When slick con man Mike (Joe Mantegna) first meets haughty therapist Dr. Margaret Ford (Lindsay Crouse), he explains to her about how people have "tells." It's the little things a person does that gives away when he or she is lying. One of the men Mike is playing cards with (Ricky Jay), for instance, fiddles with his ring when he is bluffing in the game. Learn someone's tell, and you have the ability to predict what they are going to do next.
This is the crucial moment of David Mamet's 1987 debut, House of Games, when Margaret, whose specialty is studying compulsions and obsessions, decides to cross a line and observe criminal wildlife in its natural habitat. It's also the closest House of Games gets to having a tell of its own. Because if there is one thing that this snappy, dramatic crime flick doesn't do, it's telegraph to the viewer where it's going to go next. Mamet's ability to keep his cards to himself is what sets his movie above the average grifter picture.
We've had a lot of pretty okay con men movies in recent years, things like Matchstick Men and Confidence. While these films were decent enough the first time around, they fail the test of time because they are too hung up on their own need to try to trick the audience into falling for their narrative schemes. Watching them, you know that double-crosses are coming, and when it comes down to it, that's all those movies have. This means the watcher spends the entirety of the picture thinking ahead, guessing who is ultimately screwing whom. Once the magician has explained how he did it, his act ceases to be interesting.
Not so in House of Games. Mamet understands that in order to instigate a true cinematic sleight of hand, he has to look his audience dead in the eyes and give them something to watch. In House of Games, it's the tango Mike pulls Margaret into. The seduction of the criminal underworld is the true seduction of the movie, and we follow the good doctor into the back rooms and peek behind the curtain with her. There may be twists aplenty ahead of us, but we're too busy enjoying the polished dialogue and the charismatic performance of Joe Mantegna to ever glance at the map. This car is going straight ahead, and we'll take the curves as they come.
As a first time director, Mamet shows an assured hand. The script is based on a story he wrote with Jonathan Katz, best known for his Dr. Katz TV show. Presumably, though not a therapist himself, Katz provided a lot of the psychology and Mamet produced the marked cards. Though he may be able to guard the secrets of his narrative, the tell-tale signs of the Mamet style are already in evidence even as far back as 1987. It's kind of funny, because for other first-time directors, the arch tone and the stiff-necked camera movements would suggest a lack of confidence, but for Mamet they are the first signs of some of his best assets.
House of Games - Criterion Edition is a DVD I could watch over and over, even after knowing how Mamet creates his grand illusion. The script doesn't rely on cheap tricks, and his characters aren't straw men propped up to serve a function. Rather, it's an honest to goodness crime story with an underlying psychology that only makes the film get better the more you understand it. As a viewer, I am Mamet's willing patsy, and I'll let him take me for a ride whenever he feels like it.
Originally written August 19, 2007. For technical specs and special features, read the full article at DVD Talk.