Margaret Ford (Lindsay Crouse) is a best-selling, self-help author and psychiatrist, as well as a chain-smoking work-a-holic. Her façade is cool and collected, but there is something missing from her life, something that, despite her professional accomplishments and penetrating intellect, has eluded her: a disavowed, deviant yearning.
Her only connection to non-worked-related-reality is through her mentor, Dr. Littauer (Lilia Skala). Margaret shows honesty and warmth only in Littauer’s presence; everyone else gets the cold shoulder. Her patients and her fawning public are not privy to her actual personality. No matter — turns out that the good doctor might not be entirely in touch with her own personality.
This woman is in a state of flux: she is quickly becoming more recognizable to fans (thanks in part to the success of her newest book), much to her dismay. The lonely Margaret, in the midst of a professional renaissance, begins to think about her purpose in life. As she suppresses her inner existential histrionics, she walks abruptly into an outer world filled with danger and less-than-savory, tough-talking, sleazy types. She begins exploring her fascination with the dark underbelly of her psychic and physical environment in earnest.
Billy (Steven Goldenstein), a patient, becomes the catalyst through which she gains entry into the criminal underworld when he brings up a $25,000 debt he owes to a loan shark. Under extreme duress (he thinks he is going to be killed by the bookie), the young man waves a gun wildly about and threatens suicide in the doctor’s office, but Margaret manages to calm him down, deciding it would be best to tackle his problem herself.
Her curiosity piqued and her face expressionless, Margaret wanders off into the hazy night, in search of “The House of Games” — a bar and gambling joint in the section of town where rotten tenements boast rusty, decrepit fire escapes that rattle in the dank breeze, and where all of the streetlights seem to have been busted out. It is an intimidating locale (straight out of a pulpy ’40s noir), but Margaret continues on through the sewers that ooze out corrosive smoke.
Looking inside the bar for “Mike” (Joe Mantegna), the “bad guy” who holds her patient’s IOU, Margaret is out of place but somehow not out of her element. She aggressively goes to bat for Billy, explaining to the conman that her patient has a disease. “Let’s talk turkey, this is a sick kid”, she snaps at Mike, in one of many hard-boiled, rapid-fire exchanges between the two characters. The dialogue positively crackles and the characters’ repartee never gets too stagy or contrived. The script is economical and lean, and Mamet’s skills as a playwright (and his theatrical background) are able to magnificently shine through in his use of crisp language. Mamet’s subversion of the dominant gender narrative by writing his lead as a woman rather than a man, and a professional, powerful, independent woman at that (and isn’t that every man’s nightmare?), makes the morality tale even more fresh.
The very confident Mike says that he will tear up Billy’s marker if the doctor helps him with a quick con (Mantegna plays these scenes smoothly, oozing a mesmerizing charisma). He impresses her with his ability to immediately recognize her “tell” (her unconscious, but perceivable signals that give her secrets away), and he lures Margaret into participating in a con. But their plan doesn’t work, and they are asked to pay up $6,000 through the barrel of a gun.
With her cunning observant abilities, Margaret spots the whole event as a con, to which Mike and his co-conspirators acquiesce. Invigorated, Margaret gets mixed up in their social world, drinking in their tricks and ability to deceive. She seems to be fine with going along with all of the little scams being perpetrated by the conmen, but as the gags incrementally and inevitably become more and more serious, she is forced to be a criminal herself.
Initially, Mamet was going to do the film as a big-budget Hollywood spectacle, but wisely decided at the last minute to do it on the cheap with his then-wife, Crouse, and his good friend and frequent theatrical collaborator, Mantegna. The central performances of these actors are essential to the film’s success; the story would have not worked as well with two “name” actors in the lead roles, and relies heavily on the unlikely chemistry between Crouse and Mantegna.
While the initial impression of House of Games might be that it is simply film about grifters, repeated viewings reveal an emotionally compelling, mysterious story about a middle-aged, professional woman’s longing for excitement in her life and the lengths she will go to in order to get it. By participating in the cons, Margaret becomes engrained in a world so far removed from her own existence that she is able to re-awaken something that has been long dormant: her sex drive. There is great detail given to the character’s brusque look and to her physical composition: big shoulder pads, sexless blouses, a very butch haircut, and very little make-up all conspire to trick viewers into thinking Margaret is almost mannish.
As a profound exploration of a woman struggling with the revelation that her profession is similar to a con game, House of Games soars. Crouse, in particular, is an actress who was (and is) rarely given her due, despite being almost omni-present (and Oscar-nominated in 1984 for Places in the Heart) in interesting supporting roles since the ’80s. The actress plays Margaret as a woman without joy who, at first playfully, pushes her own comfort levels, but then comes totally unraveled and out of control. It is an introspective, fascinating character performance that is buoyed by Mamet’s script at every precise turn. In a year where the Brooklyn-accented shenanigans of Cher took home the Academy Award (for the terrible Moonstruck), it is a shame that Crouse wasn’t given more consideration for this intriguing, unique piece of work alongside her partner.
Mamet’s directorial debut is assured. Visually, his eye for an unfussy, rhythmically-sound scene is impeccable and he fills every frame with deliberate, controlled movement and bright shocks of bold reds and greens. In the sequence when Margaret first enters the House of Games, Mamet fills the screen with acrid smoke outside the bar that slowly creeps across the screen until it envelopes the entire picture, highlighted only by fizzling neon signs. This is a first film that is as self-possessed as it is under-seen. With the elusive Mamet, it seems that he is most comfortable working within the realm of theater. But House of Games clearly demonstrates his talent in cinema. Mamet’s visual acumen is aided tremendously by his script – filled with solid, meaty dialogue, each word endowed with significance.
The twists, turns, and thrills, combined with Criterion’s scrupulous transfer and gorgeous packaging make this new release one of the nicest surprises of the year. For film collectors and aficionados, the clichés about Criterion happen to be true: they are really dedicated to preserving cinematic uniqueness and films that sometimes fly too dangerously below the radar. Criterion continues to uphold a surprising level of excellence in bringing fans the work of some of the most vital artists to ever work in the medium. A behind-the-scenes documentary with the reclusive Mamet (filmed around the time the movie was made), a Mamet commentary, and the interviews with Crouse, Mantegna, and “Con Consultant” and actor Ricky Jay are delicious cherries on top.