily shows that Mamet was in perfect control from Day 1. From the way he directs his actors to create the lack of emotion (which became a trademark of his), to the tight script, to a visual sense that shows strength, Mamet knew what he was doing. You can feel the skill, that was effortless here, all the way throughout his career.
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