Years ago, ScreenCrave contributor Jaime Lopez privately began tackling Roger Ebert’s “Greatest Films” list, an ever-expanding monolith of celluloid currently comprised of 354 films.   With 260 under his belt and less than 100 films left to go, Lopez has set himself to put these remaining films’ “Greatness” to the test–reviewing both the movies themselves and Ebert’s response.  This week, he takes on David Mamet’s House of Games.

In House of Games every word matters.  There is a literary quality; the dialogue is almost purely employed to serve the story.  If listening to the dialogue in a Tarantino is like surfing through the internet, David Mamet’s style is like reading a book with a sustained train of thought. You leave feeling smarter.

The Players

  • Director:  David Mamet
  • Writer:  David Mamet
  • Cast:  Lindsay Crouse, Joe Mantegna, Ricky Jay

The Plot

Margaret Ford (Crouse) is a psychiatrist, and her life changes the day she decides enter the House of Games, the name of a crooked establishment where a group of professional gamblers and con-artists plan their schemes.  The ringleader of this underworld operation is Mike (Mantegna), and Margaret is there to negotiate the debt of one of her clients.  Always making deals, Mike promises to forgive the debt if Margaret plays along as Mike’s companion in a poker game as a way of to help reveal the tell of a gambler having good luck.  Before long, Margaret proposes to follow Mike into his world for the purpose of writing a book.  When feelings begin to emerge, we wonder whether a true romance can occur when so much of a relationship is based on learning how to be deceptive.

The Good

  • The Screenplay:  Not surprising from a famous playwright, David Mamet’s stories are furiously focused on its characters, but also showcase intelligent dialogue that feels like it deserves credit as a character in the film.  The efficiency of this script is mind-boggling.  Mamet has a writing style that seems mathematical in its precision.  There’s a beautiful focus to the dialogue; it offers no frivolous talk.  Margaret’s way of communicating is calculative, which fits nicely with her character – she’s extremely orderly with an unreal composure.  When Margaret sheds a tear, when she finally shows emotion, it drops like an atomic bomb.
  • Plotting:   Any movie dealing with high-minded con-artists can’t have any holes or the audience could spot the con.  And with that motivation, you’re forced to pay attention to everything. The film is not just smart, it’s riveting.
  • Directing: Mamet made an effort to achieve objectivity in his films, “shaping them by logical ways of creating order from disorder, in search of the super-objective”.  Unlike a Michael Bay film, there are hardly any shots of eye candy.  His directing style is focused on ensuring that each shot and each word advances the story.  Similar to an Ingmar Bergman film, what we have here is a minimalist style with little to no distractions.

The Bad:

  • For the second week in a row, I really don’t have anything to say about this film.  It’s quite a gem of a thriller!

Brief Words for Mr. Ebert:  I am in complete agreement that “the plotting is diabolical and impeccable”, and I think you make a good point not to “spoil the delight of its unfolding by mentioning the crucial details”.  The dialogue is delivered so openly and so matter-of-factly that I agree when you say that “they speak with a sort of aggressive, almost insulting directness”.  I was delighted at the following comparison you make, “There is a hint in Mamet’s stagings of the influence of Fassbinder, who liked his actors to behave as if they were posing in tableaux, and knew they were”.  This is an excellent comparison because there is a recognizably deliberate yet unpredictable quality to the staging and a speech pattern that seems unrehearsed and fresh, just as it appears in Fassbinder film such as Ali: Fear Eats the Soul.  Mamet takes a premise and follows it to its logical conclusions, without really seeming to address whether an act is good or bad.  The ending left me wondering whether the protagonist changes in a way that I would hope she would or whether I should just sit back and observe her behavior, much as she had intended to merely observe Mike’s behavior.

Good, Bad or Great Movie:  GREAT

Do you like House of Games?  Do you consider this film to be Good, Bad or Great?

Next week’s review:  Written in the Wind