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Calling David Mamet a great filmmaker is going too far.  He’s never made a film that felt timeless or traditionally classic.  He doesn’t delve into the avant garde or try to be visually groundbreaking.  What Mamet does do is make is a singular type of film few others could duplicate.  He has a signature type of character and word that is his own and can always be spotted.  His characters are fierce creatures; people so determined and focused on their objectives that for them to even blink could let down their guard too much.  They do not waste words or like to suffer people who do.  “House of Games” was Mamet’s first feature and helped create these characteristics which now define him as a filmmaker.  And while time has been unkind to “House of Games”, con men movies and twist ending are everywhere, it’s still an interesting part of Mamet’s past.

Lindsey Crouse plays a therapist who gets sucked into the word of con man Joe Montegna.  Questioning the security which makes up her existence and the legitimacy of what she does professionally, she becomes engrossed in the double dealings of this underworld criminal.  The details of the story beyond this are unnecessary.  “House of Games” has a tremendous first act and while perhaps quite intriguing overall in 1987, it has since become structurally transparent.  The con man has his own sub-genre at this point, and while Mamet may have been one of the first to go there, many have been there since.  Those fierce characters that Mamet thrives on are still here and very watchable, but the story they’re occupying will surprise no one but the most rudimentary film watcher.  Con man movies are always building towards one more big con, it’s just a matter of the audience spotting it.  Here the final turn of the screw is far too easy to see because the audience has long since been tuned in to look for it in advance.  He salvages something with a gritty climax that flirts with shocking.  But in the end it’s not enough.

Montegna is incredibly solid and smooth here, so much so that many of his later parts seem like parodies of himself.  He’s an actor who easily tips over into cartoonishness but Mamet keeps him in check.  Crouse is adequate in her role, the part needs something low key like her, but she’s too stoic and passionless an actress.  She scores points here and there, but her range is limited and it hurts the overall film in important places.  That almost shocking climax may have been more shocking had another actress been part of it.

Mamet has made better films since “House of Games”, see “Spartan”, but it’s the one which marked his arrival.  It deserves something for that, even if it doesn’t grab the way it did in 1987.  Admirers and imitators are largely responsible for the film’s degraded state, nothing the film itself can be held responsible for.

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