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The Criterion Collection presents
House of Games (1987)

"What's more fun than human nature?"
- Mike (Joe Mantegna)

Review By: Jon Danziger  
Published: August 20, 2007

Stars: Joe Mantegna, Lindsay Crouse
Director: David Mamet

MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 01h:41m:50s
Release Date: August 21, 2007
UPC: 715515025027
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A B+AB+ B+

DVD Review

David Mamet's virulent strain of cultivated manliness can frequently feel like a put-on; his scalding voice as a writer, for the staccato rhythms of speech and the turbulent emotional lives of the inarticulate, make his plays defining documents, and there's no doubt that we'll be reveling in revivals of the likes of American Buffalo and Glengarry Glen Ross and Speed-the-Plow for generations. You've got to admire the guy's audacity—he's published books about acting and about directing at a time when he demonstrated a limited facility with both, but unlike most smartasses, he's got the talent to back it up. So revisiting House of Games is a particular pleasure—it was Mamet's directorial debut, and lacks some of the technical facility of later films, though no one would ever mistake him for, say, Scorsese as a visual stylist. And like Arthur Miller before him, he's in the tradition of great American writers much more at home in the company of men, and for whom women remain objects of desire, or scorn, or both. But it's a crackerjack movie with lots of surprises, and even upon re-viewing gives up some pleasures that might at first be overlooked.

This is one of those movies that's so serpentine in its plotting and full of revelations that to discuss it too much is sure to spill too many beans, and nobody likes a bean spiller. Suffice it to say that Lindsay Crouse stars as Dr. Margaret Ford, a psychiatrist and best-selling author, who, while trying to protect one of her patients, gets ensnared in the dark world of confidence men, which she finds thrilling and exhilarating, and which makes her throw all professional caution to the winds. Joe Mantegna, the archetypical Mamet actor, plays Mike, the con man with whom she (inevitably) becomes romantically involved; Crouse was married to Mamet at the time, and you can't help but think that the writer/director was working out some issues with this character—or perhaps it's just the unfortunate late 1980s style, which straitjackets Crouse in suits with more shoulder padding than a wide receiver, and the androgynous pageboy haircut she sports. (To be fair, Crouse was indelible in a small but pivotal role in The Verdict, also a Mamet screenplay.)

What the film is truly in love with, rather than women, are the tribal rituals of men—not just film flam scams but poker games and war stories are depicted lovingly and with relish. With this film Mamet falls right in line with this particular strain of American literature, one that probably begins with Melville's The Confidence-Man and runs up through movies like The Sting. And at times it's like a story from another world, that age not so long ago when everybody smoked. Also, one of the pleasures of watching this is seeing members of Mamet's de facto stock company show up, even in cameo roles—watching a Mamet picture of this period isn't entirely unlike picking out familiar faces in a Preston Sturges movie, and here the notable faces include William H. Macy, Mike Nussbaum, and the late J. T. Walsh. The flat affect that the director cultivates in many of the performances comes to seem like an annoyance—Mamet's notion seems to be that his cast should simply just say the words, without any inflection at all, if possible, which makes them into monotonic automatons. It's completely a writer's notion of what acting should be—just let everybody hear my beautiful words, and all will be fine!—and it suggests a reverence for one's own work that seems deeply immodest, at very best. But you'll still probably get lured in as you get used to the mannered style, and you may want to watch it again right away just to pick up a little more of the filmmaking sleight of hand.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: B+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.78:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: High marks to Criterion—this DVD is light years ahead of the film's initial DVD release, and the transfer is really kind of a knockout, especially considering how poor some late '80s independent films can look in the format.

Image Transfer Grade: A


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: Certainly a competent effort on the audio side as well, though the mono track has its limitations; also, perhaps we can now put a moratorium on The Goldberg Variations on movie soundtracks, please?

Audio Transfer Grade: B+


Disc Extras

Static menu with music
Scene Access with 22 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
1 Deleted Scenes
1 Documentaries
2 Featurette(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by David Mamet and Ricky Jay
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL

Extra Extras:
  1. accompanying booklet
  2. color bars
Extras Review: Mamet is joined on the commentary track by Ricky Jay, who is a historian of magic and a magician, and who plays a small but pivotal role in the film while serving as a consultant during production for the confidence games employed in the plot. It's kind of a jokey, snarky track—they're obviously great pals and having fun reminiscing about the film, made some twenty years ago now. They share a love of the vocabulary of the con man: the roper, the steerer, the big store, and so on; and one of Mamet's principal points is that all of psychiatry is itself a confidence game (no doubt an overstatement), coupled with his ancillary observation that all intellectuals are idiots. He's most bilious, though, about Orion, the studio that botched the original theatrical release of the movie—some wounds never heal. Definitely worth a listen.

The two lead actors have sat for new interviews, both worth a look. Crouse (14m:53s) reflects cagily on life with Mamet, on the set and off, and wonders whether or not her character is in fact the true hero of the piece. Mantegna (14m:45s) discusses his longstanding Chicago ties with the playwright, and remains almost in disbelief regarding the smashing success of the original Broadway production of Glengarry Glen Ross. David Mamet on House of Games (24m:45s) a making-of piece, offers some great on-set action, along with footage of Mamet at his self-consciously Mametest: at the poker table. The Tap is a fascinating inclusion—it's a series of storyboards for a short con outlined by Jay that ended up not being shot for the picture. Also on hand are an original trailer, and the accompanying booklet includes a worshipful essay by Kent Jones, along with Mamet's introduction for the published screenplay.

Extras Grade: B+


Final Comments

Listen to what I'm going to tell you now: a crafty, sturdily constructed, and occasionally wicked debut film from one of the great American playwrights gets the uptown treatment from Criterion. It's a sharp and worthy effort, and well worth checking out.


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