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 (Lindsay Crouse) is a psychiatrist who has achieved success with her recently published book, but who feels unfulfilled. During a session one day, Billy Hahn (Steven Goldstein), a patient, informs her that his life is in danger because he owes money to a criminal figure named Mike (Joe Mantegna) and brandishes a gun, threatening to kill himself. Margaret persuades him to surrender the chrome weapon to her and promises that she will help.

That night, Margaret visits a pool hall owned by Mike and confronts him. Mike says that he is willing to forgive Billy's debt if Margaret accompanies him to a back room poker game and identifies the tell of George (Ricky Jay), another player. She agrees, and spots George playing with his ring when he bluffs. She discloses this to Mike, who calls the bluff. However, George wins the hand and demands that Mike pay the $6,000 bet, which he is unable to do. George pulls a gun but Margaret intervenes and offers to pay the debt with a personal check. She then notices that the gun is actually a water pistol, and that the entire game is a set-up to trick her out of her money. She is excited, however, and returns the next night to request that Mike teach her about cons so that she can write a book about the experience. Mike is skeptical, but agrees.

Mike begins to enchant Margaret by showing her several small tricks. Eventually, the two steal a hotel room and make love. While in the room, he instructs her that all con artists take a small token from every "mark" to signify their dominance. While Mike is in the bathroom, she takes a small pocket knife from the table, believing that it belongs to the man who rented the room. Afterwards, Mike says that he is late for another, large con with his associates at the same hotel. Margaret is eager to tag along and, reluctantly Mike allows it. The con involves Mike, his partner Joey (Mike Nussbaum) and the "mark," a businessman (J.T. Walsh) discovering a briefcase full of money, and taking it to a hotel room. There they will discuss whether to turn it in or split it among themselves. In the hotel room, Margaret discovers that the businessman is actually an undercover policeman, and the trick is a police sting. She tells Mike and they attempt to escape but the policeman blocks their escape, identifies himself, and tries to place them under arrest. There is a struggle that ends with Mike accidentally shooting the officer dead. The three leave via the stairwell and end up in the garage, where they force Margaret to steal a car, driving past two uniformed police officers, the con men concealed in the back seat. While abandoning the vintage Cadillac, they realize that the briefcase, containing $80,000 borrowed from the Mafia for the con, has been lost. Margaret finally offers to pay Mike $80,000 of her own money so he can pay back the mob.

Mike tells Margaret that they must split up so as not to draw any attention from the police, and says that he is flying away to hide. Margaret is riddled with guilt but, by chance, spots Billy driving the same red convertible. She tracks him to a bar, where she spies on Mike and the entire group, including the undercover policeman, discussing how the preceding events were a scheme to con her out of $80,000.

Margaret lies in wait for Mike at the airport, after overhearing that he is due on a flight to Las Vegas that night and runs into him, seemingly by accident. She tricks Mike with a con of her own, saying that she's been so worried about the police that she has withdrawn her entire life savings, and pleads to start a new life with him. They go to a restricted baggage handling area that is deserted, where Mike finds out he's being tricked, when she lets it slip that she stole his pocket knife. He says that he can't return her money because it has already been divided. Margaret, however, produces Billy's gun and demands that he beg for his life. Mike calls her bluff and refuses so Margaret shoots him in the leg. She decries how she had been treated by him and again demands that he beg for his life. When Mike finally curses her, she shoots him three more times, killing him -- then pumps two more bullets into the body for good measure. She calmly conceals her gun and walks way.

Later, Margaret is shown just returned from a vacation, having moved on from the ordeal. While talking with a colleague, she seems to show no remorse for killing Mike. While at a restaurant, Margaret distracts another diner so as to steal a gold lighter from her purse, relishing the brief thrill.



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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