House of Games

Studio: The Criterion Collection

May 24, 2019 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share


David Mamet’s dialogue is famous for being hardnosed and hostile. In the right hands it sings, but it requires a lot of confidence. One wrong reading and it can sound silly in a hurry.

In his overlooked, 2001 thriller Heist, Gene Hackman gets away with saying “I want you as quiet as an ant not even thinking about pissing on cotton,” because, well, he’s Gene Hackman. In Bill Hader’s hit HBO comedy Barry, his hitman-turned-wannabe actor, eager to please his acting class, is forced to recite the famous Cadillac-and-steak-knives “Always be closing” monologue from Glengarry Glen Ross. It’s hilarious when it’s clear he has never seen the production and has absolutely no clue that steak knives as a second prize to a Cadillac is an insult. When Alec Baldwin memorably delivered the relentless pantsing of the assembled salesman in the film version, real arrogance and contempt dripped from every line. Barry sounds like he’s awarding gold stars to kindergartners.

All this is to say, House of Games, the first film Mamet directed after a decade of writing, has most of the hallmarks of a great Mamet script, but the acting sells it short. Lindsay Crouse plays lead as Margaret Ford, a psychiatrist with a best-selling book who’s losing confidence in herself and her trade and looks to find excitement in the Seattle’s darker corners. She meets Joe Montagne’s conman Mike and his circle of thieves, and asks to tag along, ostensibly for research into her next book. Despite her wooden performance, it’s clear Ford is enjoying Mike, thievery and conning for more than professional reasons.

Montagne fares OK, but his years of stage work on the original Broadway run of Glengarry Glen Ross lends his voice a too-articulated quality, like he’s still trying to reach the back of the audience when there is a camera and microphone right in front of him. He sounds like an actor out of time, like the quieter realism of the ‘70s never happened. It’s a shame, because there are moments when it’s clear Chicago-native Montagne feels right at home in streetwise Mike’s shoes.

Mamet’s characters nearly always inhabit a macho world, tough guys positioning and scheming for alpha dog position, and he has rightly received his share of criticism for excluding strong women from his stories. That makes House of Games unique, in that Ford is the center of this story, and not Mike. At times it’s as though she wandered into a Mamet set at the disapproval of the male characters. She encounters outright hostility and misogyny from Mike’s crew, which at least reads more like representation than endorsement in the script.

This new, beautiful reissue of House of Games from Criterion showcases the brilliant neo-noir reds of vinyl booths, the green of a pool table’s felt, or neon signs reflecting off rainy streets. In this throwback environment, the plot clicks and turns and reverses on itself several times in thrilling fashion with the help of outstanding supporting performances. Ricky Jay, the slight-of-hand master, lends credibility to the cast of con men, leaving a slimy residue on every scene. William H. Macy appears as a clueless mark, of course, ready for grifting. The short cons set the stage for the long con, with Mike giving Ford a truncated lesson on gambling, reading an opponent’s “tells,” and how to convince someone to give you money for nothing. Mamet has fun testing audience expectations and perspective against those of the characters on screen, who often don’t realize they’re behind the eight ball until well after the audience has. It’s a clever spin on both situational and dramatic irony that manages to tell us about the characters and plot in nearly equal measure. Whether Mamet attempts to draw a comparison between psychiatrists and conmen is never nearly as clear, instead he focuses on his feature-length slight-of-hand, tells and all.

Follow Ed McMenamin on twitter at @EdMcMenamin.

(www.criterion.com/films/831-house-of-games)




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