House of Games

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House of Games
Directed by David Mamet
Produced by Michael Hausman
Screenplay by David Mamet
Starring Lindsay Crouse
Joe Mantegna
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, a compulsive gambler who informs her that his life is in danger. He owes $25,000 to a criminal figure — money he doesn't have — and if he doesn't pay, he will be killed.

Margaret visits a pool hall and bar called the House of Games and confronts the man Billy owes, Mike (Mantegna). After a brief conversation, Margaret sizes Mike up as a tough talker, but not a violent gangster. Mike reveals that Billy's debt is only eight hundred dollars. 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).

Exhilarated by the tension, Margaret even volunteers $6,000 of her own money to back up Mike's bet because she’s spotted the tell that Mike's opponent is bluffing. Things go wrong. Not only does the player have a winning hand, he also brandishes a gun, demanding the $6,000 she promised as collateral. It is only when Margaret sees a drop of water fall from the pistol barrel that she realizes the whole setup is a con – designed strictly to take her money. 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."

Back in her normal routine, Margaret 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 is skeptical but agrees. He shows her first-hand how a con game works. Her fascination grows. They end up going to a hotel room and making love.

Mike mentions that he has a role in another con that night. Margaret is eager to tag along. Mike, his associate Joey (Mike Nussbaum), and their mark (Walsh) come upon a briefcase of money that someone seems to have accidentally left on the street before getting into a cab. The three men go to the mark's hotel room to keep an eye on each other and discuss what to do with the cash.

Mike confides to Margaret that the $80,000 in cash is real, borrowed from the mob and due back the next day. 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.

Margaret sees and hears what no one else does: that the mark has a gun and a two-way radio, planning to arrest the con artists. Margaret warns Mike and Joey it's a trap. A scuffle develops and the cop/mark is killed when his gun discharges. Mike, Margaret and Joey steal a car and escape. But the briefcase is nowhere to be found; it's been left behind in the commotion. Mike knows 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. She offers to replace the $80,000.

Overwhelmed by the experience, 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 a car that is the very escape vehicle used during the hotel getaway. Margaret puts the pieces together. She spies on the con men—among whom is the "dead" cop/mark—and sees for herself that 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."

Margaret has a gun (one she took from Billy in their earlier session). She has overheard 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. 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 there's nothing she can do about it and turns to leave. Margaret pulls out her gun and demands that Mike beg for his life. He refuses and she shoots him to death.

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 murdering 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. 

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