There is something too deliberate in House of Games, like it was overthunk, and, I thoroughly enjoyed unravelling the thinking. (First I had to unravel why ravel is not a thing. Its definitions, paraphrased, are: 1. To unravel; 2. The opposite of unravel. It is not surprising that it is only used for bolero attribution.)
The movie kept on showing up as interesting with a but. Most recently, it was while listening to podcast, an offhand remark during an off-topic discussion about Glengarry Glen Ross. A few months before, it was a blogging friend’s review. I look it up and see that it got mixed reviews with Roger Ebert giving it four stars (I rarely dislike an Ebert four star). I also see that I have already bookmarked the article so I decide to add it to my watch list and find that it is already there with a blurb that tells me I found it in a listicle.
The subtexts captivate me, opening in 80’s modern thriller: large terraced concrete plaza, glass buildings, and the double fake of the creepy faux first-person point of view.
The next couple of scenes set the foundations. Clues just obvious enough to be noted but not explicit enough to be understood. The set-up continues the tactics; you can see the scene will lead to the blurb’s scenario but you don’t know how it is going to get there.
The blinds announce the move into film-noir mode. Half-drawn blinds, shadows and period decoration: art-deco lamp, old wooden desk, and a radiator. I notice the protagonist is using a fountain pen, lighting filterless cigarettes with matches and there is the gun in the drawer. Nothing glaringly out of place for the period but a clear evocation.
A door metaphorically opens and closes with an air of suspense into another noir scene, a rundown bar that hasn’t changed in ages. Pool tables, an enigmatic bar man and, for the unique touch, an homme fatal. The place even has boxing posters.
I recognize Ricky Jay and for a while, expecting a sleight of hand, I start watching him closely. A Checker Cab closes the chapter.
A literal reveal announces the tone of the new chapter. This chapter is different—it starts in a newer bar and the protagonist is now writing her notes on paper napkins with a disposable roller pen. The tropes may be less established but the vibe is now early 60’s caper film.
The protagonist dress is also contributing to the story line. The bangs have been let down and the collar has gone from pinned at the top to hints of a decolleté. The costumes will punctuate the story of her evolution right through to the end
Once the film finished, my first reaction is that the film falls just short of being great. Everything is there but the magic, the unintentional subtleties. I blame this on it being David Mamet‘s directorial debut; like the tinkerer using their newest tool for everything, he takes his newfound control of the visual story-line and runs with it. The consensus view holds: interesting but…, a watch-once movie even if only for the “May I have another?”.