Tuesday, March 20, 2012

My Favorite Scene: House of Games

As a person who is fascinated by the art of The Con, David Mamet’s first feature, House of Games, offers no shortage of useful material. And for whatever reason, in movies like House of Games, what I find myself most drawn to are the short cons – the quick sequences that tersely encapsulate how to nab a few bucks from a perfectly innocent stranger.

Don’t get me wrong, I love watching long cons being depicted on the screen. I’ll take the Ocean’s 11’s, the Sting’s, the Spanish Prisoner’s, and the Confidence’s all day long. But the effectiveness of the long cons in those movies are directly related to the very skilled crews executing them, whereas a short con can be pulled off by anyone with a healthy amount of bravado.

Take, for instance, the remarkably simple little larceny that Mike (Joe Mantegna) and his crew of misfits impress upon Dr. Margaret Ford (Lindsay Crouse). Standing outside of the House of Games tavern one particularly wet night, Joey (a bow-tie wearing goon played by Mike Nussbaum) sets a scene for Margaret in which she is to play the role of a candy store owner.
Joey, playing the part of a hurried patron, walks into the candy store and sets 20 singles on the counter. He asks Margaret to exchange the singles for a $20 bill because he has to send a registered letter to his mother (which Mike corrects, saying that sending a letter to your aunt is “more pathetic”). Margaret gives Joey a $20 bill, which Joey seals in the signed and stamped envelope. Once the envelope is sealed, Margaret, as the storeowner, would presumably count her 20 singles, only to discover that there are 19, not 20.

“I’ve only got 19,” the storeowner would say. Joey would count the bills, and sure enough, there would only be 19. Joey would then excuse himself so that he could retrieve another dollar from his wife in the car. He would give the storeowner the sealed envelope, and go home.

Wait, what? If he has the 19 singles, and the storeowner has a $20 bill, how did Joey get any money?

Look closer.
When Margaret is instructed to open the envelope, she finds that it is empty. “But I saw you put the $20 bill in there,” Margaret says. “No,” Joey asserts. “That’s what you thought you saw.”

You’re mad if you think I’m going to broadcast the kicker to this con, but know that it is so simple, that anyone with the proper amount of stones could pull it off without a hitch.

House of Games is full of far more elaborate and impressive cons, but something as elementary as the candy store con (which Joey dubs “The Flue”) is so ingenious in its rudimentary ingenuity that viewers sit and think, “Hmm, I could do that.” Just remember, as Joe tells Margaret, it’s called a confidence game. Why? Because you give me your confidence? No. Because I give you mine.

Previous installments of My Favorite Scene include:

The Week of Mamet:
Monday March 19
the Directors: David Mamet

Wednesday March 21
In Character: ???

Thursday March 22
My Favorite Scene: Redbelt

Friday March 23
The Mamet Awards

Sunday March 25 
Reader Idea Post


  1. Hmm sounds interesting. Kind of reminds me of that scene from Paper Moon (I think that's what I'm thinking of).

    Looking forward to your Redbelt scene!

  2. @Robert Believe me man, I haven't even scratched the surface of how ingenious this film is.

    Now that I think about it, that IS kind of like a scene from Paper Moon.

    LOVE Redbelt, excited for that write-up!