Last week, in my review of Matchstick Men, I mourned the lack of decent con-man films. But the reality is, for anyone that’s already seen David Mamet’s House of Games (and that should be anyone that’s a fan of the subgenre), the simple con-man movie is nearly an impossible task to pull off. House of Games is such an excellent primer in con-man movies that, to make a successful one in its wake would require one of two types of movies: A con-man movie with so much misdirection that the audience doesn’t even realize it’s being conned until it’s already been had (Matchstick Men), or a long con so long and convoluted that the audience doesn’t know when the long con has actually ended and reality has begun (Rian Johnson’s The Brothers Bloom), though the latter, unfortunately, requires that a director add another half hour of rabbit holes and rat mazes to lose a sophisticated audience, and by that time, no reveal is big enough to completely pull its audience out of its debt.
Indeed, 1987’s House of Games wouldn’t work in 2009 as a straight con movie because of House of Games. Thanks to House of Games, we know what to look for. We know the con-man movies’ tells. And in order to beat the audience, a con-man movie has to subvert the House of Games template (as did The Brothers Bloom, to a certain extent). Because now we know that the best way to gain the protagonist’s confidence is to bring her into your con and then build a con around the con. And now that we know it, we’re constantly on the lookout for the con that encompasses the con we’re seeing. Dig?
All of which is to say: Thanks to David Mamet, we know too much.
It doesn’t take anything away from House of Games, however. Because a good con-man movie is more than just a con within a con. Or a con within a con within a con. A good con-man movie develops relationships. It creates characters with motivations, motivations that we want to explore. In a way, the con in the very best con movies is its own MacGuffin, an artificial plot device designed not as a means to an end, or a game we’re meant to figure out, but a vehicle that allows us to explore the intricacies of love and passion and obsession and relationships and what it is that makes people tick.
Spoilers here on out
Which brings us to Margaret Ford (Lindsey Crouse), the central character in House of Games. She’s a repressed psychiatrist and best-selling author of Driven, a book about compulsion. Early on, one of her patients comes to her suicidal over a large gambling debt. To gain the confidence of her patient, Ford confronts Mike (Joe Montegna), to whom the debit is owed. Mike agrees to forgive the debt if she assist him in a card game, which is — in and of itself — a short con that we know Ford is supposed to figure out because, well, we’ve seen House of Games before, even if we haven’t. And she does, though it takes nothing away from one of the best card-playing scenes in all of cinema (you want to know what the five best card-playing scenes of all time are? Find the ones that involve Ricky Jay). But once Ford figures out the short con, we know that she’s become part of the long con. She wants to know more about the confidence game for a new book she’s writing. And what better way to teach her the ropes than to enroll her assistance for a long con, which is — of course — a setup for the longer con designed to dupe her. How do we know? Because we know what to look for. Why?
Because we’ve seen House of Games.
But House of Games works on an even deeper level. Because the more you think you know, the more Mamet has you right where he wants you. Of course, you wouldn’t know that unless you’d seen House of Games. Just try watching it with someone familiar with the House of Games template, but not the movie itself. He’ll have it figured out halfway through, and spend the next half hour gloating like a jackass as all his predictions come true. But then, of course, because he hasn’t actually seen the movie, and he only knows the template, you’ll end up banging your head in frustration when he doesn’t get it in the end. Because he’s only taken the movie at face value. Because he was so preoccupied with figuring out the game and watching it come to fruition that he’ll have missed the entire goddamn point. Why? Because “you can’t bluff someone who’s not paying attention.”
The point? That it was never about the con game. It was about Margaret Ford. About what makes her tick. About what drives her. She’s a smart lady. She knew, on some subconscious level, what was going on the entire time. Anybody with half a brain would’ve (see, e.g., your jackass friend).. But she wanted to be conned. She was a repressed psychiatrist. And after an insidious game of sex, betrayal, provocation, and murder, guess who isn’t so repressed anymore?
All of which is to say: If you’ve only seen House of Games once, you haven’t really seen House of Games. You’ve only seen the con-man template. To truly experience House of Games, you have to know enough about the con to forget about it and “pay attention” to what really matters: The motivations. The head games. The words underneath the deadpan words.
In a way, on that deeper level, House of Games is the exact opposite of Matchstick Men. Ridley Scott focuses so much of your attention on the characters that you forget about the con until he pulls the rug out from under you; David Mamet, on the other hand, focuses your attention on the con so much that you forget about the characters. And which do you think is harder … ?
And that, folks, is why David Mamet has a Pulitzer Prize, while Ridley Scott only has three Oscar nominations.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba.