Plot: What’s it about?
Margaret Ford (Lindsay Crouse) is a successful psychiatrist who has gained a lot of acclaim, but even she has inner problems to deal with. She lives a rather dull life and longs for some adventure, but she can never bring herself to tackle some excitement. So when she starts to fall for one of her patients, it can’t be seen as much of a surprise, as she longs for danger and things she’s never seen before. Mike (Joe Mantegna) is pretty much a shady character, with some criminal history and a serious gambling problem, but Margaret can’t help but be taken in by him. In an effort to add spice to her life, she asks him to allow her into his gambling career, which he agrees to after some time. As she ventures with him into these high stakes card games, her mission is simple and one well suited for her. She is to watch his opponents and learns their tells, or their mannerisms that reveal their hands of cards. The two strike an odd match, but perhaps they balance each other out, or perhaps Margaret is just allowing herself to be used.
I like House of Games a lot, but it doesn’t have the elements of a typical great film. The performances are good, the writing is good, and the direction is above average, but it the film ends up as rather subtle and simple at heart. I don’t think the film is thin by any means, but it just doesn’t spring to mind when I think of powerful films. I think that is because it all seems so natural, so real, that it is less like a movie and more like a slice of real life. Writer/director David Mamet plots a basic visual style that allows the dialogue to take the spotlight, which works to utter perfection here. The dialogue is sharp and very smart, but it is so natural in form, it just works in subtle touches. The pace is slow at times and things take some time to get rolling, but House of Games is more than worth the time and effort. I think fans of David Mamet will be most interested in this release, but I think anyone who wants a solid drama will be pleased as well. This new edition from The Criterion Collection has an improved transfer, plus some supplements, so this is the best release available.
I am not usually a fan of Joe Mantegna’s work, but in a few cases, he has really impressed me and this is one such turn. Mantegna is dead on within this role and in truth, I think this is his finest work to date. He has done some solid dramatic work other than this and also worked well in comedies, but here he seems to become his character. Even though he plays a rather dark character, Mantegna is able to bring across a certain charm, which is vital for this film. I don’t think this is an Oscar level performance, but this is a terrific turn and Mantegna’s finest hour. You can also see Mantegna in films such as Searching For Bobby Fischer, Eye for an Eye, Airheads, Body of Evidence, The Godfather III, and The Money Pit. The cast here also includes Lindsay Crouse (The Arrival, The Insider), Lilia Skala (Ship of Fools, Flashdance), Mike Nussbaum (Men In Black, Field of Dreams), and J.T. Walsh (A Few Good Men, Sling Blade). The writer/director here is David Mamet, who also helmed films such as Things Change, The Winslow Boy, The Spanish Prisoner, and State and Main.
Video: How does it look?
House of Games is presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen. The previous release was non anamorphic, so this new restored anamorphic version is a welcome upgrade. The softness and shimmering that plagued the previous transfer are in check this time around, so the image looks impressive. You’ll still see some flaws here and there, but the image is much cleaner and clearer than before. I wouldn’t call the visuals crystal clear, but detail is improved and subtle problems from before have been either reduced or eliminated. The colors look natural and contrast is consistent, quite a solid overall transfer.
Audio: How does it sound?
I was a little surprised to find this disc with a mono soundtrack, but the dialogue based nature of the film ensures that the mix is adequate. The focus here is dialogue without a doubt, so it was crucial to the film that it comes through in fine form. And it does, the volume is always proper and the level of clarity is always high, very crisp as well. That pretty much ensures a positive score, as music and sound effects are minimal at best. This film doesn’t need an intense sound mix, so this rather basic effort is acceptable.
Supplements: What are the extras?
An audio commentary track starts us off, as director David Mamet and consultant Ricky Jay discussion the production. Jay was brought in to help make the hustles seem realistic, which is important in this kind of movie. This session has some good information, as Mamet talks about the writing process and shares production stories, while Jay takes a lesser role. Even so, the track is good and if you’re a fan of the movie, you’ll want to give it a listen. You can also check out new interviews with stars Joe Mantegna and Lindsay Crouse, as well as a brief on the set documentary titles David Mamet on House of Games. This disc also includes storyboards, as well as the film’s theatrical trailer.