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House of Games: The Criterion Collection

The first film directed by acclaimed Chicago playwright David Mamet, House of Games (1987) was handed by the director as something of a gift to actor Joe Mantegna. Mamet's play Glengarry Glen Ross had seen phenomenal success on Broadway, and it earned Mantegna a Tony Award for his role as Richard Roma. As Mantegna tells the story, Mamet personally came backstage to give him the news that the play was going to be made into a feature film — and that Al Pacino would be playing Roma. Mamet, who's known for his loyalty to his friends, then handed Mantegna two screenplays and promised him that, no matter what, he had first crack at starring in them. The first of those films, House of Games (1988's Things Change was the second) is immersed in one of the idiosyncratic writer's pet subjects — the confidence game. Co-written by Jonathan Katz — yes, that Dr. Katz — and with expert supervision by magician and card-sharp Ricky Jay (who also makes his film debut here), House of Games crackles with energy as layer after layer of scam artistry is peeled away in a story full of double- and triple-twists. It's native territory for Mamet's trademark dialogue — stilted and curt, both base and profound.

Dr. Margaret Ford (Lindsay Crouse) is an expert in the psychology of compulsive behavior. And though she approaches her patients — and receives praise from readers of her book on the subject — with cold reserve, she works non-stop, rarely withdrawing for personal pleasure. To Margaret, the complex troubles of her patients are nothing more than perplexing puzzles to be solved, intricate mystery novels that will all fall into place if she can correctly dissect and interpret the symbolism. But still, Margaret is aware that her clever analysis, while intellectually satisfying, can never ease the ache felt by her subjects. Intrigued by the "real world" driving one client — Billy, a gambler in heavy debt — to contemplate suicide, Margaret makes a bold move and promises him she will help. And not with analysis, but with action. Naively confident, Margaret marches boldly into the seedy neighborhood haunted by bookie and con man Mike (Joe Mantegna) and demands that he forgive Billy's IOU. Incredibly, he agrees — but on one condition. And so Margaret begins exploring a ruthless world of deceit that appeals to her own latent obsessions and exposes a side of her personality she had previously suppressed.

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As a first-time film director on House of Games, Mamet's background in stage work hampers the film's early scenes set in Margaret's professional world. It may be by design that the exchanges between the doctor and her patients — and even her mentor — feel artificial and are saddled with unspeakably purple dialogue. And it doesn't help that Crouse (Mamet's wife at the time), while suitably icy, never seems comfortable or natural with the author's style the way Mantegna is. However, most of the film is perfect Mamet — hard and blunt, yet taking place in a slightly surreal, cerebral world where nothing is as it seems, but where the most deceitful agent is the self. Those not familiar with Mamet's style may be put off by House of Games' stage-bound quality, especially in the awkward opening scenes. But as the film eases into smoother territory, it provides a hearty, engrossing, and satisfying transition for the artist into film. Even though House of Games was an obscure release by Hollywood standards, it signaled the rise of Mantegna — part of Mamet's favored stable of actors — from ethnic supporting actor to leading man. Unfortunately, it didn't last long, with his best work coming in Mamet's Things Change and the brilliant Homicide (1991). Also on display are early appearances by a few other Mamet favorites, the late J.T. Walsh and a young William H. Macy.

The Criterion Collection's DVD release of House of Games is a huge improvement over MGM's previous disc, offering a beautifully clean, remastered anamorphic transfer ( 1.78:1) with excellent contrast and nice color saturation. The Dolby Digital 1.0 audio is more than adequate, given the dialogue-heavy nature of the film. The fascinating commentary track features Mamet and Ricky Jay, who discuss the nuts-and-bolts of making the film with a lot of information on the ways in which Jay helped Mamet to maintain authenticity as regards the world of confidence men. Fans of Mamet will appreciate his detailed digressions on his writing process, and his candid anger about how the film was treated by the studio. Also on board is a production documentary created by Mamet as a promotional tool, with behind-the-scenes footage and storyboards (25 min.); new interviews (each about 15 minutes) with actors Lindsay Crouse and Joe Mantegna; and the storyboards for a scene that was reworked for the film, "The Tap," which was rewritten by Jay and Mamet so as not to reveal the secrets behind a popular grift that some of Jay's associates liked to use. There's also the theatrical trailer, as well as a 30-page booklet featuring an essay by critic Kent Jones and excerpts from Mamet's notes on the published screenplay. Keep-case.
—Gregory P. Dorr

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