This is Pick & Mix, In which we ignore the distinctions between feature, short, promo, commercial, viral, art film and more, in order to focus on the moving image; this column is a weekly, in-depth presentation of works which, in some cases, you may not have seen and which, in other cases, you may have watched, but not from our perspective.
House of Games
David Mamet (1987)
A woman crosses the street. It is the middle of the night. This is an American city – any American city. There is a sheen of recent rain on the tarmac. Steam billows from a grating. It’s a wide, static shot, which could have been copied from an Edward Hopper painting. Once the woman has crossed the street, we cut to a new shot: a tight close-up, which follows her hand towards a heavy, thick-painted door. She opens the door. On it are stuck 12 letters. They spell out ‘House of Games’, which is also the title of the movie.
In House of Games, a psychiatrist – played by Lindsay Crouse – visits a gambling den, in order to cancel the debt of one of her patients. There, she meets a hustler, Mike, played by Joe Mantegna. He swiftly reveals himself to be a con-man, and his devious lifestyle proves unspeakably attractive to the repressed psychiatrist. In their second meeting, a low angle shot presents us with a waiter, who we then realise is Mike, with a tea-towel draped on his arm. At this point you should know that this movie is not to be trusted.
In 1987, David Mamet had already won a Pulitzer Prize for Glengarry Glen Ross, and his first produced screenplay had been in 1981, with The Postman Always Rings Twice. Before this, he had not directed for the screen, and House of Games was his first attempt. For anybody who is remotely interested in directing, theoretically, professionally, or otherwise, I highly recommend that you seek out Mamet’s introduction to the published edition of the House of Games screenplay.
The script is worth reading in itself, but in the introduction, Mamet presents elements of the directing experience which will at once be familiar to anybody who has tried it, but which I’ve never seen quite so candidly represented elsewhere:
‘…the production designer had questions about the colour of a wall; the costume designer wanted to go out shopping; the propmaster wanted to know how many poker chips of what colour were needed… Everybody said that the prime requirement of a film director was good health, and I quickly saw the reason why. Each decision is going to affect the film… sloppiness won’t do. Petulance won’t do.’
Once Mamet has realised that the job is, ‘in the main, administrative’, and that his own pre-prepared storyboards look like ‘amoebas’, he sets about directing the film. Were you to not have known this was his first film, you may have been able to guess from its style that it’s the work of somebody trying very hard to be careful, and to not screw up.
As with Mamet’s dialogue, both the performances and the edit are very tempered, calm and controlled. The camera swoops slowly in and out, shifting from behind walls, sitting still when it needs to. As the con-men who populate Mamet’s world need to maintain a constant, reassuring eye-contact with their mark, so does the movie maintain a constant eye-contact with us, lest we look away for a second and spot one of the many tricks that it’s aiming to play behind our backs. The entire attitude of the movie is reminiscent of a Paul Auster novel. As Auster uses simple words and simple sentences to build a structure that is ever more strange and teetering, so does Mamet use simplicity to communicate his story, before spinning us around, to reveal a whole new, unthought-of layer to his world. A gun turns out to be a water-pistol, blood turns out to be fake dye, a policeman turns out to be an actor. So when the final weapon of the movie is brandished, you’ll be forgiven for wondering what it’s loaded with.
House of Games is a bewitching, and sadly underrated film. Its collected style is both refreshing and educational. For weeks, you will hear the noir-ish plonk of its xylophone soundtrack as you drift off to sleep.
This was written by Fred Rowson, a freelance filmmaker and music video director. You should check out his work by visiting www.fredrowson.com