A major touchstone for the current generation of moody neo-noirs, David Mamet's 1987 directorial debut House Of Games brings a romantic sort of intrigue and mystery to the smoky back rooms where fortunes are lost to cardsharps and con artists. Mamet's story, about a psychiatrist who infiltrates this secret world, recall the classic fable in which a frog reluctantly agrees to carry a scorpion across a river and winds up getting stung, causing both to drown. When the frog asks why, the scorpion replies, "It's in my nature." In this scenario, Mamet's sympathies ultimately lie with the scorpion, represented here by a polished con man whose nature is to deceive; as Edward Norton's card cheat in Rounders (which owes this movie royalties) unapologetically puts it, "I see a mark, I take him down. That's what I do." Men like that—professionals, even in a disreputable trade—tend to get Mamet's deepest respect.
Though plays like American Buffalo and Glengarry Glen Ross had established Mamet as a force in the theater world, his staccato dialogue (affectionately known as Mamet-speak) took some getting used to, especially when it spilled awkwardly from the mouth of his then-wife Lindsay Crouse. Crouse's performance in House Of Games is an acquired taste, to put it kindly, but her feckless psychiatrist gains dimension and resolve as she's drawn deeper into a seductive criminal underworld. Tired of her inability to help patients, Crouse decides to take action when one of them, a compulsive gambler, comes to her with a massive debt. When she meets his bookkeeper, the silky smooth Joe Mantegna, she's so seduced by his lifestyle that she asks to play sidekick on his con schemes. For Mantegna, she proves a willing, easy mark.
Produced a couple of years before sex, lies, and videotape reignited the independent scene and created a market that hadn't previously existed, House Of Games looked like an odd duck; in the audio commentary, Mamet jokes that when Siskel and Ebert called it the year's best film, his distributor took advantage by not releasing it. The clipped tough-guy language, Juan Ruiz Anchía's rich chiaroscuro lighting, the layers of "short cons" and larger deceptions—they're all elements of a genre whose time had passed, but that Mamet was able to revive with effortless aplomb.
Key features: A banter-filled commentary with Mamet and his longtime actor/technical consultant Ricky Jay joins new interviews with Crouse and Mantegna, and a short making-of doc.