- Movie Rating -

House of Games (1987) – An Essay

| October 14, 1987

Mike is a con-artist – emphasis on the word ‘artist’.

I say “artist” because that’s the most apt description of Mike, a man so skilled at the art of the con that he can move from mood to mood, from confidence to fear to cold calculation.  We first meet him at the House of Games, in a pool hall where, through the door, walks Margaret Ford (Lindsey Crouse) an anal retentive psychoanalyst who is famous for her best-selling books on compulsive behavior.  She demands that he call off a $25,000 gambling debt that he is holding over one of her patients, a frightened kid named Billy.

Spoiler Note: Read no further if you haven’t seen House of Games, the following reveals major plot developments.

Mike takes a liking to Margaret and offers to call off the debt (which was actually only $800) if she will sit next to him at a poker game and look for “a tell” from George, the guy across the table (Mamet regular Ricky Jay) who has been winning all night.  Sitting beside Mike at the table she mistakenly thinks that George is revealing his hand when he twists his ring.  Mike loses and George pulls a gun when the winnings aren’t promptly produced.  Margaret offers to put up the money herself until she spots water dripping from the gun.  She breaks the con and Mike and George admit it was all a scam to take her money.

Rather than split, Margaret is curious, she asks Mike to show her some of his best cons as material for a book she may want to write on the subject.  He agrees and, knowing he’s a con man, we sense right away that he will turn the tables on her.  “It’s called a confidence game”, he tells her “Why? Because you give me your confidence? No. Because I give you mine.”  Mike and his pal Joey show her some of the oldest cons like the one where you ask someone for change for a twenty, put the money in an envelope, lick the envelope and scoop the money into your mouth while you’re licking it.

He shows her others like a small-time scam involving a trip to a Western Union office where he convinces a Marine (William H. Macy) that he is waiting for some many from Western Union. The Marine is waiting for money to buy a bus ticket so he can get back to his base.  Mike strikes up a conversation and tells the guy that he also is a Marine, establishing a blood bond.  Mike offers to give the guy money for bus fare when it arrives.  The man’s money comes first and he offers some of it to Mike.  Mike is such a brilliant confidence man that he is able to work money from the guy without ever asking for money.

It doesn’t take long before Mike and his partner Joey (Mike Nussbaum) let Margaret in on a larger job, this one involving a suitcase full of money left on a sidewalk.  The three conspirators stand next to a businessman (J.T. Walsh), who will be their mark, and watch as a someone gets into a cab and leaves behind a briefcase.  They discover that the briefcase is full of money.  Taking the briefcase to a hotel room the four conspire to split the money four ways.  The businessman offers to pay a percentage in exchange for taking the briefcase, but Mike and Joey plan to switch the case at the last minute.

The plan goes off, but later Margaret overhears a phone conversation and discovers that the businessman is a cop running a sting operation.  Attempting to flee, Margaret struggles with the cop and shoots him dead.  She, Mike and Joey escape the hotel in a stolen car only to discover that the briefcase and the money have disappeared.  Mike panics, telling Margaret that the case contained $80,000 that he borrowed from the mob and that he is a dead man if he doesn’t reclaim it.  Margaret tells him that she can get the money, so they leave the stolen car and split up.

The next day Margaret sees the stolen car with Billy, her patient, behind the wheel.  She goes back to the House of Games and listens in on a conversation involving, not only Mike, Joey and George but also the businessman/cop she supposedly shot dead.  Overhearing the group split her $80,000 she realizes that she’s been scammed from the beginning.

Margaret decides to get back at Mike by following him to the airport where he is about to board a plane to Las Vegas.  She claims to have $250,000 on her and wants to go with him.  They talk privately in a secluded area of the hospital where Mike understands that she is scamming him when she misspeaks.  There is an argument and she shoots him dead.

Observant viewers will already know that Margaret is being scammed early on, what we don’t know is how far back into the story the scam begins.  Personally, I thought it began with the businessman and I was genuinely surprised to find that it began almost from the moment we met Margaret.  It is easy to see how she gets scammed, Mike is not only a master of the con but he is a master of the con within a con.  He doubles up on the confidence game so that we aren’t sure what is real and what is just a game.  When Mike is shot dead at the end, I began to wonder if he wouldn’t show up again.  I had learned not to trust him.

The key to Mike is that he makes us totally comfortable with him.  He isn’t only a confidence man, he is an actor, able to pull Margaret into any direction he wants.  By the end, when you realize that he’s been playing a rehearsed role the whole time, you think back on what an amazing performance he was able to pull off.

He’s slick, you never know where he’s coming from.  He has rules for himself like never pulling a job on someone who can’t afford it.  He has a very deliberate speaking style (Mantegna is a master of Mamet’s off-kilter dialogue) so that there is no question about what he’s saying.  He spaces his words so they can be understood and ingested.  He has an amazing delivery as when George pulls a gun on him over the poker game “Where am I from?” he says “I’m from the United States of kiss-my-ass”  or “Years from now, they’re gonna have to go to a museum to see a frame like this.”

He is also a romantic, slipping a hotel key into his pocket when the desk clerk turns his back then taking Margaret to the room so they can make love.  He instills in Margaret so much confidence that when the con goes bad, she hasn’t the slightest notion that she is being set up and neither do we.

He is able to pull from her, a hidden compulsion to be a thief.  When we meet her, she is straight as an arrow, her suit is flawless and she hasn’t a hair out of place.  Her office reveals her personality, nothing is out of place, nothing is there for show.  Yet, when she meets Mike there’s a softness in his eyes and in his voice (again, part of Mike’s performance) that touches her.  She likes the thrill of the moment and he provides her with a talent she didn’t know she had.

Mantegna, always a wonderful presence in the movies, could have been an actor in the 30s.  In his tailored suit, his sharpened accent and his soft eyes he reminds me a little of Cary Grant. He can carry himself easily from soft-hearted to cold-blooded.  He’s perfect for Mamet’s dialogue which seems to have a staccato edge and always sounds a little off.  He delivers his lines with a precision, lines like “I read a book once which said this: If you’re fired from your job, when you’re going home, take something. A pencil, something to assert yourself. Take a memento. Take something from life.”

I admit that I was taken by Mike.  I never knew if or when I could trust him.  When, in the end, it is revealed that Margaret has been the mark for the entire time we’ve known her, I still has no idea if I could trust anything.  In the end, I had reached the point where I had no idea what to expect from him.  Somehow, I wondered if his name was even Mike.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(1987) View IMDB Filed in: Drama