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Film / House of Games

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"Of course you gave me your trust. That's what I do for a living!"

House of Games is David Mamet's 1987 directorial debut. He also wrote the screenplay, based on a story he wrote with Jonathan Katz. The film's cast includes David Mamet's then-wife Lindsay Crouse and Joe Mantegna. Many actors who would become Mamet's Production Posse have roles in the film.

A famous psychologist, Margaret Ford (Crouse), meets a gambler and Con Man, Mike (Mantegna), who introduces her to his dark and seductive underworld of deception. What at first starts as an intellectual curiosity and then a thrill, soon goes over her head.

No relation to the similarly-named quiz show Richard Osman's House of Games.

This film provides examples of:

  • Abandoned Warehouse: The restricted area of the airport is completely unmanned. Even the gun shots wouldn't attract anybody's attention.
  • Abusive Parents: Margaret has a patient whose father repeatedly called her a whore during her childhood.
  • All Girls Want Bad Boys: Margaret becomes attracted to Mike because of this, and he recruits her into his gang as a result.
  • The Bad Guy Wins: Subverted. After Margaret kills Mike at the climax, she herself is shown to have been corrupted into unrepentant petty thievery.
  • Batman Gambit: The con works out because Margaret is doing exactly what she is supposed to do, up until the very end.
  • Black-and-Gray Morality: All characters are flawed, some more than others.
  • Blood from the Mouth: The dying cop has this in a remorse flashback of Margaret's.
  • Bullet Holes and Revelations: Invoked. Margaret tries to get around the armed cop when suddenly the gun goes off. After a moment of stillness, the cop sinks to the ground.
  • Caper Crew: Mike, Joey, George, Billy, the departing hotel guest, the "undercover cop"... nearly everyone Margaret sees in the movie is part of the crew against her.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The pocket knife, which Margaret steals from the hotel room, creates some repercussions later in the story.
  • City Noir: All night-time scenes involving the House of Games and Charlie's Tavern show features of this.
  • The Con: The film features a psychiatrist getting involved in a world of con men who sometimes perform cons that include many participants. Everything that happens in the film was a long con aimed at Margaret.
  • Con Man: Mike, his friends, and eventually Margaret. Or so she thinks.
  • Cool Car: The bright red convertible Margaret steals to help herself, Mike, and Joey escape from the hotel. When she later sees it being driven by Billy, it leads her to unravel the bigger con.
  • Corrupt the Cutie: Mike tries to do this to Margaret. He succeeds posthumously, as revealed when she steals a gold lighter and smiles, completely hooked to a life of crime.
  • Defiant to the End: Mike acts like this at gun point, almost to the extent of being a Death Seeker.
  • Defrosting Ice Queen: Margaret goes from an aloof professional to a thrill-seeking thief and murderer over the course of the film.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: Taking a life for the loss of $80,000 seems a bit harsh.
  • Do You Want to Copulate?: Mike's straight-forward question: "Do you wanna make love with me?"
  • Did They or Didn't They?: The sex scene at the hotel is skipped over.
  • Downer Ending: Margaret gets revenge on Mike for the scam, but she herself has become a villain, as the last scene suggests.
  • Dramatic Gun Cock: Margaret cocks the gun on Mike when he tries to leave during the final confrontation.
  • Emerging from the Shadows: Mike enters the story this way.
  • The Ending Changes Everything: Margaret has an And You Were There moment on her second visit to Charlie's Tavern.
  • Exact Eavesdropping: When Margaret goes to Charlie's Tavern for the second time, she overhears every detail about the con that Mike's gang pulled on her.
  • Freudian Slip: Margaret does this twice when talking to her mentor, Dr. Littauer. First comes when they meet for lunch:
    Margaret : I think the only pressures in my life—
    Dr. Littauer: The only what?
    Margaret: Pleasures. I said "pleasures".
    • The second time comes after a session with the prisoner that doesn't go well; Margaret says, "My father called her a whore".
  • Gray Rain of Depression: There's a heavy rain when Margaret returns to Charlie's Tavern after losing $80,000 from being conned by Mike.
  • He's Dead, Jim: Invoked. Mike checks the cop's pulse for five seconds to come up with this diagnose.
  • Illegal Gambling Den: The back room of the House of Games, where Mike and the others play high-stakes poker.
  • Impersonating an Officer: Several members of Mike's gang impersonate police officers and undercover detectives at various points of their con.
  • Informed Attractiveness: Invoked by Mike to charm Margaret: "You're a lovely woman."
  • I Was Never Here: Margaret makes this clear to Mike, before she kills him.
  • Kansas City Shuffle: The first con Mike plays on her, which she is supposed to deduce, to get her drawn into the rest of the con.
  • Karma Houdini: Margaret gets away with her murder. Also, the other members of Mike's gang never face any repercussions for cheating her out of $80,000.
  • Maid and Maiden: Margaret's only friend is Dr. Littauer, an older colleague at the hospital where they work.

  • Misplaced-Names Poster: The movie poster has the names of the two leads swapped around.
  • Most Writers Are Writers: The heroine is a well-known psychiatrist with a best selling book.
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Barkeeping: The barkeeper at Charlie's Tavern is polishing glasses when Margaret enters.
  • Plot-Sensitive Latch: Invoked. When Mike reaches for the suitcase, it "accidentally" opens to reveal $80,000 in cash.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Mike is Defiant to the End and delivers a final hate speech to Margaret.
    Mike: Hey, fuck you! This is what you always wanted, you crooked bitch! You thief! You always need to get caught, cuz you know you're bad. I never hurt anybody. I never shot anybody. You sought this out. This is what you always wanted. I knew it the first time you came in. You're worthless, you know it? You're a whore! You came back like a dog to its own vomit! You sick bitch! I'm not gonna give you shit!
  • Shout-Out: The hotel room that Mike takes Margaret to is room #1138, which is a reference to George Lucas's THX 1138.
  • The Shrink: Margaret is a caring psychologist. And then along came Billy Hahn...
  • Smoking Is Cool: Most characters smoke in a rather neo-noir way.
  • Social Engineering: Mike uses this to manipulate his victims into doing what he wants, such as pretending to be a down-on-his-luck veteran to get another vet to sympathize and give him some money.
  • A Taste of Their Own Medicine: Margaret tries to pull a con on Mike after she discovers his gang conned her out of $80,000.
  • The Tell: A running theme in the movie.
    • Invoked when Mike recruits Margaret to watch for a tell in his poker game opponent.
    • Mike demonstrates the working of a tell to Margaret in a "hidden penny" game. Margaret's tell is her nose pointing into the direction of the hand holding the token.
    • Mike uses another tell to sense what finger Margaret thinks of, though the audience is not told how.
  • Thrill Seeker: Margaret turns into one of these over the course of the movie, as she gets addicted to Mike's world of hustle and con games.
  • Trapped by Gambling Debts: Invoked when Billy tells Margaret that he owes $25,000 in gambling debts. This prompts her to visit the House of Games and meet Mike.
  • Would Hit a Girl: Joey slaps Margaret in the face when she refuses to steal the car at the hotel.