David Mamet’s House of Games opens with Dr. Margaret Ford (Lindsay Crouse) signing an autograph for a fan who’s carrying her best-selling book, ‘Driven’ – about obsession and compulsion. After Margaret skips a lunch date with her colleague, we see her work with clients inside her office, placing their needs before her own. We meet an anxious Billy Hahn (Steven Goldstein), who brandishes a gun and threatens to commit suicide. Margaret de-escalates his overreaction, asks for the gun, he hands it to her willingly, then she puts it in her purse. Billy reveals that he’s in debt $25,000 from gambling, and if he doesn’t pay, they’ll kill him. Margaret goes over her notes from her sit with Billy, reading about his description of the infamous Mike Mancuso, a gambler, in addition to the address to the ‘House of Games’, an underground bar room where all the gamblers hangout to play pool, chess and monopoly in the front, while big poker games go on in the back. “You’re rich. You’re comfortable. You and your god damned book. It’s just talk. The whole thing is a god-damned con game.” Billy tells Margaret. It’s with this line of dialogue where Mamet conveys that con artists aren’t just card players and gamblers; they exist in all industries under the guises of Doctors, Lawyers, general managers or chief executive officers. In this case with Margaret, a former addict turned Psychiatrist who wrote a best-selling book, became rich and now attempts to work her way back into the public.
Trumpets, saxophones, piano melody’s and drumbeats accompany us on the soundtrack as Margaret walks through the dark city street of Seattle to enter the ‘house of games’ and confront Mike Mancuso (Joe Mantegna) a silk-suited, smooth-talking gambler who strides with ease. After she provokes him about her client Billy Hahn’s debt of $25K, she makes Mike to be more of an intimidator than a ruthless criminal. Mike genuinely seems bewildered at her claims, when he comes out with a rolodex informing her that it’s not 25 large that Billy owes, but a debt acknowledgment of $800 flat. Mike puts a coin in Margaret’s hand and teaches her what a ‘tell’ is by calling attention to how Margaret’s nose points slightly toward the hand she holds the coin in. He asks for her to be his pseudo-girlfriend during the poker game he’s playing with George (Ricky Jay), a bearded man he keeps losing to in the backroom. He offers to tear up Billy Hahn’s marker if she’ll help him call George’s bluff. Mike asks Margaret to pay attention to George fiddling with his pinky ring. After several hours of playing poker, through editing dissolve transitions, Mike goes to the bathroom, and Margaret notices George twist the ring. When Mike returns and is unable to call George’s $6,000 bet, Margaret offers to write a check if Mike loses, in which he does. George threatens for her to pay up, by brandishing a gun. Once she notices it’s literally a squirt gun, Margaret refuses to write the check. The lights in the poker room turn on, it’s revealed that Mike and George we’re attempting to con her for six-grand. The entire sequence was a confidence-trick attempting to rip-off Margaret.
Margaret stands outside in the night at a market across the street from the house of games where she’s shown magic tricks from Joey (Mike Nussbaum) using cash and envelopes on how to rip-off a clerk when asking for change to a large bill. As neon business signs flash around them, George unwraps an ice cream cone he just purchased, sitting on the curb in front various price tags advertising merchandise from the market. When Joey is finished with his illusionist trickery, Mike stuffs his hot dog back into his hand. In conjunction with the jazz sounds on the score, this sequence makes us feel like we’re in a carnival or at a flea market; everything is for sale and everything can be negotiated. David Mamet is a magician with his screenplay. What he does here in this scene is create an illusion, within a bigger illusion, for Margaret and the audience to become entangled in, as a distraction. Without revealing the plot twists for anyone who hasn’t seen this film, all that can be said is House of Games is one massive deception from the very beginning. The entire film is crafted as one masterful ploy. Mike and his crew are multiple steps ahead of Margaret and the audience. We know just as much as Margaret does. We jump into her skin as the plot’s intricacies unfold. When she learns information, we learn it too. The thorough sounds of the rhythmic dialogue written by Mamet creates a flow just as harmonious as the jazz piano melodies scored by Alaric Jans (The Winslow Boy). Playing cards and pin-ball machines, eating hot dogs and ice cream, poker, shady deals, cash-filled duffel bags, cigarettes, liquor, taverns, con artists and a Psychiatrist are all the elements that make this film one massive caper.
Dr. Margaret Ford wrote a book on how to cure oneself from addiction and forgive oneself. The film claims that making vast sums of money off of a self-help book is as much of a scam as defrauding innocent individuals of their money through confidence tricks in card clubs. Another fundamental statement in the film pertains to ruminating on the idea that we live in a country where every endeavor can be regarded as a swindle. “You assholes were going to con me out of my money!” Margaret shouts. “It’s only business, it’s the American way.” Joey responds. “I’m from the United States of kiss my ass!” Mike shouts in another scene. Mamet is referring to the consumer capitalist outline of America; how to take one dollar and turn it into two. “Everybody gets something out of every transaction.” Mike says, in a later scene. This is a film about how to make it in America. Whether you’re a former addict, who obtained a Ph.D. and wrote a best-selling book on forgiveness like Dr. Margaret Ford, or if you’re a confidence man like Mike, ripping-off people who may or may not deserve it, you both have something up your sleeves.
The craftily obscured rooms with dim lighting cast a shadow on the subject matter by the film’s cinematographer Juan Ruiz Anchia (Glengarry Glen Ross), with techniques that affect the audience subliminally. The creak of wooden doors opening and closing, poker chips clinging, dark alley’s with steam coming through hot sewer pipes, characters sitting in darkened taverns ordering liquor and food with an undertone of blues melodies, pianos, saxophones and drum beats of Jazz music add an enchanting quality to the inclusive vibes of the film. David Mamet is one of a kind in his attention paid to the spoken word of the English language which probably stems from his roots of being a pure writer of books, essays, poetry, plays, and here with writing a screenplay and making his directorial debut with House of Games. For those who have been acquainted with David Mamet’s books, plays, or poetry, know that he’s stringent upon using commas, semi-colons, ellipsis, pauses and periods. As a reader of his body of work, you know to obey the particulars of his sentence construction by keeping up with the rhythms he intends, and you don’t mind doing it because you’re in good hands.
Each character in every scene has an objective; someone wants something from someone else and they want it with urgency. There is a magnetic consistency in the rhythm of the dialogue. The characters speak clearly and enunciate every written word. Whether it’d be a west coast articulation from San Francisco, a Midwest enunciation from Chicago, or an east coast pronunciation from Brooklyn, every actor recites the words in the dialogue with clarity, while staying authentic to the accent of their region. You can hear the commas, ellipses, and periods with every line delivered by the actors, who perform as if it’s theatre; where the playwright is god. The questions we constantly ask ourselves throughout the progression of the film is: who’s playing who? And why? House of Games is a masterfully crafted story that unfolds intricately with intellectual twists written by David Mamet, one of the greatest writers alive in the world today. Nothing sums this film up better than one line of dialogue delivered by Ricky Jay in the first act when playing poker: “You want to win the hand? You’ve got to stay until the end.”