Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: Just in time for Runner Runner, we deal five movies about gamblers.
House Of Games (1987)
In a literal sense, gambling plays only a small part in David Mamet’s directorial debut. But more broadly, gambling—and especially the pathology that underlies its most addictive forms—runs all the way through it. Lindsay Crouse, Mamet’s then-wife, plays a psychiatrist specializing in compulsive behavior—and one who, not surprisingly, is susceptible to it herself. She’s drawn into the secret space of a backroom by a short con: A nervous, desperate-looking patient (Steven Goldstein) needs money or his creditors will take the debt out of his hide. But a botched payoff pulls back the curtain on a group of seasoned grifters, including Mamet regulars Ricky Jay and Joe Mantegna, the latter offering to be Crouse’s guide into the world of professional tricksters.
Mamet has written often, and eloquently, about poker, so it’s not surprising that the scene in which Crouse watches the swindlers play cards is full of dry-aged card-table mantras: “If you wanna win the hand, you gotta stay in ’til the end”; “Let’s go visit Mr. More”; “You can’t bluff someone who isn’t paying attention.” Outside of Some Came Running, there’s no scene in movies that so well conveys the hostile camaraderie of the poker table, and the inventiveness that comes from dreaming up lines while waiting for others to place their bets.
As a director, Mamet doesn’t display the stylistic assurance here he’d show in later films like Spartan; visually, much of House Of Games is static and airless, the moody lighting trapping the actors like flies in amber. But watching his theater regulars work their magic with his dialogue and be led astray by the switchback plot is a delight, at least for those who don’t mind being taken for a sucker.
Availability: House Of Games is available on Criterion DVD, for rental or purchase from the major digital providers, and through Netflix’s disc delivery service.