Directed by David Mamet
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1 anamorphic
Running Time: 102 minutes
Audio: Dolby Digital 1.0 English
Release Date: August 21, 2007
Review Date: August 11, 2007
Movies about con men playing con games on unsuspecting victims reached their zenith with the 1973 masterwork The Sting. Since then, films with con games as a central conceit have been almost too numerous to mention, but after years of seeing them, most audiences rightly feel that they can stay ahead of the game and beat the filmmakers to the punch. That’s where David Mamet’s House of Games has the audience fooled. Yes, it’s filled to the brim with long and short cons, but the biggest con of all is that it’s not primarily about that at all. The con games keep us hooked while we watch a woman come to some painful, frightening, and inevitably liberating realizations about herself. With David Mamet as the writer as well as the director, it shouldn’t come as any surprise that the film would put as much emphasis on character development as it does on trying to fool us.
Dr. Margaret Ford (Lindsay Crouse) is a psychiatrist undergoing something of a career crisis. She’s convinced she’s not doing her patients any good and despite being a best selling author and respected by others in her profession, she seems somewhat lost and disillusioned with life. Into her life comes con man Mike Mancuso (Joe Mantegna) who attempts to pull a con on her which she sees through right before losing her money. Somewhat smitten with the man and his appetite for living life on the edge, Margaret gets the idea that being in on a con and learning some of the “tricks of their trade” might wake her up to some exciting things life has to offer (and also form the basis of a new potential best seller).
David Mamet’s coruscating plays like Glengarry Glen Ross and Speed the Plow have brought him numerous awards and much acclaim, and his screenplay for this film is likewise a fulcrum of crackling dialog and riveting plotting all revolving around two of his most interesting characters. Margaret and Mike seem as far apart as the opposite ends of the Mississippi River, and yet in their navigating the tricky waters of their cons, it makes a strange kind of sense that they’re wildly attracted to each other.
Lindsay Crouse plays the entire film with a sphinx-like mask on her emotions, and while her line readings are in a monotone that’s distinguished only by the increase and decrease of volume, we can see emotions in her eyes and body language, her “tells” in con-man parlance. Joe Montegna brings a long history of performing David Mamet characters with him into this film, and he’s perfectly cast, a charming, knowledgeable snake in the grass. Lilia Skala makes the most of her few scenes as Margaret’s mentor (and conscience), and Mike Nussbaum, Ricky Jay, and Steven Goldstein play their parts in the elaborate charade on display. Look fast and you’ll see young actors J.T. Walsh and William H. Macy in small roles early in their careers.
For a first time director, Mamet seems especially assured in giving pace and adding interest to an extended poker game and in a climactic encounter between two characters late in the film which begins the real surprises which the film has to offer even the most astute viewer. They were my favorite moments in the film. Cinematographer Juan Ruiz Anchia gives us some fascinating glimpses of Seattle, but interior shots of bars and of a pool hall in particular have a kind of sleazy grace that’s quite captivating.
The aspect ratio of 1.78:1 is presented in an excellent anamorphic transfer on this DVD. Color is well delivered without being too rich with flesh tones especially lifelike. Shadow detail is quite nice in some of the darker indoor shots though the film has not been overly lit. The film does show moderate grain though there are no artifacts to mar the presentation, and I glimpsed no edge enhancement to spoil the mood of the outstanding photography. The film has been divided into 22 chapters.
The DVD sports a Dolby Digital 1.0 mono mix, but there is a surprising amount of low end to the sound design, especially true in Alaric Jans’ piano score and with some of the gunfire that punctuates the story. It’s a solid if not exceptional mono presentation.
Writer-director David Mamet and actor-con game expert Ricky Jay share the audio commentary duties on the disc, and it’s a lively discussion filled with reminiscences about the making of the film and also with Mamet occasionally going off track to ask pointed questions to Jay on the nature of scamming people. Occasionally the two men get involved in watching the movie and forget to talk, but such lapses don’t happen often.
The disc offers separate interviews with each of the two stars looking back on their memories of making the film. Lindsay Crouse was married to David Mamet at the time of the filming, and she seems especially grateful looking back that she was handed this marvelously rich role in a film to be directed by her husband. Her interview is presented in anamorphic widescreen and runs 14½ minutes.
Joe Montegna’s 14-minute interview is also in anamorphic widescreen, and he speaks of his long association with David Mamet and his works and finds special joy remembering working with both David and Lindsay on the project when they were all such good friends off screen.
At one point in the film, the con man played by Mike Nussbaum shows Lindsay Crouse’s character a short con and how he pulled it off. Originally, a different, more elaborate con was going to be demonstrated to her, and the feature called “The Tap” shows the complete storyboards which one can flip through for this aborted sequence.
Producer Michael Hausman and his wife shot video footage of Mamet discussing this work on his film, and we’re taken behind the scenes to see moments of the original table read, several rehearsals between the two leads, some actual filming in progress, and especially the elaborate pains to make the poker game a pivotal moment in the film. This feature entitled “David Mamet on House of Games” is presented in 4:3 and runs 24½ minutes.
The film’s original 2-minute theatrical trailer is presented in anamorphic widescreen.
The enclosed 29-page booklet offers an appreciation of the film (which doesn’t include any spoilers much to his credit) by film writer Kent Jones and a lengthy, self-effacing reminiscence of his first directorial effort by David Mamet, excerpted from the preface of the published screenplay for the film.
House of Games is a film which deserves more of a reputation than it’s thus far received. The plot is tight, the characters interesting, and the direction taut. If you’re a fan of low-key psychological thrillers, you can’t go wrong with this one.
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