Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Andrew J. Douglas: David Mamet's HOUSE OF GAMES (1987)

BMFI's Director of Education, Andrew J. Douglas, Ph.D., recently had a review of Christopher Nolan's feature film debut, Following, published in Film International. Here he takes a look at another famous director's first film, David Mamet's House of Games.

David Mamet's House of Games (1987)
By Andrew J. Douglas, Ph.D., Director of Education, BMFI

If David Mamet had never taken a turn in the director’s chair, he could still lay claim to a successful career as a screenwriter and be content that he was one of the most influential and acclaimed playwrights of the last quarter of the 20th century. After all, before he made his debut as a film director with House of Games in 1987, Mamet had already written the screenplays for The Verdict (Sidney Lumet, 1982) and The Untouchables (Brian De Palma, 1987), and would go on to write (or co-write) Hoffa (Danny DeVito, 1992), Wag the Dog (Barry Levinson, 1997), and Hannibal (Ridley Scott, 2001). Oh, I almost forgot to mention that in 1984 he won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for his play Glengarry Glen Ross, and also wrote the screenplay for the 1992 film based on it. In addition, he’s been nominated for two Tony Awards and two Oscars.

But back to House of Games, which, if you haven’t seen it, is most definitely worth checking out. (The terrific Criterion Collection DVD is a great way to do so.) It tells the story of a psychiatrist (Lindsay Crouse, married to Mamet at the time) who encounters a gambler and con man (Joe Mantegna, a longtime Mamet collaborator) and is fascinated by his world. In pursuit of her interest—partly professional, partly personal—she ends up getting far more than she bargained for. Also along for the ride are some Mamet regulars whom you’ll recognize making some early film appearances, including William H. Macy, J.T. Walsh (check—I bet you’ve seen him in at least five movies), and magician, card sharp, and raconteur Ricky Jay (Boogie Nights).

The key ingredient, though, is Mamet, and specifically, his direction. Originally, this screenplay was going to be a big-budget film with a name director and major stars, but when the plans changed and Mamet was able to direct it—and cast his troupe—it became something more than just another above-average thriller. For the first time on screen, Mamet is able to shape the performances of the characters he’s created, hone the articulation of the dialogue he’s carefully crafted, and guide viewers through the story’s machinations with the precise amount of help they need, and not a drop more. As a fan, I greatly enjoy hearing Mamet’s dialogue in a film like The Untouchables, but I’m transfixed when I get a window into an entire world that Mamet has created in a film he’s written and directed, like House of Games.

And I’m not alone. In his review of the film Vincent Canby, of The New York Times, agrees that “Mr. Mamet, poker player and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, makes a fine, completely self-assured debut directing his original screenplay.” Canby adds: “It’s clear that Mr. Mamet not only knows exactly how he wants his work to sound, but also how it should look . . . (the film) is the first true Mamet work to reach the screen, and the direction illuminates it at every turn.” Roger Ebert, in his review, wrote: “House of Games never steps wrong from beginning to end, and it is one of this year’s best films.” Please take their words for it, if not mine, and see House of Games. It is the first film directed by one of our country’s most gifted, incisive, and engaging storytellers.

Dr. Andrew J. Douglas received his Ph.D. from the Department of Radio/Television/Film at Northwestern University. He will be moderating Bryn Mawr Film Institute's Film History Discussion Series: 1945-Present, which begins on January 27.