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MGM Studios DVD presents

House of Games (1987)

"You say I acted atrociously. Yes. I did. I do it for a living."- Mike (Joe Mantegna)

Stars: Lindsay Crouse, Joe Mantegna
Other Stars: Mike Nussbaum, Lilia Skala, J.T. Walsh, William H. Macy, Ricky Jay
Director: David Mamet

Manufacturer: WEA
MPAA Rating: R for (language, violence)
Run Time: 01h:41m:00s
Release Date: 2000-12-19
Genre: crime

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B+ A-D+B+ D-


DVD Review

House of Games marked the feature film directorial debut of David Mamet, who also wrote the screenplay (with story assistance from Jonathan Katz, a.k.a. "Dr. Katz" of Comedy Central fame). Mamet's extensive credits include the plays American Buffalo, Glengarry Glen Ross and Speed the Plow, as well as the screenplays for Brian de Palma's The Untouchables and all of his own films. In this 1987 film, Mamet brings his unique sensibility to the story of Dr. Margaret Ford (Lindsay Crouse), a psychologist and writer whose attempt to help one of her patients out from under an onerous gambling debt leads her into the realm of the con, the cheat, and the frame-up, courtesy of a man known only as Mike (Joe Mantegna). Nothing is quite what it appears to be in this tale of double-cross and deceit, as Ford's growing fascination with the subject sets her up for possible victimization.

Mamet's ear for dialogue has always been well regarded, and his script for House of Games does not disappoint. Every line is carefully crafted, and crackling, peppery exchanges keep the film's tension level consistently high, thanks in large part to committed, intelligent performances from serious, talented actors. Lindsay Crouse and Joe Mantegna jab and feint with wit, energy and palpable self-interest, and an excellent supporting ensemble includes the likes of William H. Macy, Ricky Jay, Lilia Skala and J.T. Walsh. This is an actors' film, make no mistake, filled with rich characterizations; Mamet the writer gives his cast great material with which to work.

Mamet the director is clearly finding his footing here, but he understands the medium of film as it differs from theatre and makes some fine choices. A recurring visual "key" motif—wrong keys, stolen keys, locker keys—emphasizes the film's themes without seeming heavy-handed, and Mamet rarely uses dialogue where his point can be made by other means. There are a few composition missteps here and there, particularly in some long shots that leave the audience begging for a close-up or two, but Mamet's first-time-out imagery holds its own against the powerful dialogue scenes that dominate his movie.

I'll refrain from discussing specifics here—the film is filled with twists that I'm loath to give away. Suffice it to say that it is a finely structured "confidence game" puzzle, using elements of its subject matter to fool its audience more than once. House of Games isn't perfect—a few awkward bits of plotting stand out against the film's generally crisp, well-paced style, and the many surprises, once revealed, lose some of their ability to fascinate. But the finely-wrought characterizations and dialogue hold up to repeat viewing, and the film is far better than most efforts of its type. It's a fine companion piece to Mamet's The Spanish Prisoner, and definitely worth seeing.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: A-


Image Transfer

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 One Two
Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen 1.33:1 - P&S
Original Aspect Ratioyes no
Anamorphicno no

Image Transfer Review: MGM presents House of Games in two aspect ratios—the original 1.85:1 widescreen theatrical ratio, as well as a 1.33:1 pan-and-scan transfer on the disc's flipside. Neither single-layer transfer is spectacular—the widescreen version is letterboxed non-anamorphic, while the reformatted full-frame version appears to be primarily open-matte with a few pan & scan scenes, presumably where boom mikes or other framing issues made open-matte unworkable. Both transfers suffer from significant softness and excessive contrast, with occasional harsh highlights and poor shadow detail, and there's some chroma noise visible on bright reds. The source print is clean with minimal damage, and the transfer doesn't appear to be a laserdisc rehash, but it's well below current DVD standards.

Image Transfer Grade: D+

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
MonoEnglish, French, Spanishyes

Audio Transfer Review: House of Games retains its original English monophonic audio track, mastered in Dolby Digital 2.0 and ProLogic-decoded to the center speaker, with Spanish and French mono soundtracks included as well. The film's audio is sparse but effective, dominated by dialogue with some atmospheric sound effects and a solid, dark jazz score by Alaric Jans (the soundtrack's only significant use of bass). The Spanish and French tracks have a similar feel, though the Spanish track seems noisier than either of the other two due to generally higher volume levels. As usual, the original language is the way to go—the foreign language dubbing is only approximate, and one suspects Mamet's rich use of language has been compromised significantly in the process. A simple mono soundtrack, competently presented on DVD.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+ 

Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 24 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in French, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
Packaging: other
1 Disc
2-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extras Review: MGM's House of Games DVD features 24 picture-menu chapter stops, optional French and Spanish subtitles, and the film's original theatrical trailer as the only "extra." The trailer is presented in a 1.85:1 letterboxed transfer, and the soft, slightly muddy transfer is comparable to the main attraction; the trailer plays up David Mamet's name and features some sharp editing, setting up the film's themes without giving any significant surprises away. There's nothing more to see here, not even a standard timestamp (the running time listed is approximate).

Extras Grade: D-

Final Comments

House of Games is an extremely well-written, well-acted, fascinating look at the perpetrators and victims of the "con game." MGM's DVD features a middling transfer and no supplements of note, but David Mamet's debut directorial effort is still worth seeing.

Dale Dobson 2000-12-17