Blu-ray Review: Criterion Re-opens David Mamet's HOUSE OF GAMES

Joe Mantegna, Lindsay Crouse and Ricky Jay star in David Mamet's psychological thriller, his debut film.

Featured Critic; St. Louis, MO
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Blu-ray Review: Criterion Re-opens David Mamet's HOUSE OF GAMES

An old china hat light hangs over a well-worn but still nice poker table.  In between hangs several cartons worth of smoke.  Peering through that, maybe a few neon signs.  Past that, the door glass identifies this tension chamber with a few carefully placed black stick-on letters: The House of Games.  

Despite the fact that the film in question shares that name, not all that many scenes unfold there.  This closed-off back room is, however, where the plot really gets going.  Little does wealthy therapist and best-selling author Dr. Margaret Ford know what she’s gotten herself into.  The high stakes poker that goes on in there means high stacks of chips, meaning big sums of money, meaning the occasional gun.  

It’s an irresistible scene for the bored good doctor, simply looking to help a patient who’s confessed to a gambling debt that’s come due in a deadly way.  Alone in life, morbidly curious, and forever the rescuer, she soon finds herself all in to this world of the con, both long and short of it.

Being a therapist, Dr. Ford relates to the compulsion of working people so that they let their guard down.  So too does House of Games writer/director David Mamet.  Mamet didn’t go to film school, and he’d only spent time on select movie sets as a writer.  But he does have a Pulitzer Prize for his theatrical work, and the inherent drive to make his cinema cinematic.  This being his first directorial effort, he freely admits that fulfillment of that drive was highly dependent upon the production talents of those he’d surrounded himself with.  

That said, if there’s room for improvement in this house, it’s hard to know which room that is.  House of Games is a real grabber, wielding a unique cadence amid its familiar nighttime/Nighthawks vibe.  Though buried upon release in 1987, the film has persevered to find an earned footing, if not (yet) in Film Greatness in general, then for sure on the imposing shortlist of Mamet’s own best films.  It’s in there with Homicide, The Spanish Prisoner, and The Winslow Boy.  And, like the work of other strongly distinctive filmmaking voices like Quentin Tarantino, Wes Anderson, or Woody Allen, (all writer/directors) there’s no mistaking his work.  It makes inherent sense to compare Mamet’s films to one another before comparing them to broader fields of movies.  

There is, famously, a reason for that.  It’s the dialogue.  Mamet dialogue, in the mouths of the right actors, reigns supreme.  There’s a reason they gave him a Pulitzer, and there’s a reason why other tremendously accomplished writers, like comic book extraordinaire Brian Michael Bendis, bow down before his feet. 

Also famously, Mamet is said to wield a verbatim policy when it comes to delivery of his golden words.  You pronounce every last hem, haw and pause exactly as typed, just as constructed.  From the moment we enter House of Games, this policy is already established.  Consequently, some actors thrive in Mamet Land, some do not.

Joe Mantegna, of all of Mamet’s stock company performers, has the most natural gift for the words.  He plays the professionally duplicitous Mike, a former Chicago street hustler who’s made his way far from there as the most confident of cons. 

Mantegna’s Mike is the real deal, just like the actor who plays him.  This is Mantegna in his natural habitat.  It’s no surprise that his starring stage performances of Mamet’s play Glengarry Glen Ross (he had the role Al Pacino plays in the film version, which wasn’t directed by Mamet) went a good way toward netting the playwright that Pulitzer. 

Mantegna’s delivery of House of Games dialogue sells Mamet’s world entirely, no matter how convoluted it may read: “Oh, you're a bad pony. And I'm not gonna bet on you.”  “It's called a confidence game. Why? Because you give me your confidence? No. Because I give you mine.”  “I'm from the United States of kiss-my-ass!”  “What I'm talking about comes down to a more basic philosophical principle: Don't trust nobody.”  Crazy enough then that, regarding that last one, Mamet allowed Mantegna to change one word.  According to the actor, it was written as, “Don’t trust anybody.”  That’s how simpatico these two already were by the time they parlayed their wares to the big screen.

