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HOUSE OF GAMES(director/writer: David Mamet; screenwriter: from a story by Jonathan Katz; cinematographer: Juan Ruiz Anchia; editor: Trudy Ship; music: Alaric Jans; cast: Lindsay Crouse (Dr. Margaret Ford), Joe Mantegna (Mike), Mike Nussbaum (Joey), Lilia Skala (Dr. Littauer), JT Walsh (The Businessman), Steve Goldstein (Billy Hahn), Ricky Jay (George/Vegas Man), Jack Wallace (Bartender), William Macy (Sgt. John Moran); Runtime: 102; Filmhaus/Orion; 1987)
“What intrigues is the con games themselves, as Mamet’s film explores with a certain joyous streak of mischief some of the tricks of the trade.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

This is Broadway playwright David Mamet’s film directorial debut. It’s a stylish dramatization of an unhappy shrink whose expertise is in dealing with addictive and obsessive behaviors. The shrink is searching for answers about her weaknesses through her connections with a confidence hustler, and risks losing the status she achieved in her orderly and safe world as she takes a walk on the wild side. Mamet’s direction is flat, his then wife Lindsay Crouse fails to give an uplifting performance as the shrink, and the film loses credibility as it bogs down into an unconvincing academic morality lecture filled with illogical psychological reverberations when all is said and done. What intrigues is the con games themselves, as Mamet’s film explores with a certain joyous streak of mischief some of the tricks of the trade. The scams fill the screen with an entertaining glance at those who have a need to con others. The film ties together the legit field of psychoanalysis with confidence players and boldly states the two are often similar hustles requiring the vic or patient to trust them completely.

Best-selling author of Driven and successful psychiatrist, Dr. Margaret Ford (Lindsay Crouse), treats a compulsive gambler patient named Billy Hahn (Goldstein). He tells her that he lost $25,000 to a gambler named Mike (Joe Mantegna) in a bar/pool hall called House of Games (an obvious metaphor for Mamet’s world of deception) and if he doesn’t pay him by tomorrow — he will die. This impels Maggie to go out on the limb for her patient and confront Mike, telling him that she knows he won’t kill Hahn because he will go to jail. Mike then works a staged hustle on her, where he says he will tear up Hahn’s IOU, which was only for $800, if she acts as a “tell” (those small giveaway looks that poker players unconsciously use that give away their hand) in a big-stake poker game so he can cheat a big-time gambler. She signals Mike that his opponent known as the Vegas man (Ricky Jay), touched his ring finger. This is supposed to mean that he’s bluffing. When Mike calls his bluff and then loses $6,000 Maggie is tricked into footing the bill, that is, until she sees through the scheme and the fake gun (a hint of the violence that’s to come later) the Vegas gambler pulls to act out his part in the scam. But this action excites her, and she returns to seek Mike out again. She tells him that she wants to write her next book about his confidence racket, and Mike agrees to have her follow him and his team around. The shrink is outwardly confident, but inside she feels insecure and is coming to the very confident con man for help in regaining her confidence. She feels contrite that she can’t really help her patients with the overwhelming problems they have, and wants to dig deep inside herself to see why.

This time the uptight shrink lets her guard down and falls for the confidence man’s lines and goes to bed with him. He then lures her into a scheme she can’t resist participating in, of a briefcase filled with $80,000 that’s found in the street by Mike, his con man partner Joe (Nussbaum), and a businessman (Walsh). She’s the mark, but she doesn’t realize it until she’s taken for $80,000 and her deep addiction to con people is revealed. Though her learning experience comes at a heavy price, she is grateful that she feels alive and has learned who she is.

For professional help she goes to her mentor, Dr. Littauer (Skala). He tells her “When you do something unforgivable, forgive yourself.” Both trades seem to rely on having self-confidence as their mainstay and do not seem concerned that they might be swindling another so that only they can benefit.

Mantegna and the ensemble cast of Mamet theater regulars, deliver their stagy lines with a precise staccato cadence, an aggressive crispness, and in the distinctive manner the playwright intended. Their performances are right on the mark. In this study of human nature, it shows how trust can be misplaced if given to the wrong person — it can even bring down someone not driven by greed or someone who is earnest in their search for solutions to their problems. The lessons from experience often have a wicked sting, and Mamet has a good ear to hear those inward cries.

REVIEWED ON 7/17/2002 GRADE: B –

Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”