House of Games

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House of Games
Directed by David Mamet
Produced by Michael Hausman
Screenplay by David Mamet
Music by Alaric Jans
Cinematography Juan Ruiz Anchía
Edited by Trudy Ship
Distributed by Orion Pictures
Release dates
October 11, 1987
Running time
102 minutes
Language English
Box office $2,585,639[1]

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 Lindsay Crouse, Joe Mantegna, Ricky Jay, and J. T. Walsh.


Margaret Ford (Crouse) is a psychiatrist. She has published a book, Driven: Compulsion and Obsession in Everyday Life, which has made her financially well off. One day, she's in a session with Billy Hahn (Steven Goldstein), a compulsive gambler who informs her that his life is in danger because he owes $25,000 to a criminal figure, Mike (Joe Mantegna) — money he doesn't have — and if he doesn't pay, he will be killed. He brandishes a gun and says he will kill himself. Margaret gets him to give her the gun, and she places it in her desk drawer, promising Billy she will help him. Billy, the "Patient," is actually one of Mike's associates; Mike is an accomplished con man, and Billy is the opening act for an elaborate hoax to lure Margaret into a world of adventure and then swindle her out of a huge sum of money.

Believing she must intervene to save Billy, Margaret visits Mike's home base, a pool hall and bar called the House of Games and confronts him, After a brief conversation, Margaret sizes Mike up as a tough talker, but not violent. Mike reveals that Billy's debt is only $800. He is willing to forgive the debt if Margaret accompanies him to a high-stakes poker game as his girlfriend, using her to help spot the tell of another gambler (Jay). The players are all his associates, and the game itself is staged. Margaret spots the tell that the big stakes winner uses when he's bluffing and tips Mike off, Mike calls the hand on a $6000 raise, believing it is a bluff. However Jay shows an ace low straight club flush and demands his $6000.

Feeling responsible for giving a bad tip, and exhilarated by the tension, Margaret writes a $6,000 to back up Mike's bet. It is only when she sees a drop of water fall from the pistol barrel that she realizes the whole setup is a con. Mike and his men see that the jig is up, and nonchalantly pack up the con. Mike apologizes, saying it was "only business ... nothing personal." The water pistol/big hand con, however, is a clever ruse to lure Margaret in, to set her up for a bigger payoff, through an elaborate hoax that will follow. Margaret has been the 'mark' from the start.

Back in her normal routine, she continues to think about her night at the House of Games. She returns, proposing to Mike that she follow him around, learn the ins and outs of his world, perhaps write a book on the experience. Mike acts skeptical but agrees. He enchants her, draws her in, shows her first-hand how a con game works. Her fascination grows. He cons her into a hotel room and they make love. The hotel room is the setup for the big con.

After making love, Mike gets dressed and mentions that he has a role in another con that night. Margaret is eager to tag along. Mike acts reluctant but leads her into the con, pointing out a man leaving from the hotel with a briefcase. They follow the man with the briefcase to the curb, where he catches a cab. The man getting into the cab is the "telling" poker player of the first hoax. He leaves the briefcase on the street as the cab drives off with him in it. When Mike picks up the briefcase it falls open, revealing thousands of dollars. All three men standing at the curb are in the con: Mike, Mike's partner, and one posing as a 'mark'. The three men go to the 'mark's' hotel room to seemingly keep an eye on each other and discuss what to do with the briefcase full of money. Margaret is attentive to every proceeding, not knowing that is all an elaborate hoax designed to swindle her out of $80,000.

Mike confides to Margaret that the $80,000 in cash in the briefcase is real, borrowed from the mob and due back the next day. Mike tells Margaret the plan is to have the mark propose paying Mike and Joey a percentage in exchange for taking the briefcase, but they will switch the case at the last minute and make off with the money.

As the three move into action and the 'mark' prepares to go get the payoff, the 'mark', poses as an 'undercover cop,' blowing his cover to Margaret. Through an open door in the hotel suite, she sees a gun strapped to a holster behind his back while he 'converses' on a two way radio with imaginary police supervisors about arresting the Mike and Joey. Margaret warns Mike and Joey it's a trap, and a staged struggle between Mike and the "mark/cop" ensues. Mike grabs the gun, they fight, the gun goes off, the cop/mark feigns death. Believing there is now a dead cop in the proceedings, Margaret surrenders herself to Mike's judgment and instructions. Mike tells Margaret to steal a red Cadillac convertible that's sitting in the hotel's parking lot gurney with the keys in it. She does, and they make a high profile, paranoia-ridden escape from the hotel murder scene in broad daylight, with the parking lot guards waving them on as they leave.. Shortly thereafter, the briefcase with $80,000 is nowhere to be found, supposedly left behind in the commotion. Mike tells Margaret the consequences of failing to return the "mob's" money. Margaret has fallen for Mike and fears for his safety, as well as her own. Overwhelmed by the experience, she offers to replace the $80,000 and goes to the bank and.Mike gets his $80,000 payoff from her.

