Review: House of Games

David Mamet’s directorial debut is House of Games, a classic neo noir from 1987. Mamet has made some amazing neo noir films through out his career and this first one definitely qualifies.

This film starts out with Margaret Ford, played by Lindsay Crouse(Mamet’s wife at the time). Ford is a psychiatrist and author who is fairly well-known from her book. We see this in the opening scene when she is approached by a stranger who turns out to be a fan that wants her book signed. We see Ford meet with a patient in prison and a friend and colleague at a restaurant. This shows how busy and driven she is. She then meets a patient in her office who has a gambling addiction. He states he owes a bookie $25,000 and if he doesn’t pay by tomorrow, they are going to kill him. Ford goes to meet the bookie named Mike at a pool hall called House of Games. She meets Mike played by Joe Mantegna who is charming and said her patient owes him $800, not $25,000. He offers to forgive the debt if she helps him in a poker game. She does and soon the games begin. Mike is a con man and Ford is fascinated by him and his crew. She decides she would like to follow them around and learn from them for a new book project.

The twists and turns continue in one entertaining scene after another. Mamet’s usual gang of actors make appearances throughout the film like Ricky Jay and William H. Macy.

This film was suppose to be a big budget film with bigger stars, but Mamet decided to direct himself and use his wife and friends as the actors instead. Given that, distributor Orion only released the film in 4 theaters and it basically went straight to video and a television release. Over the years it has found an audience and even received a Criterion DVD release. This film is worth your time if you are a fan of film in general. It is a unique experience where you feel your watching a live play rather than a film in some sense. The language and conversation between the characters is precise and unique. The plot seems to be a very tight con man story,  until the very end where everything falls apart and feels very real.

Favorite Tidbit: This film has already been remade twice! One from Hong Kong and one from India. I have not seen either of these, but it would be interesting to compare all three.

Re-Watching: Spartan

David Mamet writes and directs Spartan, a neo noir from 2004. I have not seen this movie since it came out on DVD 11 years ago. I decided to revisit it after watching Mamet’s Homicide(which I reviewed earlier on this site and loved!) This is not your typical noir story. The story revolves around Scott, a military man played by Val Kilmer. He is a top-notch soldier with a high level skill set.

The story starts with the Presidents daughter played by Kristen Bell, being kidnapped. The trail soon leads to a white slavery ring, taking girls from America to the middle east. Scott and the team are hot on the trail when the story breaks of the first daughter being found dead alongside her college professor in a boating accident. Getting to this point has a lot of classic undercover and spy plot lines and is entertaining. The really good noir plot lines start after Scott gets a visit from a fellow soldier played by Derek Luke. He feels that the President’s daughter isn’t really dead. This theory gets Scott thinking and the two start looking back at some of the clues. When his partner is shoot dead by a sniper the plot really thickens and gets interesting.

We have a lot of great appearances in this film, like Mamet regular William H. Macy as well as Ed O’Neill and Clark Gregg. Tia Texada is another stand out as a female soldier.

Mamet does it again with this mix of noir and international intrigue. It is well written and filmed by one of the best. Though this may not be Mamet’s best work it is certainly worth a look. I can’t help seeing the similarities in plot with mega hit Taken that came out 4 years later. The tone and pacing of the two films are very different, but would make an interesting double feature to watch on a lazy afternoon.

Favorite Tidbit: Alexandra Kerry makes a small appearance as a bartender in this film. Her father John Kerry was running for President at the time this film was released. An interesting parallel to the film about a President running for re-election and his daughter.

Review: Homicide

Homicide is a neo noir from 1991 by modern film great David Mamet.  Mamet who wrote and directed this film has also wrote a ton of great neo noir and crime films over the last 4 decades.  He writes some of the best dialog around with a rhythm to it that is hypnotic.  It is street level crime poetry, and the flow and delivery from some of the best actors around.  This is the first time I’ve seen this film, but it won’t be the last.  I’m not sure how I missed this in the early 90’s at the video store, or never really heard much about it.  It popped up on a few neo noir lists and when I seen who stared in it as well as it being a Mamet film, I put it to the top of my Netflix Queue.

This film revolves around Joe Mantegna as our Homicide Detective lead.  He is tough, but tough in a different way than our normal hardboiled detective.  He uses his people skills and smarts rather than his fists and gun.  In fact we see a number of pivotal scenes where his physical strength is tested and he fails these tests.  We also see him get back up and keep trucking along.  This film has a lot of racial tension as well.  Our hero is Jewish and seems to shun this at first, but later is torn between being a great cop or a good Jew.

William H. Macy plays Mantegna’s partner and their dialog and banter is some of the best in modern noir.  Macy is always good and doesn’t disappoint here. He plays the sidekick who doesn’t question anything his partner does, because to him, his partner can do no wrong.  Will this be his downfall?

This story starts with an F.B.I. raid on an apartment, they kill an innocent black women and their suspect gets away.  It’s a mess the F.B.I. dumps on the local Homicide division.  Our two detectives take the case, with a lead they think will pan out.  On the way to apprehend the suspects brother to see if he will roll over on his brother, we come to some flashing lights and a cop in need of some help.  As Macy takes the car and goes on to the planned meet with the suspects brother, Mantegna stays behind to help the uniformed police officers.  An old Jewish women has been shot with a shotgun and her store robbed.  Mantegna catches the case and is taken off the more high-profile original case.  He continues to juggle the two cases.  On one hand he is helping his people solve the murder case of a Jew.  On the other he is trying to find the black man the F.B.I. is desperate to find.

This has some great actors in this besides our two leads.  Though all are great in this, the two small parts that stand out to me are Ving Rhames in one of his earliest movie roles as the black suspect the first case revolves around, and Ricky Jay as one of the members of the Jewish community the second case revolves around.

The movie isn’t just noir in story but also is filmed in a classic film noir style, using washed out colors and shadows through out.

I really loved this film and think noir lovers of the classic era as well as the modern neo noir lovers will like it too. This film has more to say then a simple murder mystery and touches on racial tensions not only between whites and blacks but the Jewish community as well. I look forward to watching and re-watching more from Mamet for this site in the future.