Mamet: House of Games (1987)
David Mamet started his career as a screenwriter, which perhaps explains why he transitioned so seamlessly from a playwright to a director. He’s one of the few playwright-turned-directors who really managed to fuse cinematic and theatrical style in all of his texts – especially in House of Games, which was his directorial debut, and set the scene for many of his films to follow. Like so many of his subsequent films, this is not an adaptation of a play, or even an adaptation of this theatrical work up until this point, but rather an extension (or fulfilment) of his theatrical style using cinematic language. You might say that Mamet had been writing cinematic-styled plays all along, making this shift to directing a logical and necessary process.
House of Games was also one of Mamet’s tightest stories, on both stage and screen, when it was released in 1987. The script revolves around two characters that became intertwined with each other through their shared love of the art of the con. On the one hand, we have Margaret Ford, a psychotherapist played by Lindsay Crouse, who specialises in compulsive disorders. On the other hand, we have Mike Mancuso, a professional grifter, played by Joe Mantegna, who would go on to feature in several of Mamet’s other films. When one of Margaret’s patients threatens to shoot himself if he doesn’t recoup a gambling debt, she seeks out Mike, his debtor, to sort it out. For a brief moment, Mike cons her, but when she gets wise to the con, she wants in on the action, and becomes his lover and partner in crime.
Since we meet Margaret first, and experience most of the film from her perspective, her attitude towards therapy also sets the scene for Mamet’s idiosyncratic script. Most of Margaret’s patients experience “a feeling of nothingness,” which she tries to counteract with a remarkably concrete approach to therapy. Most of her sessions feel like interrogations, while her model of therapy seems closer to crypsis, code-breaking or pattern-recognition than even the most rigorous psychoanalysis. For Margaret, therapy is direct intervention in her patient’s psychic lives – as direct as any intervention provided by a surgeon – and it is this direct approach that leads her to Mike, and to the events that set the narrative into motion.
At first, the film’s unusual style seems like it might simply be a product of Margaret’s approach to therapy. However, once she meets Mike, and starts engaging with him and other people outside her professional life, we quickly realise that the unique tone of her therapy sessions is going to percolate into every other exchange as well. For those familiar with Mamet’s later films (and his plays), this stylised, concrete, heightened delivery is very familiar, but also especially plosive here, in its first cinematic incarnation. All language is reified, turned into a thing, and every encounter is an exchange, meaning all the dialogue is functional or transactional in some way. Mamet mirrors this in the visual style of the film, which tends to be framed in a literalist manner – always over-emphasising the characters’ position in space, the direction of their respective gazes, and the precise minutiae of every new mise-en-scene.
As a result, there’s no real body language in this film – just a preternatural stillness, an awareness that we’re always waiting for the next utterance. It’s as if the characters don’t exist outside of their speech acts – or as if action itself can’t exist out of speech acts – which in turn tends to fuse speech and action in an uncanny and unnerving way. All action is muted and subsumed into the dialogue, while the dialogue, and language itself, becomes autonomous, and seems to break free from the characters delivering it. Likewise, the actors don’t exactly seem to be acting so much as presenting themselves as conduits for the script, resulting in a heightened theatricality that nevertheless demands cinema to ramify and resonate properly.
Set against the denuded downtown of 80s Seattle, Mamet’s style suggests that humans have become conduits for a brand of American English in which all speech acts have capitulated to the transactional demands of the free market. Most conversations revolve around a series of questions – extracting and exchanging information – and all enjoyment is rooted in the transactional power of language. When a colleague asks Margaret “What do you enjoy?” she can only respond that “I enjoy writing my book,” before denying a dinner request after a quick consultation of her diary, the other place where she records her thoughts through language. Against that backdrop, House of Games becomes a search for joy – and for joy in words – in a world where words have become completely reified as so many instruments of transaction.
For Margaret and Mike, the only way to return to something resembling regular affect in this denuded language economy is via transactional play – embracing transaction as an art form in and of itself. The film both describes and enacts this process, taking us through a series of twists that elasticise the con game as Margaret thinks she knows it – although these twists aren’t simply there for surprise or shock value. Rather, they function to shift the transactional boundaries from moment to moment, forcing the characters to shift in turn between long and short cons to maintain the upper hand. Since the characters are all conduits for whatever transactional potential is most pronounced at any one time, they have to be prepared for twists at any moment, producing twists that are (uncannily) both surprising and totally banal.
The result is an almost mystical vision of the free market as a self-sustaining transactional ecosystem, a house of games in which “everybody gets something out of every transaction.” While it’s important to extract something from every encounter, you can be confident, Mike assures Margaret, that you’ve always extracted something anyway, whether you recognise it or not. The long con, like the market, becomes a kind of magic (one of Mike’s associates is played by Ricky Jay, who at this point was primarily known as a magician) in which objects are shorn of all intrinsic value, and reduced to their exchange-value. In House of Games, objects only recover their materiality, their reality, with exchange, when subsumed into transactional networks, so Mike advises Margaret to steal something from every situation she encounters.
The nub of this con, for Mike and Margaret, revolves around “tells,” signs that people are bluffing – and Mike’s unusual take on tells, which provides Margaret with everything she was looking for in her therapeutic practice. Mike doesn’t simply believe that certain people have tells, but that everything has a tell, nothing is truly secret, and so everything can be transactional. Once you accept that even the most apparently interior experiences have tells, everything becomes reified, thingified – and Mike increasingly resorts to the word “thing” when referring to people, places and situations, until they’re all so many moving parts of the same big thing. By the third act, character itself has become another thing, a form of transactional play, as Mike asks Margaret “What’s more fun than human nature?” and the two of them assemble and reassemble their character traits to accommodate the long con.
It’s at this point that House of Cards expands out to evoke the broader Seattle cityscape, although the characters never quite feel situated in that cityscape either. Plays adapted to films often struggle to evoke a wider world, but that slight sense of containment works perfectly here, since it allows Mamet to dissociate the 80s downtown into two main ingredients – a series of escalating confidence tricks, and the steel and glass cityscape that coalesces around them. Between those cons, which always seem to take place in precarious downtown spaces (or treat established downtown spaces as precariois), and the buildings that rise above them, lies the film’s mystical vision of the market. Watching it is like watching the market repress its own driving force, or tactfully disavow and distance itself from its own long con, its own foundations, here relegated to mere street life, small-scale pedestrian stuff.
As a result, the film both expands and contracts in this third act, widening to take in Seattle, and narrowing as the con reaches its final stages. We end at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, the point of exchange for the entire city, and end with Mike transacting for his life, even as Mamet doubles down on his dramatic close-ups, which tend to be most pronounced around doors and door handles, literal sites of transaction. The main transaction goes awry when Margaret is struggling to break away from a mark and make her way through a door, while the final scene sees Margaret pin Mike permanently against a door. In these closing moments, Mamet quotes Casablanca, and the transaction that closes Michael Curtiz’s film. There, transaction is romanticised, and so it is here, but a lot has also changed in the interim.
At the end of Casablanca, Bogart makes the transaction despite and because of his love for Bergman, sacrificing their connection so that he can be assured of her safety. By contrast, in House of Games, transaction has become the romance in and of itself, meaning that when this final transaction is complete, neither Margaret nor Mike quite seem to exist anymore – in stark contrst to Bogart and Bergman, who were cemented forever in cinematic lore by the time that Casablanca ended. Mamet’s “characters” disappear as mercurially as they emerged, vanishing back into the networks of exchange that produced them, only to re-emerge, in slightly altered form, in all the caper films he produced from here, all of which play as so many versions – some ingenious, some more derivative – of the surreal vision of House of Games.
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