***½/**** Image A- Sound B+ Extras B+
starring Lindsay Crouse, Joe Mantegna, Mike Nussbaum, J.T. Walsh
screenplay by David Mamet
directed by David Mamet
by Bryant Frazer House of Games pivots on a hand of poker that spirals out of control and reveals itself as more than a mere card game. It's a moral hazard. On one side of the table, holding three of a kind, is Mike (Joe Mantegna), a small-time hood with a big mouth who runs a card room out of the back of House of Games, a pool hall that sits upstairs from a paperback bookstore in downtown Seattle. Across from him, George (the late, great sleight-of-hand artist Ricky Jay, in his first film role), who may or may not have drawn to a trips-beating straight or a flush. Spectating from Mike's side is Margaret (Lindsay Crouse), a psychiatrist (and best-selling author) who stumbled upon the tableau in an effort to negotiate down the debt of a troubled patient (Steve Goldstein), a gambling addict. Impressed by Margaret's apparent fearlessness--when he makes an oblique threat to kill her, she calls him a bully--Mike enlists her help in a scheme that isn't cheating, per se, but does rely on duplicity. Simply put, Mike contrives to leave the room for a few minutes; in his absence, Margaret watches for an indication that George is bluffing and signals Mike, quietly, to call.
If House of Games is often described as "stagey," what's meant is probably that it's a bit old-fashioned, lacking the impulses towards naturalism that tend to characterize contemporary film. On an intellectual level, at least, what Mamet accomplishes here is sterling. Not only does he swiftly demonstrate a mastery of both two-shots and three-shots--often specifying, in the style of classic Hollywood, the relationship between the characters in the frame--but he clearly imagines every scene in three-dimensional space behind the proscenium of the film frame. Camera placement is entirely motivated by mise en scène--the way shot composition, lighting, and shadow, plus the elements visible on screen, give us the most readable views of the action and best serve the needs of the narrative. Augmenting all of this is a precise editorial style that uses cutaways to reveal what a character is thinking--or what the film wants you to think they are thinking. This is, after all, a story of misdirection, making the confidence game of the director/screenwriter as one with the frame-ups on screen.
The "house of games" referenced in the title has multiple meanings. It's clear that Mamet sees the establishment itself as a kind of theater, and poker as a scene-by-scene drama where card players may either conceal the strength of their positions or bluff their way through desperate scenarios, all while probing their opponents for 'tells'--subconscious tics or other behaviours that can betray their thinking as they seek to conceal the strength or weakness of their position. The poker game is just the start, however, as Margaret falls in with Mike and his crew. She's so impressed by his instincts that she begs him to teach her the tricks of the trade so that she can write a history of the confidence game. As played by Crouse, Margaret has an impeccable poker face, and it helps her maintain a façade that presents her interest in the grift as purely academic. When the façade cracks and Margaret goes to bed with Mike, she may still think of that as an act of expedience that advances her scholarly investigation, but it's a tell that she's falling in love with the player, if not the game. And her dabbling in this stuff has repercussions, which Mamet emphasizes in a metaphorically damning scene that puts literal blood on her hands.
Crouse had given a naturalistic, nuanced performance in Places in the Heart, for which she was Oscar-nominated a few years earlier, so her flat, distant affect here is almost certainly as directed by Mamet, who was at the time her husband. (They divorced in 1990.) It's defensible, I suppose, to write the character of a celebrity psychiatrist as somewhat aloof and perhaps self-satisfied, though Margaret feels more like a device--a pointed jab at the supposed hubris of her profession--than an actual human being. "Do you think that you're exempt from experience?" one of her patients demands in only the second scene of the movie. "You'd better be assured that you're not." As good as House of Games is, I wish Mamet had allowed Crouse to deliver a more sympathetic central character with a less robotic demeanour.
