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In 1987, nothing else looked or sounded quite like House of Games. David Mamet’s debut film was a welcome throwback to the primacy of character and careful story construction, at a time when narrative intricacy was in short supply on American movie screens. On the one hand, we were seeing an abundance of films in which style and storytelling were less intertwined than running side by side, if not neck and neck. On the other hand, we were well into the cookie-cutter stage of American moviemaking, now pervasive, with its preponderance of last-minute saves and therapeutic epiphanies.
Yet even if you were familiar with his stage triumphs American Buffalo and Glengarry Glen Ross, Mamet’s lessons in the art of the con and his finely honed interchanges between poker-souled men in quiet, artfully darkened rooms (courtesy of cinematographer Juan Ruiz Anchía) still felt bracingly, winningly different. House of Games was at once arcane and unprecedented in its obsessive commitment to a dingy, threadbare poetry—of wooden doors opening and closing, poker chips stacked and spread, notebook pages turned and smoothed. Mamet seemed to be looking past Robert Rossen’s The Hustler (1961), with its existentially shaded rhythms, and back to the most beautifully crafted B movies of the forties (such as William Castle’s When Strangers Marry or Val Lewton’s RKO horror output), in which much was made from little and every basic element of film grammar (pace, rhythm, visual scale) counted. Moreover, few filmmakers in the eighties had gone so deep into the thrilling textures of spoken language. This was before the Coen brothers hit their verbal stride with Miller’s Crossing (1990), before the torrents of obscene poetry in Full Metal Jacket (1987) and Goodfellas (1990) impacted film culture. Mamet’s film was (and is) excitingly language centered. “Ooh, you’re a bad pony. I’m not gonna bet on you!” This was not nostalgic arcana. It was language as fine craftsmanship, every sentence mentally worked and polished by the speaker. It was, as always with Mamet, the sparkling lingua franca of a particular, and particularly tough, moral universe. The rhythms and cadences are recognizably those of their creator, but Mamet offers us more than just a novel verbal flavor. In his plays and films, to speak is not merely to act but to defend one’s self.
Probe. Reveal. Conceal. Parry. Thrust. Behavioral jousting is a constant in Mamet’s work, from his theatrical debut, Sexual Perversity in Chicago, in the early seventies, through his masterful screenplay for Sidney Lumet’s The Verdict (1982), and up to the present, with his recent TV series The Unit. Every setting is a battleground, and language is the handmade weapon of choice. Words always have weight in Mamet, particularly when they’re spoken in the regionally accented voices of Ricky Jay (of Brooklyn), the late J. T. Walsh (of San Francisco), or Joe Mantegna (of Chicago). “Guy’s got a full house, you got two pair—puts you in a philosophically indefensible position,” says Mantegna. This is the hard American poetry of Melville’s confidence man and Dreiser’s Hurstwood, of Fred Allen and Saul Bellow, boiled down to its purest form. And in House of Games, Mamet is careful to let us hear every . . . single . . . word. And comma. And ellipsis. And pause. Few directors have ever paid such strict attention to syntax, emphasis—whether the words come easily (Mantegna, Jay, Lilia Skala) or uneasily (Karen Kohlhaas, Steven Goldstein, and, to a certain extent, Lindsay Crouse, in the lead) appears to be of little consequence. If such hyperbolic control became problematic in some of the films that followed (I’m thinking of 1988’s Things Change, in particular, where there was no such thing as a walk-on, every wild line was written, and the airlessness blunted the comedy), it was all of a piece with the conning and bluffing of his debut.
Who is the mark and who is the master of the game? What is the real thing and what is the carefully crafted facsimile? This is always the question in Mamet. The last word of fate, the final turn in the narrative, is a moment of supreme shame for the victim. As in: I let my guard down, I didn’t watch closely enough, I wasn’t careful enough, so this is what I deserve. There is no such thing as an accident in Mamet’s world. There is only what is known and what is unknown. Who has paid the most attention? Who knows the most? This is an undeniably harsh model of existence, perhaps a peculiarly Jewish one. “It never stops,” utters one character to another in (Homicide, 1991), in reference to the persecution of Jews. To stave off any more catastrophes, we must all sleep with both eyes open and be always on the lookout for the Freudian slips and “tells” of our enemies.
One aspect of House of Games that makes it relatively anomalous among Mamet’s films is the presence of Lindsay Crouse—at the time, Mrs. Mamet—as the psychiatrist and best-selling author who ventures into the “authentically” dangerous world of the big, bad con men in search of self--revelation. As has often been remarked, Mamet’s is an almost exclusively male world. Not that his women are decorative afterthoughts, as they are in so much of American cinema, but his imagination seems most fully captivated and sparked by men and what transpires between them (one welcome exception: Rebecca Pidgeon, the current Mrs. Mamet, as Kate in her husband’s adaptation of Terrence Rattigan’s The Winslow Boy, from 1999). In the memory, House of Games plays as a “male” film. Which is why the spectacle of the uptight, buttoned-down Crouse playing power games with the silken-toned, lovably rock-solid Mantegna is strange in ways that Mamet may never have intended. Crouse has always been one of the least “girly” actresses in movies, and her inherent mannishness here is increased tenfold by the mannish outfits presumably chosen by her director. Sexual power-gaming and violation are introduced, even felt, but they ultimately seem incidental to the universal distrust at the heart of the film. Given the hypnotic uniformity of the dialogue and the action, Crouse at times comes across as more of an alternate male than a member of another sex altogether. Not that it hurts the film. On the contrary, the sexual negation of its principal character only adds to its hauntingly denatured tone, befitting a cautionary pageant of moral vigilance.
To go into any more details of the plot of House of Games would be to deprive first-time viewers of the pleasure of its intricate unfolding, and the many gratifying surprises along the way (to even indicate which characters are caught off guard and why would be to say too much). Pleasure is the key word. Despite the stern moral urgency of Mamet’s voice, his plays and certain of his films (such as The Winslow Boy and 2004’s Spartan) are immensely satisfying experiences. And they are satisfying in ways that few films are right now. They are tales told by a master, full of perfectly calibrated sound and exquisitely modulated fury, signifying nothing extraneous to their troubling essences.
Kent Jones is Film Comment's editor at large and a frequent contributor to the magazine, as well as to many other publications around the world.