Margaret is visited by Billy, her patient, who stops by briefly to cancel his appointment scheduled for the next day. By sheer chance, she spots Billy leaving in the red Cadillac convertible, the very escape vehicle used during the hotel getaway. She puts the pieces together. She tracks Billy and finds the gang —among whom is the "dead" cop/mark—and conceals herself within earshot so she can hear what they're talking about. She discovers everything was a ruse to swindle her out of $80,000; making love to her, she overhears Mike say, was "a small price to pay."

She overhears when Mike is leaving town and lies in wait at the airport. At first she puts on an act, pleading to travel with him with an additional $250,000 she says she has brought. Seeing an opportunity to make off with even more money, Mike coaxes her into a deserted dock of the airport where they can be alone. When she misspeaks, Mike realizes that Margaret knows the score. He tells her coldly the money's been divided and there's nothing anyone can do about it and turns to leave. However, Margaret is packing the gun she took from Billy. She pulls it out and demands that Mike beg for his life. Mike calls her bluff and she shoots him in the leg as he heads for the door. As he lies wounded on the dock, she decries how he has treated her and again demands he beg for his life, but he objects, telling her he'd told her all along what sort of man he was. She announces it's not even her gun and she's 'not even there,' and demands he beg for his life again. He refuses. She shoots him again, in the torso. Defiant, he says, thank you sir, may I have another. She shoots him five more times and leaves him dead, walking quietly out the door.

Later, we see that Margaret has gone on with her life, a changed woman, now able to "forgive herself", as her mentor had urged her to do. She shows no sign of guilt or remorse for killing Mike. She steals a gold lighter out of the purse of another woman in a restaurant and relishes the acquisition.



Describing the structure of the film as "diabolical and impeccable", Roger Ebert gave the film his highest rating: 4 stars. "This movie is awake. I have seen so many films that were sleepwalking through the debris of old plots and second-hand ideas that it was a constant pleasure to watch House of Games."[2] Calling the film "a wonderfully devious comedy", Vincent Canby also gave it a thumbs up. "Mr. Mamet, poker player and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, makes a fine, completely self-assured debut directing his original screenplay. Sometimes he's bluffing outrageously, but that's all right too."[3] Striking a contrary note, The Washington Post saw Mamet as "rechewing film noir, Hitchcock twists and MacGuffins, as well as the Freudian mumbo-jumbo already masticated tasteless by so many cine-kids."[4] It holds a 96% fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes.[5]


In August 2007, the Criterion Collection released a special edition of Mamet's film on DVD. Among the supplemental material included are an audio commentary with Mamet and Ricky Jay, new interviews with actors Lindsay Crouse and Joe Mantegna, and a short documentary shot on location during the film's production.[6]

Stage adaptation[edit]

Playwright Richard Bean adapted Mamet's script for a production at the Almeida Theatre, London, in September 2010. To meet the confines of the medium the stage version is set in just two locations, and the final resolution between Mike and Margaret is softened. Critical reaction to Bean's version was mixed: Michael Billington found only a "pointless exercise", but Charles Spencer thought that the stage version delivered "far better value than the original picture".[7][8]


  1. ^ "Box office / business for House of Games (1987)". IMDb. 
  2. ^ Ebert, Roger. "House of Games". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved 9 November 2012. 
  3. ^ Canby, Vincent (11 October 1987). "MAMET MAKES A DEBUT WITH 'HOUSE OF GAMES'". The New York Times. Retrieved 9 November 2012. 
  4. ^ Howe, Desson (18 December 1987). "House of Games". The Washington Post. Retrieved 10 November 2012. 
  5. ^ "House of Games (1987)". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 9 November 2012. 
  6. ^ The Criterion Collection: House of Games by David Mamet
  7. ^ Billington, Michael (17 September 2010). "House of Games". The Guardian. Retrieved 29 November 2010. 
  8. ^ Spencer, Charles (17 September 2010). "House of Games, Almeida Theatre". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 29 November 2010. 

External links[edit]