House of Games

What I most remember about House of Games (1987) is Roger Ebert making it his best movie of 1987.

I’m not a fan of Ebert but I respect his superior film knowledge. But I especially despised his show with Gene Siskel. The idea of rating movies with a thumb up or down irritates me. I don’t like the four- or five- or ten-star rating systems (I devote an article to it here). Grading movies is a subjective judgment cloaking absolute objectivism. Rating films, like Oscar and Golden Globe nominations, create an ersatz competition. Ebert extols the virtues of House of Games, and I agree with his assessment, but nowhere does he match the film with, for example, the Best Picture winner, The Last Emperor. How is House of Games better? I don’t expect the answer because there is none. We must trust his standards.

Siskel and Ebert, Rex Reed, Gene Shalit and a bunch of others who have parleyed their jobs as newspaper and magazine reviewers into a cottage industry should be applauded for perpetuating a great con on the public. Ebert’s effusive love for House of Games and David Mamet’s cinematic output – The Spanish Prisoner (1997), Redbelt (2008), and Homicide (1991) – mirrors the very process Mamet dramatizes. Ebert quotes Joe Mantegna’s con man: “The basic idea is this. It’s called a confidence game. Why? Because you give me your confidence? No. Because I give you mine.”

We believe in the apparent standards of the reviewers. News organizations in general depend on our trusting those whom we get information. And despite the veritable assault on the news media, most people have an expectation that the standards should be lived up to. Film (and other arts) reviewers are most distrusted when they contradict what I (Joe Public) believes is good. An individual’s faith wavers but not enough people feel that way such that they would never read and believe a review again – just as football fans could never boycott their teams’ games.

It might be harsh calling this “a con”.

What would we tell our kids? Most advertising (especially the ads we enjoy most) is a lie? Siskel and Ebert loved House of Games because Mamet and his actors had strong Chicago connections? The best films rarely win – or even get nominated for – the Best Picture Oscar? Fox News and the New York Times have favorite candidates?

Who or what can we believe anymore? Is this our post-modern nightmare?

Mamet captures the infinite problems within our daily lives. Ebert writes:

This fraudulent offering of trust underlies one Mamet film after another, and yet is never repetitive because it unlocks unlimited dramatic possibilities. There is hardly ever a slow moment in Mamet’s films because even small talk, even passing the time of day, is fraught with the hidden motives of the speakers. Even when nothing seems to be happening, our attention is held by the illusion that something must be happening, but we can’t spot it. This is Mamet’s con on us. He offers us his confidence that we can follow his plot.

Backing this view up is Erving Goffman’s essay “On Cooling the Mark Out”. Goffman, a groundbreaking sociologist, compares con men to white-collar criminals:

The con differs from politer forms of financial deceit in important ways. The con is practiced on private persons by talented actors who methodically and regularly build up informal social relationships just for the purpose of abusing them; white‑collar crime is practiced on organizations by persons who learn to abuse positions of trust which they once filled faithfully.

Mamet is calling out capitalist society. He shows the basic savagery with the suave approach of his con men. They will cheat you out of $10 or $100,000. It’s the same to them. Having a conscience is more than an inconvenience: it wrecks the performance. More importantly, Mamet depicts how the mark enjoys the thrill of being taken.

In House of Games, Lindsay Crouse plays a psychiatrist who has written a bestseller about addictive behavior. However, she’s frustrated that she cannot solve real world problems. We also learn that the ‘doctor’ is afflicted by the very behavior she’s the expert on handling and making better. She’s unconsciously a con artist attracted to the mechanics of the con. Mantegna understands her nature in an instant and draws her into his world. She’s appalled and thrilled sexually by the experience, getting physically involved with Mantegna, her handler.

After losing a lot of money (believing she witnessed a cop being killed), Crouse gradually learns that she has been taken. She follows one of the minor players in the scam, a patient she had wanted to get out of a debt, back to the bar where her adventure began. She wears a hoodie not to be recognized and surreptitiously listens to Mantegna’s crew as they split the money. She learns how easily she had been fooled. Most importantly, she learns why they aren’t afraid of her going to the police. Her reputation and credibility would be mortally damaged. The public humiliation might be even worse.

Goffman describes it this way:

When the blowoff comes, the mark finds that he has no defense for not being a shrewd man. He has defined himself as a shrewd man and must face the fact that he is only an­other easy mark. He has defined himself as possessing a certain set of qualities and then proven to himself that he is miser­ably lacking in them. This is a process of self‑destruction of the self.

You can see this response in Crouse’s face. Mantegna had cooled her by saying that he would meet her in a few weeks. When she learns the truth, she responds by threatening Mantegna’s life. He won’t give her the money, so she shoots him.

In the film’s final scene, Crouse steals a lighter from a woman dining at the table beside her. This recalls her earlier action of taking Mantegna’s pocket knife, which action she saw as tightening the bond with Mantegna. Stealing the lighter, however, reinforces her inability to face her real self. The thrill she gets from it hides her vulnerabilities from herself.

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