House of Games” was Roger Ebert’s No. 1 movie of 1987 and is one of my pal Michael Olinger’s top three movies of all time, and I can see why. Written and directed by David Mamet with Jonathan Katz assisting on the story, this movie about confidence men is as meticulously crafted as one of their long cons. As I thought afterward about how specific plot points held up, I found they did, without exception. “House of Games” was clearly not rushed into production.
As great as the film is, I recommend it with reservations. The deliberate attention to screenplay detail carries over to the filmmaking. “House of Games” is made in an old-school style, even though 1987 is a relatively modern time. If a scene has background actors, they’re almost standing still like set decoration. Shots will linger only on what Mamet wants you to take in: the titular brick building on a corner of a downtown street, with wet pavement and steam precisely emerging from grates. A man who can be seen in a smoke-filled room only through a crack in the doorway. And the gunshots and blood aren’t exactly realistic; there’s not much of that stuff, and they aren’t the point.
Despite having several characters, “House of Games” often feels like a two-person play. Lindsay Crouse (Maggie Walsh in “Buffy” Season 4) plays Maggie Ford, who has authored a megahit book about obsessive-compulsive disorder. Maggie’s friend advises that she should not be so work-obsessed, that she should make time for joy in her life. But writing is what she loves, and she decides to make her next book about the art of the con.
Joe Mantegna (“The Simpsons’ ” Fat Tony) is Mike, the con man she can’t get enough of. Even after an initial con at a poker table is aimed at her, she wants to learn more about cons, and he’s willing to let her in. The audience is right there with her as the stakes get higher.
While “House of Games” relies a lot on its style and plot twists, the two leads are magnetic. Crouse does one of the most subtle acting jobs I can think of. She doesn’t smile more than once, and she’s always well put-together, yet a viewer can feel her emotions swing as she dives deeper into this underground world.
Mantegna, rather than being an Italian mobster (or at least from that stock, as seeps into many of his roles), plays Mike as thoughtful and charming. No question, his cons have ruined people’s lives (although he notes that he’s never physically hurt anyone), but we can see why Maggie is drawn into his world. She is a revered author, but here is someone whose intellectual genius tops her own.
“House of Games” will be an utter turn-off to people who want fast-paced action, realistic violence, bombastic performances or eye-candy set design. Indeed, they’ll turn it off before the 30-minute mark. The picture thrives on the craftsmanship of the script and low-key but rich performances. It’s about the subtleties of human behavior that most people don’t think about exploiting. It teaches a viewer about the art of the con and the con man’s world – a fascinating alternate dimension sitting parallel to reality.