The film begins with Margaret, a successful therapist, being asked for help by one of her patients to fix a gambling debt for him. This leads her to The House of Games where she meets Mike Mancuso (Joe Mantegna), a cardsharp and con artist. After seeing through a con Mike and George (Ricky Jay) try to play on her, she nevertheless is entranced by this world and wants know its inner workings. That same night she is shown another con, which makes her go back to see Mike and ask him to show her how a con artist works. Mike obliges, showing her a con involving a character played by William H. Macy. What I like most about these early scenes is how they both seduce Margaret while at the same time seducing us. Mantegna gives Mike a charisma that shows why he is effective as a con artist. The most important line Mike has during these scenes, and probably the whole film, is when he tells Margaret, “It’s called a confidence game. Why? Because you give me your confidence? No. Because I give you mine.” I feel this speaks volumes about how con artists work. These con artists give other people their trust in order to trick these “marks” in to giving p something the con artist wants. This also epitomizes Mike’s character, who gives Margaret his confidence throughout the film, working on the fact that her profession involves people trusting her.
This is one way in which Margaret’s profession relates thematically to the film. There’s also the irony that despite being someone whose job it is to help people with their problems, Margaret herself has to deal with the side of herself that is similar to these con artists. Ultimately, unlike other films, Margaret doesn’t turn away from this side of herself at the end of the film but rather embraces it, signifying a sense of closure for her character. I think the closure she finds relates to her ability to finally forgive herself, as been the advice given to her by her mentor Dr. Littauer (Lilia Skala). Margaret forgives herself for killing Mike in response to the con he pulls on her as well as forgiving herself for allowing herself to be conned.
For me, the ending does seem a little rushed, as if Mamet didn’t know how to exactly resolve the relationship between Mike and Margaret, so he just decided to have Margaret shoot her. I know this is a gross simplification of the film but I nevertheless got the impression that there could have been a better way to resolve this relationship or at least more of a lead up to the confrontation. Crouse, in an interview on the Criterion DVD of House of Games does make an interesting not of how strong Mike is in the face of death, not willing at all to beg for his life to Margaret. Mantegna’s performance, as well as Crouse’s, is what make this scene emotionally effective and quite brutal for me, even if I still find it problematic.
House of Games is a film with not a lot of fat hanging off it, which is both an example of its efficient tightness and yet, as I said about its final confrontation, things go by a little too fast. I think I would have liked the central con within a con to be more central to the film, more detailed so that when Margaret does figure everything out, there would be an even greater sense of realization on her part and on the audience. This is not to say that the way the con plays out in the film is anything less than fascinating.
House of Games is ultimately about how the idea of a con game can factor in to everyone’s life. As is told to, and later by, Margaret, her profession is all a con game. To able to play the game of life, we have to accept how we all want to be expert players. Mike is sorry that he conned Margaret but is determined to remain the man he is even as he dies. Maybe it’s through his death that Margaret realizes that if Mike can remain himself in the face of death, she can remain herself in the face of life.