Sunday, July 12, 2015

House of Games

SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.

David Mamet explores the area between what is legal and illegal, civilized and uncivilized.  He does it in the scripts for The Verdict, The Edge, The Spanish Prisoner, The Untouchables, and he does it in the first film he wrote and directed, House of Games.

Here we have Dr. Margaret (Maggie) Ford (Lindsay Crouse, Mamet's wife at the time), who is a psychiatrist and a recent best-selling author. Her book is entitled Driven, and we later see what drives this woman, who previously was just a passive observer of life, listening to the confessions of criminals. Early on we see her with a female murderer who asks her if the doctor is "exempt" from life, emphasizing Maggie's detachment. 

Maggie has lunch with her mentor, Maria, who has a cigarette lighter that is made of gold, heavy, and precious. She says that she does not have anything precious in her life.  Maria, seeing that her friend has been totally consumed by her work, says she should do something for herself. Ironically it is the advice of the similarly named mentor, her civilized double, who is suggesting something innocent, that helps push Maggie over "the edge," the line that leads into a darker world.

Maggie starts her journey to that world when she meets with a new patient, Billy, who is a compulsive gambler. He says he lost money gambling and now owes $25,000 to a man named Mike. He tells Maggie that her therapy is worthless to him. It is a "con" game, promising some vague help. Because she cannot help her female murderer, she later echoes that she feels like a con artist, which of course lets us see how she can easily enter the world of con men. What Billy says he needs is something concrete, the money, or he will be killed. Maggie gets the address where Mike hangs out, a joint called "House of Games." Maggie enters the place, which along with the Budweiser sign hanging on the wall, displays another advertisement which says, "Say Bull." It may be a Mamet hint that what is about to transpire is "bullshit," something untrue. 

Maggie now adopts a tough gal persona, which the audience did not know she has in her, to see Mike (Joseph Mantegna). This scene shows us that she may not be what she appeared to be, just as are the other characters. For example, we first "see" Mike in shadows, suggesting he may not be what he seems. Mike flatters her by saying how quickly she sized him up as a guy who would not physically hurt someone (which turns out to be true). He shows Billy's marker, which is only for $800. This action makes Maggie trust Mike, since he could have said Billy owed more. Mike says he will tear up the marker if Maggie will help him in the card game being played in a back room. He asks her to tell him if she sees a player in the game show his "tell," which is twisting the ring on his finger, meaning he is bluffing. Maggie goes along, but when things go south, and Mike owes six grand, she offers to pay the money. But, she sees that the gun that the other gambler threatened them with is a water pistol. It was all a scam to get $6,000 from her. Again, Mike seems impressed by Maggie's observational smarts. And Maggie is drawn in by the psychological aspects of people's "tells," which Mike says convey the inner person. She also had a chance to witness a magic show that entertained her, one not seen in legitimate society, and she has fun participating in that world.

When she goes back home, she has in her possession Billy's gun, which she convinced him to give her, and an empty book of matches (no expensive lighter), again reminding her of the emptiness in her life. She goes back looking for Mike, saying she wants research to write a book, but we know it is the excitement of the illegal activity that has brought her back to him. He shows her a "short con" saying that the con artist gives his confidence to the mark, showing that he trusts him. This action makes the mark want to do something for the con artist. Mike says in these transactions, each party gets something:  the crook gets money, and the mark feels good about himself, helping another. Maggie sees that Mike has great psychiatric abilities, as he tells her that she wants to be with someone who will take her to new experiences. It is ironic that he tells her “don’t trust nobody." They go to a hotel, steal a key and use the room to make love.  Mike lets Maggie use the key to open the door, symbolically making her a willing participant as she enters the realm of the criminal.  Mike tells Maggie that she should always take something, a memento, to assert herself. She secretly takes a penknife off of the dresser.

As they leave the hotel, Mike says he is late for a new scam, and tells her to leave. She wants to stay, and becomes part of an elaborate scheme to take money form a mark. In the course of the con, she realizes the mark is an undercover cop, and when she warns Mike and his partner, the cop is accidently shot. They sneak out to the garage and Mike says she has to steal this red Cadillac so they can escape. They get away, but they forgot the $80,000 that was needed for the sting, and which they owe the mob. She promises to get the money to him, which she does. Billy shows up at her office, but she sends him away. As she goes out to dump any incriminating evidence she may have, she sees Billy drive away in the "stolen" red car. She now realizes she has been swindled to get her money, which is confirmed when she goes to the club and eavesdrops on the participants in the scam. Billy was sent to make sure she wasn't caving and calling the cops. She hears Mike say how she stole his "lucky" penknife. She shows up at the airport where Mike is taking a flight, and pretends to act afraid and wanting to leave with him with all of her money. She happens to mention "his" pen that she took and feels so guilty about everything. Of course, her mentioning that it was "his" pen makes Mike realize that she is trying to con him. He thinks he knows her, but he doesn't. He has created a monster in the transformed Maggie, who is livid about being "raped" by him, and having her money stolen. She takes out Billy's gun, saying it isn't hers, so she was never there, and shoots Mike to death.

Earlier on, Maria told a distraught Maggie that she should "forgive" herself concerning any act that she felt guilty about. After all, it wasn't like she killed anyone. At that time she hadn't. In the last scene, she seems refreshed and happy as she meets Maria, and tells her that she has forgiven herself, but she doesn't mention it is the crime of murder for which she has absolved herself.  Maria leaves their lunch table to answer a phone call.  Maggie sees a woman with a gold lighter. She distracts the woman, and steals it, lights a cigarette, and smiles. She feels she has literally and figuratively acquired something  precious, which she felt was lacking earlier, and has followed Mike’s advice about taking something to assert herself. The psychiatrist, who is supposed to promote proper behavior, has crossed over the line and has become a sociopath.

If life is a house of games, one may never know the true nature of an opponent, which, sometimes, can make the game deadly.

Next week’s movie is Klute.


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  5. I've seen this movie twice. First time, nearly 25 years ago. Last time, about two years ago.

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