Mike's crew, on the other hand, is a delight. Mantegna, who had won a Tony for Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross, knows how to work his lines. Against the suggestion Mike's credit may be suspect, Mantegna fulminates, "I'm from the United States of Kiss My Ass. My marker's good." And then Ricky Jay barks back, "Fuck you!" It's an exciting exchange, like gunfire, the stuff Mamet built his reputation on. A little later, the dapper, mustachioed Joey (Mike Nussbaum) excuses a low-level con with gentle but sly insistence, "It was only business...the American way." These guys are fun--they're realists, they're cynics, and they're in control, seemingly coming out on top of every transaction, whether financial or emotional. Mike calls them "dinosaur" con men. "Years from now," he declares at one point, "they're gonna have to go to a museum to see a frame like this." The atmosphere of old-school cool is bolstered by the fact that Mamet and Jay, credited as a consultant on confidence games, really know the history and theory behind the con. A scene set in a Western Union office where Mike puts the mark on a young marine (William H. Macy) waiting for a wire transfer encapsulates a number of the principles at work--namely, the way con artists manipulate their marks by seeming to put their trust in them, a gambit that has the effect of making the marks want to put their trust back in the con man.
It's a good-looking film that owes a debt to film noir in its use of light and shadow to generate atmosphere, though it's not particularly expressionistic. Mantegna, decked out in Armani, is beautifully photographed throughout--a handsome devil. Cinematographer Juan Ruiz Anchía's often dramatic lighting draws attention to the shape of his features, sometimes illuminating half of his face and leaving the other half in shadow. Crouse is similarly well-dressed and comes across as very sleek--by the end of the third act, her presence could be described as severe--but Mamet isn't afraid to let her face vanish into the shadows, either, perhaps as a signal that her moral standing is eroding. Mamet's aesthetic is relatively spare, perhaps fitting his background on the stage, yet it's exceptionally well-considered. Scenes emphasizing the size and scale of an empty room, like House of Games in the movie's first act, or the largely vacant airport that figures in its climax, alternate with carefully planned vignettes that feature several figures framed precisely as the camera pans and tracks around to anticipate character movements and redirect the audience's attention. Moreover, every edit feels deliberate, guiding the viewer's eye and pushing the narrative forward to the next story beat. It may be that Mamet's history writing for the stage made him acutely aware of the power of montage and other cinematic storytelling tools.
Already a remarkable film, House of Games, with its assured authorial voice, is all the more striking as a directorial debut. More than a low-key crime drama, it's almost a treatise on the fundamentals of theatre, storytelling, and human relations. You could take a deep dive into this world just by enumerating the times when a prop that appears to portend one thing is later revealed to have hidden significance, or a line of dialogue that has a coherent surface meaning turns out to be freighted with manipulative intent or psychological intimation. But then, even as a low-key crime drama, the picture is utterly engrossing. The mechanics of the con are fascinating, of course; equally intriguing are the characters that Mamet imagines taking advantage of their secret knowledge. As gangsters go, Mike may not seem evil, exactly, but he is an utterly remorseless master of manipulation, and that makes him not really a good guy. Confronted with the psychological wreckage his cons leave behind, his protest remains absolute: "I never hurt anybody, I never shot anybody," he objects, and clearly Mamet understands there is more than one way to hurt a person. At the same time, Mamet seems to relish stacking the deck against poor Margaret, throwing her purported expertise in human nature back in her face in a way that humiliates the character. ("Why do they think I'm a misogynist? That I can't write women?" Mamet asked a LOS ANGELES TIMES reporter back in 1992. "Somehow I've been stuck with this sexist label.") Yes, it is amusing that, of all the swindlers we see on screen, the famously skeptical Mamet reserves his opprobrium for the stuffy but compulsive psychiatrist. But is it a coincidence that she's a woman? Even if so, that is consistent with Mamet's oft-remarked-upon disinterest in compelling female characters. House of Games is a film by David Mamet, all right, for better and worse. Despite its fascinating complexity, it feels a little too concerned with putting the woman in her place.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
House of Games receives a Blu-ray upgrade from Criterion that does right by the care and craft that went into its making. To be honest, Criterion's 2010 DVD release went most of the distance towards reworking the image, scrapping MGM's brighter, warmer non-anamorphic DVD transfer in favour of a moodier, Anchía-approved look with the colour pushed into the blue. (At times the picture is maybe too blue, but like I said: Anchía-approved.) I can't detect much of a difference in the BD version's colour-grade--I'm guessing Criterion is re-using the same master--though the image evinces the increase in detail you'd expect from an HD upgrade. It's not tack-sharp cinematography by any means, but more detail is definitely apparent on the actors' faces and in various background elements. At the same time, film grain is much more organically resolved, and textures that were a little smeary on DVD--the felt of the poker table, say--are cleanly resolved on Blu-ray. Finally, although House of Games is full of inky shadows with no visible detail, close inspection indicates that the blacks have not been crushed and that the presentation accurately reflects the scanned 35mm interpositive. The transfer is an HD-native 1.78:1, opened up a bit at top and bottom from the theatrical 1.85; it's not enough of a deviation to warrant a complaint. There isn't a lot to say about the uncompressed, centre-channel monaural audio, which is at least clean and sufficiently muscular, resolving every hard-edged syllable of Mametspeak. I will venture that the whole thing, including Alaric Jans's sparingly deployed score, may be a tiny bit muffled on the high end, a possible characteristic of the magnetic sound master. Still, it sounds about right for a mono track of this vintage.
