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House of Games at The Royal College of Psychiatry, London

Anne Dean's presentation of Mamet's classic study of con men and the psychiatrist.

Mind Odyssey Film Festival.

David Mamet’s House of Games.

Riverside Studios. Hammersmith, London.

20 January 2002.

The Royal College of Psychiatrists in London, where I work as Head of Postgraduate Educational Services, is running a year-long celebration of the arts, psychiatry, and the mind from July 2001 to June 2002 under the title “A Mind Odyssey.” As part of this celebration, a festival of psychiatry-themed films was arranged by Dr. Peter Byrne, a consultant, psychiatrist and organizer of the film festival. The films selected included Mamet’s House of Games, which was screened at the Riverside Studios on 20 January 2002, immediately after Nicolas Roeg’s Bad Timing.

Because I have written extensively on Mamet’s work, I was asked to participate in an “expert panel” that would discuss the film and answer questions from the audience following the screening. My co-panel member was Dr. Raj Persaud, a consultant psychiatrist well known to television and radio audiences in the UK. I concentrated upon the dramatic/literary aspects of the film, whilst Dr. Persaud dealt with issues of a psychiatric nature.

    The cinema was packed for the screening itself, and about sixty people remained after the film for the discussion. Before the Q&A session began, I gave a brief talk on the aspects of the film that I felt were particularly striking. These included the primacy of image and gesture, the film’s stylized tableaux, and Mamet’s use of the confidence trickster. Although Mamet is renowned for his mastery and use of language as dramatic action throughout his work, I consider it noteworthy that House of Games is a film that tells its story primarily through image and gesture, rather than via the spoken word. Mamet’s trademark economy of linguistic style and incisive word selection is still very much in evidence, but in this instance he prefers to let the images onscreen progress the action. Indeed, the film contains quite lengthy periods of complete silence, but much is being conveyed through glances, gestures, and even the subtle use of lighting. Moreover, I contend that this film is deliberately artificial in style and portrays a stylized representation of reality, which is wholly in keeping with the labyrinthine world it depicts. Again, image is more important than the spoken word, and Mamet opts for a series of tableaux that call to mind the urban spaces captured in the paintings of Edward Hopper, as well as 1940s film noir. The dialogue among characters is often almost “stagey,” their staccato exchanges reflecting the carefully crafted psychological games being played by almost every character in almost every scene. There is little time for relaxation here— virtually every one is always “on.”

This is especially true in the case of Mike, the confidence trickster par excellence in House of Games. Mike is a natural successor to Teach in American Buffalo and the shark-like salesmen in Glengarry Glen Ross. He raises the game to almost mythical proportions; there is a sense in which such characters perform the “con” for its own sake. Yet each of the characters in this film apparently needs the “con” to keep going, to keep high, even to stay alive. In House of Games, perhaps Mamet himself is performing a confidence trick on his leading lady; after all, Margaret is played by his first wife, Lindsay Crouse, who as an accomplished actress m ust trust the first-time director. As Mike tells Margaret early in the film, a con works not because the “mark” gives the trickster their confidence; on the contrary, it works because the trickster gives their confidence to the mark. Manipulation is the name of the game.

At the film festival’s post-screening discussion, there was considerable debate on these points, as well as on issues relating to Mamet’s use of language and Margaret’s compulsive/addictive personality (particularly that she and Mike are the same under the skin). Some audience members maintained that the ‘con” set-up by Mike and his cronies to swindle Margaret was rather obvious and could he spotted early on, whilst others thought the film was brilliant, in its depiction of a series of scams culminating in a set-up of such sophistication and ingenuity that it could hardly be bettered.

    Extensive discussion surrounded Mamet’s choice of psychiatry as Margaret’s profession. For example, did Mamet—and Hollywood in general—have a negative view of psychiatrists? Dr. Persaud commented that House of Games remains one of the few films ever produced to intelligently engage with what psychiatry is really about, which renders it remarkable, given how frequently psychiatry and psychiatrists are featured by Hollywood. While Dr. Persaud has strong reservations about the inaccuracies endemic in the film concerning how psychiatrists actually work, the film in his view still comes closer to a realistic portrayal than any other cinematic portraits, one that can be watched and enjoyed by members of the profession.

    Although the nature of the relationship between psychiatrists and their patients is explored in House of Games, as it is in virtually every other film that includes psychiatrists among its characters, at one level the film appears to be asking whether everything in a capitalist society is a “con”—even the hallowed doctor/patient relationship. Discussion centered on whether the film implies that this most cherished of trusts is betrayed, with the concomitant suggestion that then there surely is no hope for genuine relationships in a free enterprise society. One might infer, moreover, that psychiatry is being used here to make an interesting political point about society at large, one that makes the film enigmatic and fascinating.

    There was also an animated exchange about the fact that Mamet has chosen to make his psychiatrist female and whether her sex had rendered her more susceptible to manipulation and trickery by Mike—putting a rather sexist spin on the proceedings. In short, would it have been possible to dupe a man so mercilessly? The discussion continued with questions being raised about the concepts of self-knowledge and self-forgiveness, and about the moral ambiguities addressed in the film, particularly in relation to Margaret’s journey from healer to murderess. Rather than agonize over her deed, Margaret goes on holiday, forgiving herself because in her view shooting Mike was justified. This post-film session lasted about forty minutes and was most enjoyable, eliciting excellent feedback, which provided considerable food for thought.

ANNE DEAN

ROYAL COLLEGE OF PSYCHIATRISTS