House of Games

House of Games
Director: David Mamet
Screenplay: David Mamet
Stars: Lindsay Crouse (Dr. Margaret Ford), Joe Mantegna (Mike), Mike Nussbaum (Joey), Lilia Skala (Dr. Littauer), J.T. Walsh (The businessman), Willo Hausman (Girl with book), Karen Kohlhaas (Prison ward patient), Steven Goldstein (Billy Hahn), Jack Wallace (Bartender), Ricky Jay (George / Vegas Man)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 1987
Country: U.S.
House of Games: Criterion Collection DVD
Do you like games?For all its complex narrative machinations and crisply stylized dialogue, it is the subtle elegance of David Mamet's House of Games that truly compels your attention. It is a work of great dexterity and bravery, and it announced the arrival of a major film talent, even though Mamet was already a well-regarded screenwriter and playwright who had a Pulitzer Prize on his mantel (for his 1984 play Glengarry Glen Ross). In telling the story of a well-meaning, but secretly troubled psychiatrist who becomes involved with a con man, House of Games is simultaneously a fascinating psychological profile and a cunning thriller, and the brilliance of the film is the way in which Mamet makes the two facets of his story work together.

The film's style is deliberately mannered in a way that is initially alienating, but ultimately absorbing. Mamet's trademark dialogue has never been stronger or more direct. The clipped phrases and tight exchanges tell us exactly what we need to hear and nothing more; each word feels measured and precise, and the actors deliver them with a kind of stark simplicity that brings to mind the “models” approach to acting used by Robert Bresson. As a first-time director, Mamet made a bold choice to tell his story in such a manner, but it works brilliantly, partially because his cinematographer, Juan Ruiz Anchía, finds just the right spare aesthetic to match. House of Games takes place primarily in darkened rooms, and when it does venture into the public realm, that realm is only sparsely populated, which reinforces the centrality of the primary characters. Their stage is not exactly empty, but it is carefully, artfully unadorned.

The psychiatrist is Dr. Margaret Ford (Lindsay Crouse, at the time Mamet's wife), who has penned a best-selling self-help book about coping with obsessive behavior. With her close-cropped hair and sharp power suits, Dr. Ford is neat and dedicated; she genuinely wants to help her patients, but we get the sense that there is something dark driving her. When one of her patients, a young man named Billy Hahn (Steven Goldstein), threatens to kill himself because he owes powerful men a lot of money, Dr. Ford takes it upon herself to straighten out his debt. That is how she comes into the presence of Mike (Joe Mantegna, a veteran of Mamet's stage productions), a professional con man to whom Billy owes money, but not nearly as much as he led Dr. Ford to believe.

It takes only one night for Dr. Ford to become fascinated with Mike's way of life. He convinces her to help him win a poker game by looking for another player's “tell,” and after that she is hooked. She feels compelled to study Mike, to watch him do what he does. “So, you want to see how a true bad man plies his trade?” Mike asks her, reflecting both his own self-awareness and a crucial insight into Dr. Ford's own obsessive tendencies. Her stark answer “Yes” is all he needs, and soon he has drawn her into his world of scamming, conning, and fleecing anyone and everyone out of their money. He tells her the tricks of the trade, how he gains the confidence of others by appearing to offer them his, and it fascinates her in a way she's never been fascinated before, perhaps because she sees her own profession reflected in the con.

To tell much more would ruin the experience of the film, but suffice it to say that Mike and Dr. Ford are involved in a significant scam involving a businessman (J.T. Walsh) and a suitcase of money that goes terribly wrong. The final third of the film reveals the characters' true motivations and the reality of the con, although with such things we can never be sure of the absolute truth. The slippery nature of what's “real” is the heart of the con, and we're taken right along with Dr. Ford, convinced that what we're seeing is the real deal when oftentimes it is just one layer of an elaborate ruse, waiting to be peeled away.

If House of Games were merely a clever story, it would be intriguing, but not compelling. What makes the film so absorbing is the characters and the way the cons reveal their natures. Dr. Ford's self-revelation is the film's key; she is a character who is not only used to being in control, but in telling others how they should be in control, yet she is clearly out of control. Not in a bold, loud, obvious way, but quietly, deep inside herself. Her interactions with Mike unleash something within, and it threatens her understanding of herself. Mike, on the other hand, is someone who is so sure of who he is that he comes across as the film's most honest character. Yes, many of his actions are duplicitous and arguably despicable, but they constitute his profession and he makes no bones about it--“It's what I do,” he constantly says. Thus, in terms of talking about himself, he is never anything less than forthright, even when it might serve him well to be otherwise. Like Dr. Ford, his life is about control, but if House of Games tells us anything, it is that control is fleeting--an illusive con like any other.

House of Games Criterion Collection Director-Approved Special Edition DVD

Aspect Ratio1.78:1
AudioEnglish Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural
Subtitles English
  • Audio commentary by director David Mamet and consultant and actor Ricky Jay
  • Video interview with actor Lindsay Crouse
  • Video interview with actor Joe Mantegna
  • David Mamet on “House of Games,” a short documentary shot on location during the film's preparation and production
  • Storyboard detail of “The Tap”
  • Theatrical trailer
  • Insert booklet featuring an essay by critic Kent Jones and excerpts from Mamet's introduction to the published screenplay
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateAugust 21, 2007

    Until seeing the new Criterion DVD, House of Games was a film that had never looked particularly good to me. I had seen it only on VHS tape back in the day, and even though the tape was new, the image had looked muddy, undefined, dim, and kind of cheap (a previously available MGM DVD had a less-than-stellar nonanamorphic transfer). I was aware of the film's narrative and thematic brilliance, but I had always been disappointed in how it looked. Criterion's new high-definition transfer, which was taken from a 35mm fine-grain master positive and supervised by cinematographer Juan Ruiz Anchía, is something of a revelation. The film is still quite dark, as most of it takes place either at night or inside dimly lit rooms, but it is filled with detail and nuance and, most of all, color. Anchía lights the scenes beautifully, filling them with bold contrasts and particular splashes of color. The excellent new transfer keeps the image sharp without losing its filmlike textures, and there is rarely any grain or film damage of note. The monaural soundtrack, which was transferred at 24-bit from a 35mm optical track print, sounds sharp and clear, with good clarity in the dialogue.
    The audio commentary by director David Mamet and longtime associate/consultant Ricky Jay is endlessly intriguing. Beginning with Mamet's not entirely unrelated analysis of George W. Bush's inability to lie well (he actually puts a positive spin on it), they go into all manner of detail about the making of the film, the ideas behind it, their views of psychology, and the film's relation to the real world of con artists and magicians. There are also two new 14-minute video interviews, one with Lindsay Crouse and one with Joe Mantegna. Crouse talks a lot about her experience working with Mamet as both her husband and director, while Mantagna talks about his long relationship with Mamet, which dates back to the Chicago theater scene in the late 1970s. Mamet himself appears in David Mamet on “House of Games,”, a short video documentary shot by the film's producer Michael Hausman and his wife Pam during the film's preparation and production. It is an invaluable window into Mamet's working process, as see him rehearsing with his actors and working on the set. Also included is a set of storyboards for a scene in which Joey demonstrates to Dr. Ford a con called “The Tap” (it was ultimately dropped because Ricky Jay wanted to protect the secret of the con) and the film's original theatrical trailer.

    Copyright ©2007 James Kendrick

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    Overall Rating: (4)

    James Kendrick

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