Best Gambling Movies #25 (House of Games)
This is a new writing series. Title this — “The Best Gambling Movies of All Time.” Today, we begin with #25. Each selection will include a new review as though I’m seeing the film for the first time. Let the countdown begin!
Title and Year: House of Games (1987)
Director: David Mamet
Writer: David Mamet
Actors: Lindsay Crouse – Joe Mantegna – Ricky Jay
Synopsis: Con artists attempt to swindle a wealthy psychiatrist.
House of Games is a good film with several great scenes. It is far better for these mesmerizing individual sequences involving elaborate cons and gambling activities than for the complete sum of its parts.
This is writer-director David Mamet’s first film and it doesn’t just have his fingerprints all over the plot so much as his entire fist. If anyone grabbed the exalted mantel void left by Alfred Hitchcock and his genius at interweaving plot with suspense sprinkled with unexpected twists and turns, it’s Mamet here in his prime. This is a craftsman comfortably at home with subject matter he knows very well and who is confident enough to take unconventional paths when least expected.
Mahmet isn’t venturing anyplace we haven’t seen in movies before, yet his faithful take on the heartless skills of angle-shooters and unscrupulous opportunists is as genuine as we’ve ever seen on film. There’s something deliciously dubious about cons and these con-men that compels us to watch, and, strange as it seems — even to admire them. This universal fascination with their craft sets up several wonderful scenes in the film and includes many different types of swindles — one at a poker table, another out on the open street, yet another at a Western Union office, one inside a hotel room, and finally, a double-double cross at the end.
House of Games includes an excellent cast of talented actors playing dubious characters, led by Joe Mantegna in the starring role. However, Lindsay Crouse, who was married to Mamet at the time this movie was created and released, plays the female lead who is “the mark” for the con. Crouse, who was so outstanding in the small but superlative role as the bitter nurse in The Verdict with Paul Newman, plays a victim who is drawn to the chase like a moth to a flame. Indeed, the magnetism of this underworld is equally frightening and fascinating. It’s why we watch.
Also of note is the late card magician and versatile character actor Ricky Jay, who appears in the memorable poker scene.
There’s also something wonderfully intriguing about the audience’s confusion as to who to root for exactly. Who is the hunter and prey and how much of what they do is of their own doing?
Let’s also credit the film with something rarely seen in movies. It doesn’t dumb down the subject matter. Instead, it treats us as capable of learning along the way as we go along. Each scene becomes a building block to a higher grade and more elaborate con.
House of Games would be ranked considerably higher on my list were it not for a lackluster ending that simply doesn’t meet the rest of the film’s level of tension. It’s a wonderful roller coaster ride but delivers no grand finale, though I defy anyone who hasn’t seen the film to predict how it will end.
Though it’s since become a cult-classic for Mamet-devotees, initially House of Games was a bomb at the box office. Despite the excellent reviews (noted film critic Roger Ebert listed it as one of the best films of the year), the movie received only a limited showing in public theaters. Orion decided against spending money for additional prints and advertising and instead sent the film straight to cable TV and video sales.
Fortunately, the studio’s error was our gift. More than three decades after its release, House of Games has taken a rightful place among the best movies ever made about scams, cons, swindlers, and the artistry of the trade.