(Author’s notes: first, this post is about House of Games, not House of Cards – for that, see Bryan Cwik’s excellent post. Second, a fair warning that there are inevitably “spoilers” in these posts, but I hope you’ll find that the films I discuss are still worth watching anyway.)
Movies, television, film, rely on the fact that we will lend them our (mostly) full faith and trust. Cinematic narratives, like people, want to be liked. Well-liked, as Biff says in Death of a Salesman. How much a film, a television show, a novel, a play is well-liked speaks volumes, in my view, about collective dreams, desires, and anxieties regarding our political, social, and cultural transactions with one another.
There is no other filmmaker who better recognizes and takes advantage of this condition than David Mamet. A consistent theme in many of his films is that the protagonist is asked to believe a story – only to find out later that there were ulterior and sometimes nefarious motives in the storyteller. In Spartan, for example, after Secret Service agent Bobby Scott is tasked with determining whether the President’s missing daughter has been trafficked into a Middle Eastern sex slave ring, the story emerges that she actually drowned in a boating accident with one of her Harvard professors. This story, as it turns out, only serves as a cover for the fact that the President’s philandering distracted the Secret Service detail that was supposed to protect his daughter – his daughter, it turns out, actually has been trafficked into sex slavery. In an ignoble attempt to preserve the President’s image, his aides and higher-ups in the Secret Service apparently conspire to hide the truth, not only from Bobby Scott and his new partner, but also the President himself.
In Spartan, the cover-up seems pretty straightforward, but David Mamet’s other films always make me wonder if I’m missing something. Consider his first film – House of Games. A psychologist, Margaret Ford, becomes obsessed with discovering the secrets of a master con artist, Mike, after learning that a client owes him a great deal of money. She soon finds herself participating in one of his schemes involving a “found” briefcase full of money. The con goes awry – a police officer is killed, and Mike and his partner leave the money behind. Telling Ford that they are now in deep trouble with the mob, they convince her to withdraw money from her account to pay back the money. When she discovers that the briefcase con was an elaborate setup to swindle her out of a large sum of money, she tracks Mike down at the airport, and kills him in a deserted luggage area.
Or does she? The scene at the airport seems realistic enough – we see her take a gun and shoot Mike several times. As she shoots Mike in the leg, we see smoke from the gun, and a convincing reaction from Mike as he grabs his leg. When she shoots him again, we see blood on his hand. But do we ever see any other blood, or positive evidence of an entry wound? And if there isn’t enough doubt as to whether Mike is dead or not, consider the gun she uses. It belonged to the “client” that led her to Mike in the first place. In their first scene, she had convinced him to hand it over to her when he suggested that he would use it on himself. But both Margaret and the audience have seen that this “client” was part of Mike’s long con on Margaret to begin with. Mamet’s subtle twist on Chekhov’s rule that a gun placed on stage in the first act of a play must eventually be fired should key us in on the distinct possibility that Mike has staged his own death.
Furthermore, the plausibility of the scenario is certainly questionable – even in an airport, circa 1987, it doesn’t seem likely that security would be so lax, or that someone wouldn’t be in or near that luggage area to hear the shots. And, as he does in other films, Mamet goes out of his way to draw our attention to the implausibility: a sign behind Mike notes in large block letters that, as we would expect, it is a federally secured area. And finally, the motive for Mike to fake his own death is clear enough if we accept that Ford’s sense of excitement in killing him will be plenty compensation for her monetary loss.
You might see the film and think, like I still do, that there remains enough ambiguity to leave open the possibility that Ford actually killed Mike. But think about what I’m saying in that sentence. Ford didn’t “actually” kill anyone, and Mike never “actually” existed to be killed. And this is Mamet’s whole point: just as the fictional character Margaret Ford has been convinced of the reality of gunning down Mike in a sweet moment of powerful revenge, so has the viewer been conned into accepting the same thing. House of Games ends with a scene of Margaret clearly happier, calmer, and feeling more powerful than ever. It is a feeling that the audience will leave the movie theater with as well.
Audiences, like the heroes in the films they watch, like to congratulate themselves on seeing the bad guy “get his.” But even if we think we catch on to the con, and figure it out (as I think I’ve done here, patting myself on the back), there’s still a nagging sense that we haven’t quite seen all there is to see, that we still don’t think we’ve got the whole story. In a way, this nagging uncertainty reveals more about our anxieties and obsessions over our relationships to the people in our lives – from salesmen to politicians, even to lovers.