House Of Games Is A Twisty But Satisfying Noir Thriller
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Because film has been around for more than a hundred years, and stories for far longer than that, it’s entirely possible that a movie genre could use and reuse a thousand old recycled plotlines. There is, after all, nothing new under the sun; it’s up to a film director and the writers to find a way to make things fresh as new stories keep being churned out year after year. But every now and then, there comes a piece of film that’s completely original and subversive that there’s nothing one can do but to pay attention. Playwright and writer turned director David Mamet’s first film, House of Games from 1987, is one such movie that stands out from the pack by not being a run-of-the-mill crime story. You’ll see why in this review.
In House of Games, Lindsay Crouse plays Margaret Ford, a successful but unfulfilled psychiatrist. She has a session with a new patient Billy Hahn (played by Steven Goldstein) who is on the run from the mob led by a man we simply know as Mike, after owing a huge amount of money to them. Billy is suicidal because of this. Margaret wants to help him out and save him from committing suicide.
Margaret visits a pool hall that’s owned by Mike (played by Joe Mantegna) and confronts him. Mike, a con man, is actually willing to waive Billy’s debt if Margaret would use her analytical skills from her training as a psychiatrist to help him beat another man in a backroom poker game. It’s from this moment that Margaret falls deeper and deeper into the criminal underworld, realizing that she actually has a knack and desire for criminal activity (due to the unfulfillment of her otherwise successful career).
Margaret, who is fully charmed by Mike’s criminal life and ability, accompanies him to big cons and eventually end up accidentally killing a police officer after a sting. It turns out that Mike has borrowed a huge amount of money, to the tune of $80,000, from the Mafia for a big con, and that briefcase containing the money had been lost. Margaret discovers that the whole thing is actually a huge con played by Mike on her to steal her life savings, and she eventually sets her own con in motion, successfully tricking Mike, but the whole thing comes to a point where she has to kill Mike out of necessity. The movie ends with Margaret stealing little things just to feel the thrill of the act.
If you haven’t discovered House of Games yet, then you should definitely go out of your way to find it. Here’s the trailer to tease you on what you’ve been missing:
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House of Games is such a clever and unheralded film. So much so that Roger Ebert himself gave it four stars in his review, which is no small feat for a first-time film director such as David Mamet. I’m inclined to agree with him: the twist alone, the way Lindsay Crouse’s character is made to look superior by the end of the movie is something relatively unheard of back in 1987, the year the movie was released. Joe Mantegna, a stage actor, as the loan shark and con man Mike is also wonderful in this film, as he brings enough force and gravitas to the role to make all threats and looming danger seem real, even though he doesn’t seem so imposing at first glance.
It also helps that an accomplished writer such as Mamet is the one penning the entire script; as a result, the conversations in House of Games feel and sound like music. There’s a certain rhythm and cadence that’s unmistakable, a forerunner of Aaron Sorkin’s modern copious amounts of word salad, a stylistic prototype that some writers may have been inspired by.
As a result, it’s a joy to listen to characters speak in House of Games, because they utilize all sorts of tempos for conversation depending on the situation. Some times it’s slowed down, sometimes it’s frenetic, but it’s never monotonous, and that’s always a joy.
Mamet also does a good job of placing House of Games in a dark, gloomy setting that perfectly matches the deep themes and layers of his film’s story. As mentioned above, there’s never just one thing happening in the story, and the dark, rainy streets of Seattle (where the movie was shot) lends just enough cover and darkness to hide everything that the story has to offer, and all the little tells that give it away, just like in the game of poker. When the twist finally unfolds and reveals itself for the viewer to appreciate, the film’s audience will have been blinded enough by the beautifully dark atmosphere.
If you want a crime thriller/neo-noir movie that’s universally praised by reviews wherever you look, and you want something you’ve never ever seen before, I can guarantee you that you probably haven’t seen House of Games unless you’re a major film buff. Go watch it and be amazed at what a skilled writer (and director) could do without having to use major film stars or a big budget. This movie isn’t fun and games at all. Well, if you count the big game being played on you, the viewer and the consumer of the story. That’s the only one that matters at this point, and I bet you’ll love the fact that you were played after the whole thing.
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