House of Games
The Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright and screenwriter David Mamet sat in the director’s chair for the first time for this sly, merciless thriller. Lindsay Crouse stars as a best-selling author and therapist who wants to help a client by making restitution for the money he owes to a gambler. After she meets the attractive cardsharp (Joe Mantegna), her own compulsions take hold as he lures her into his world of high-stakes deception. Packed with razor-sharp dialogue delivered with even-keeled precision by a cast of Mamet regulars, House of Games is as psychologically acute as it is full of twists and turns, a rich character study told with the cold calculation of a career con artist targeting his next mark.
The Criterion Collection upgrades their previous DVD edition of David Mamet’s House of Games to Blu-ray, presenting the film again in the aspect ratio of 1.78:1 on a dual-layer disc. Criterion is unfortunately reusing the same master they used for their DVD edition instead of making a new one. The high-definition restoration comes from a 35mm original interpositive.
The final presentation is fine enough but really open to improvement. Colours look fine, with nice saturation, reds looking pretty good, but there is a softness to the image, the picture rarely looking all that crisp. Everything is pretty fuzzy around the edges. Darker sequences are weak, blacks killing some of the shadow detail. The more noir-ish, shadowy shots in the film (particularly in the House of Games club) end up coming off muddy and murky.
More clean-up has been done though a few bits of debris remain. The digital presentation is fine, with no severe artifacts present. Grain is present, but it has been managed and scrubbed a little, I’m assuming a byproduct of the master used. It at least doesn’t look noisy.
It does offer an improvement over the DVD, in that compression is better and it has a less digital look, but the improvement over the DVD isn’t all that big.
Presented in lossless linear PCM 1.0 mono, the audio presentation doesn’t offer much of an upgrade over the DVD’s Dolby Digital track. Dialogue is clear but the track is flat, lacking fidelity. The track overall is clean, but scratches and a hiss pop up on a few occasions when music is playing over the film, and it could be because of the source for the music. The track is adequate but nothing special.
Criterion ports over all of the supplements from the DVD. The big supplement on here is the audio commentary featuring director David Mamet and consultant/actor Ricky Jay. Mamet delves heavily into the film’s themes of lies and deception, his true disdain for psychiatry (which he considers a con) and reflects on his first time in the director’s chair and talks about the overall learning experience, touching on some of his influences (Carne’s Daybreak being a huge influence apparently.) Despite all of this information, Mamet can come off a little full of himself at times, which can get sort of grating. Thankfully Jay offers some balance. His contribution is more fun since he comes from the world of confidence games and card sharks. He offers a bit of information on types of cons (and even mentions the Spanish Prisoner con,) some history, how con men adapt to technologies, and also contributes a bit about working on the film and acting as a consultant to Mamet. Without Jay I probably wouldn’t have been as enthusiastic with the track, but with him it makes the track a little more worthy of your attention. I actually wish there was more of Ricky Jay on this release.
Criterion has gathered a couple of interviews. Lindsay Crouse—star and Mamet’s former wife—talks for approximately 15-minutes about Mamet and making the film. She apparently got him into the movie business after introducing him to director Sidney Lumet and the long road to getting House of Games made. Originally Peter Yates was to direct but was unable to and Mamet was then offered the job, and Crouse then focuses on Mamet’s directing style, what it was like to work with him, and then her experience acting alongside Joe Mantegna, Ricky Jay, and others.
Another 15-minute interview features Joe Mantegna and I enjoyed this one a little more. He covers most of his working career with Mamet starting with their rather low key introduction. He mentions his work on the stage play of Glengarry Glen Ross (who ironically got the role after Al Pacino turned it down, Pacino of course going on to play the same role in the film version) and how his not getting the same part in the movie version of the play led to him getting the role of confidence man Mike Mancuso. He continues on with how Mamet works with a close circle of friends, always using the same people, and is proud of the fact that he was able to once convince Mamet to allow him to change one line of dialogue. He also gives an interesting analysis of his character.
David Mamet on “House of Games” is a 25-minute documentary of sorts that is made up of video footage shot during the making of the film. It’s in rough shape, the whole segment obviously put together on some VHS tape (and looks to have been recorded in EP mode) but watchable. It includes interview segments with Mamet and Crouse, and then footage from the set and shoot are placed in. Amazingly half of the documentary focuses on poker. Mamet and his friends are poker enthusiasts and Mamet was obsessed in shooting the best poker sequence he could. During the shoot he and his poker buddies, who he flew out to Seattle, would get a few games in and we get some footage of their games. There’s also a primer in “card lingo” which explains some of the curious lines in the film, and an amusing anecdote about translators trying to translate the film into Italian. The rest focuses on Mamet’s spare style in writing and directing and even offers footage of him working with his actors (the style of acting in his films is “unique” and it’s interesting to watch him work with the actors to get the tone he’s going for.) And while again Mamet may come off as a little much, it was fascinating to watch how he works on the set.
A Short Con presents, first, a collection of storyboards showcasing an alternate con that was to be shown in the film. According to the notes Ricky Jay didn’t want the details of the con exposed so he came up with another con that was used in the film. The scene in question involves the sequences where the tricksters give Crouse’s character an example of an old school con involving a $20 bill, which can be viewed directly from the menu here. In these alternate storyboards the sequence plays out pretty much the same in set up and conclusion, but just differs in the con used. The notes for the storyboards give step-by-step instructions for the con.
The disc supplements then conclude with the theatrical trailer showing that Orion had no idea how to market the film.
Criterion also ports over the 28-page booklet in its entirety. It still contains the same material, starting with an essay on the film by Kent Jones., It also again features excerpts from an introduction written by Mamet for a published version of the script, where Mamet offers in great detail the ordeal of getting the film made and what it was like directing his first feature, and what he has taken from this experience for his next directorial outing. Both are excellent reads.
Still a solid little special edition, and I’m happy Criterion still ported over everything, including the storyboards for the alternate sequence.
Still a solid special edition in the end, but the age of the master shows. Not the sharp presentation one would hope for.