Lindsay Crouse, Mrs. David Mamet at the time of filming, never quite has Mantegna’s level of confidence with the dialogue.  As Dr. Ford, it’s her job to carry this movie, mostly.  She carries it and carries it to the end- but not without the momentary tell.  Pitted alongside Mantegna, who’s character takes her under his wing professionally and then romantically, she doesn’t stand a chance.  And that’s despite her Oscar nomination several years prior for her part in the Mamet-scripted film, The Verdict.  Crouse is good but not great here.  Still, she can in no way keep a great film down.

House of Games_2.jpg

Ricky Jay, the late, great master magician and Mamet mainstay, owns every shot he’s in.  They say that when you go down a research rabbit hole of Ricky Jay’s sleight of hand tricks, be it on YouTube or elsewhere, you don’t come back until he releases you. 

Though his House of Games screen time is sparing, it’s like that here, too.  Having Jay, no stranger to the film’s seedy world, is a natural boon.  More movie work would follow Jay, though all too selectively.  There’s a take-it-or-leave-it quality in his demeanor and his act, no matter where he’d turn up.

Besides those known acting quantities, Mamet also brought with him a fresh-faced William H. Macy (a bit part as a potential mark in a Western Union storefront), J.T. Walsh as a targeted businessman, and Mike Nussbaum as a trusted member of the distrustful inner circle.  Watching all this talent and more deliver their breakout roles in House of Games is almost Citizen Kane-like.  And that’s not blowing smoke.

Issued previously by Criterion previously on DVD circa 2006, this new Blu-ray edition appears to be what they call a “straight port”.  As in, nothing new, little lost.  Actually, scratch that... there is a very small bit of “new”.  The included booklet, which also contains a sizable excerpt of Mamet’s introduction to the film’s published screenplay, has updated Kent Jones’s Criterion essay on House of Games in order to include references to Mamet’s more recent works, such as 2008’s Redbelt and 2004’s Spartan

Some may question Criterion’s logic in giving such a writing-centric film (the cover of the booklet is the cover page of the screenplay, for crying out loud) the upgrade treatment when there’s still DVD-only editions of work by Kurosawa and Fellini awaiting high definition.  But those folks need to look again.  Granted, it’s easy to overlook the richness of the textures and atmosphere brought forth by Director of Photography Juan Ruiz Anchia.  But this disc does fine justice to all of it.

Included as extras are short interviews with Crouse and Mantegna, both as positive as could be about the film, and yet informative and forthright.  There’s also a vintage twenty-five-minute documentary about the making of film shot at that time, called David Mamet on "House of Games".  Also, there’s a short bit on a particular con that’s demonstrated in the film that, in actuality, is said to have been reworked for the film by Ricky Jay, in order to protect the integrity of the real con.  (If you say so, fellas).

Most memorable though, if infamously so, is the audio commentary in which Mamet takes feature length revenge on Orion Pictures for its treatment of this film upon its initial release.  (Failing to release it properly, using the wrong title in its marketing, etc.). 

Though the director’s verbal targets also include the psychotherapy business, explaining that he paired a professional therapist in with con men because both are crooks (he says that psychotherapy is obviously a con because, in one hundred years of the profession, “no one’s ever gotten better; and also, all children of therapists are crazy”), it’s Orion he keeps looping back to.  Poor Ricky Jay is also there for the recording session, doing his best to be conversationally amicable but not to go down his friend and employer’s torrid roads.  

For Mamet, the con within the con and the revenge it begs is simply indicative of the film business.  He, however, refuses to operate in the realm of politics as usual.  After all, as he himself points out, it’s not “House of Cards.”  It’s House of Games.

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Criteron Blu-rayDavid MametJoe MantegnaLindsay CrouseRicky Jay