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"You say I acted atrociously. Yes I did. I do it
for a living"
House of Games
1987. Directed by David Mamet; written by David Mamet. With Lindsay Crouse, Joe Mantegna, Mike Nussbaum, J. T. Walsh, Ricky Jay
SPOILER : If you haven't seen this movie, do not read further. Plot twists revealed!
Those of you still here remember that House of Games consists of a series of nested con games, all components of an elaborate, multi-layered scheme to bilk the protagonist, Dr. Margaret Ford, out of $80,000. Led to believe that she is learning the tricks of the underworld, Dr. Ford realizes too late that those tricks have been used against her from the get-go. Events she had taken as genuine, she eventually understands, were in fact staged. People who turned to her in extremis were in fact pretending. Since we the audience have been fooled along with Dr. Ford, we have to wonder whether to consider ourselves observers, co-conspirators, or fellow victims.
Hoax movies (even The Sting) are profoundly destabilizing. Not only do they deceive us, as all movies do, but they force us to acknowledge the deception. They contain within themselves their own unmasking. They demonstrate that the things that we trust about movies"sincere" performances, plot conventions, visual syntaxare easily manipulated. They anticipate our own tendency to jump ahead, make judgements, and figure things out, and turn our own "smartness" against us. This is also how confidence games work.
At its heart, it seems to me, House of Games is about acting, that subversive art on which the fiction film depends. The con gamescarefully cast and scriptedare metaphors for performances of all kinds. The con artists are above all brilliant performers--I'm talking here about Mike, Joey, Billy, and their confederates, not the actors who play them. The initial poker game is a masterpiece of ensemble acting, including their (feigned, it turns out) dismay when Dr. Ford discovers the hoax (as they intended her to). Movies have developed a code for letting us know when characters are lyingmainly by being transparently unconvincingbut here it is impossible to tell when the characters are lying and when they aren't. Our understanding of what constitutes a "performance" and what it means to be an "audience" take a big lurch.
Toward the end there's a scene in a bar where Dr. Ford overhears the con men counting up their loot and chuckling about how they've fooled her. It comes as a blow to Dr. Ford but a relief to us. Candor at last! We can regain our footing. But, oh-oh, who's to say this isn't just another act? It too seems staged--they've arranged themselves at a table where they can be conveniently spied upon, all the dramatis personae stop by to "explain" their respective roles, all plot points get covered. It's too expository, too staged. It can't be trusted any more than anything else. Once we're exposed to how slippery good actors can be (I don't just mean professional actors), where does it stop? You can easily project a parallel scene at a bar after a day's shooting on House of Games, where all the actors, this time including Lindsay Crouse, the actress who plays Dr. Ford, congratulate themselves on another successful day of illusion-making. Things just keep ratcheting up a level.
At one of the film's climaxes, when Dr. Ford, Mike and Joey seem to be trapped, police closing in and no hope of escape, the doors of a parking garage elevator (the kind used to transport cars to upper floors) glide open behind them to reveal a gleaming red convertible. Salvation! They steal the car and get away. It turns out later that the crooks have staged the whole episode, borrowing the car from a friend, bribing the parking lot attendant to send it down unattended, etc. But what are we really seeing here? How could even the most careful planning have arranged for the car to appear at the very instant when Mike sighs in final resignation, and for the light to bounce off its chrome bumper with such a deus-ex-machina sparkle? Only one impressario has this kind of controla man with a walkie-talkie, a full crew of technicians, and the power to order retakes.
Here, I think, David Mamet makes his appearance. He is the con artist par excellence, the meta-illusionist. When Joey and Mike rent costumes, dress sets, arrange props, and feed people lines, they are alluding to the super-illusion being masterminded just out of camera range. My point here is not that "movies are a con game too," but that Mamet has found a way to use our expectations and credulities to make us confrontnot just observe, but experiencethe difficulties of knowing with certainty who we are, who other people are, and how to interpret what we observe, at least in art and perhaps in life.
At the pivotal moment for Dr. Ford, Mike demands of her: "Well? In or out?" It's the key question for self-referential theater and film: Are we the audience on the inside or the outside, co-conspirators or suckers, active participants or passive dupes? The trick of cinema wouldn't work without our gleeful collaboration. We like watching the trick at work, and we also like surrendering and letting it take us in. House of Games reminds us that we don't always know which we're doing at any given time. The revelation that she has been seduced and betrayed drives Dr. Ford to murder, but for us, being seduced and betrayed is what movies (and theater) are all about.
copyright ©2005 Barbara Bernstein