Lindsay Crouse in House of Games (1987) seems made almost of wax, the kind Madame Tussaud worked into eerie similitude. Grand old Wikipedia tells us that during the French Revolution Tussaud fashioned death masks of prominent victims of another Madame, la Guillotine, having searched through corpses to find the decapitated heads she needed. Two centuries later, Crouse emerges from the Mamet-ian shadows with the same relentless dedication, her own head intact--or is it?--the surfaces of her face curving in cool detachment and butter-yellow melancholy, eyes widening as the sly ecstasy of the game takes her--well, into its confidence, if I may play with the phrase, and draws her to her true self.
I have watched this movie three or four times over the years, and until this last viewing what always struck me were two things--no, three, if you count Joe Mantegna's Mike, one of those performances I find dismaying because they lead me into the covetous yearning to discard for a while my threadbare self and wear his, like a good suit; but I digress. Again, two things:
(1) The sheer fun of learning the cons, the vicarious vice indulged, the smugness of sleight-of-hand. Watch Mike standing alone, no audience, making the coin disappear, to understand the egoism of the act, the wise guy lording it over everyone--or nobody; doesn't matter, as long as you can do the trick. But the con is also like gambling, until you're part card sharp, part close-up magician; the best of two bad worlds.
(2) The prim sexiness of Crouse's Margaret Ford, starched into late-'80s power-wear, but also somehow burgeoning, like an arbor. I'm not sure if it's her posture or her mouth--or better yet, her eyes, at once flat and vivid; a watching face. In any case, to me she seemed a piece of fruit, except--you guessed it--wax.
And now, watching her one more time, I see the mannequin move, and the grapes spill out, but rotten. How could I have missed it, her predatory half-smile, her mouth slightly parted, smeared by a handful of Deadly Sins? Mike caught it right away, Margaret's "tell," but he didn't realize how feral she was, how simply compelled, a creature of instinctual desires. Pure Mamet, in some ways, given his reputation for female characters who seem more projections of fears rather than dramatic personae. But in House of Games there is a sadness mixed in with Crouse's inscrutable glances; Margaret is nothing but guilt without a sense of itself, an amoral animated figure watching in a mirror the simple movements of its eyes and arms.
This is the House of Wax, then, and getting in costs plenty, at least this time around for me, as I felt my earlier impressions of the film like a faint draft on the back of my neck while I walked into this new room, where Margaret pockets small personal things, just as Mike had told her--but now it seems more like Biff Loman stealing that fountain pen, sad recompense for having to be so pleased with oneself, a life as a con, all games and no winner. In the final shot of her in the film Margaret has to be content with a slight movement of her mouth in a gesture so secretive that I cannot know, watching her one more time, whether she's tasting corruption in the back of her throat or merely suppressing a last laugh.
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