Extra features are all ported over from the previous Criterion DVD release (upres'd from SD to 1080p in every case), but they're pretty lively. Mamet is barely five minutes into his commentary, recorded in tandem with Ricky Jay, when he passes judgment on the psychiatric profession, declaring that "in 100 years of psychiatry, nobody ever got any better." Responding to Jay's question of why a psychiatrist would make a good mark for a con artist, he responds, "Of course they're open to being taken advantage of, because that to which they've devoted their life is untrue." There's also a lot of talk here about the similarities Mamet sees between drama and con games--they both involve, he says, distracting people so that they do something they wouldn't normally do, such as questioning the basic premise of a play or movie. Elsewhere, Mamet and Jay talk shop about cons in the real world--Jay ventures that one of the most critical considerations for a con artist is figuring out how much money his mark can afford to lose--and film influences on Mamet's work, such as cinephile faves like Marcel Carné's Le jour se lève and Preston Sturges's The Great McGinty. And Mamet drops a few choice philosophical nuggets. "Acting is like homeopathic medicine," he says at one point. "The smaller the dose, the more effective it is."
Video featurettes include video interviews with Mantegna (15 mins.) and Crouse (15 mins.). Mantegna discusses his close history with Mamet, starting back in Chicago in the 1970s and fast-forwarding to his star-making, Tony-winning appearance on stage in Glengarry Glen Ross. He remembers the time on the set of House of Games when he dared ask Mamet to allow him to change one of his character's lines. (Mamet agreed.) Then he mounts a breathtaking defense of Mike. "People say, ‘Oh my god, that character's so despicable,'" he muses. "I never thought of him that way." In Crouse's segment, she remembers reading the script, which hubby Mamet told her he wrote specifically for her, and then asking if he was sure Margaret was the hero of the piece. (She had her doubts.) She doesn't seem bothered by the experience but allows there were some disagreements between them about how the character should be played. She admits, "It's always hard to be directed by someone who's close to you because everybody needs to go home and complain about the director. Everybody."
We also get a vintage promotional featurette, "David Mamet on House of Games" (25 mins.). Only Mamet and Crouse were interviewed for this short documentary, yet it's quite a bit more interesting than your usual kitchen-sink assemblage. The first 10 minutes are basically a discussion of the game of poker, complete with video footage of Mamet playing at home in Vermont with the same crew of characters that populates the card room in the film. "I think the better poker player one becomes, the better human being one becomes, but that's because I love poker," Mamet says by way of introducing the idea that the poker table is a microcosm of life itself. The balance of the piece features a variety of behind-the-scenes footage from the production, with table reads and rehearsals, coupled with Mamet's observations on the process of filmmaking. At least one secret of Mamet's success as a first-time director is revealed: he appears to have storyboarded the film within an inch of its life. Speaking of storyboards, Criterion has also excavated the original storyboards for a scene in which Joey explains a classic short con. The exact nature of the scam that gets exposed was revised by Jay on set due to his reluctance to ruin that particular con for any of his friends who were working it. This disc contains a short sequence of storyboards revealing the scene as originally planned, alongside the corresponding scene from the finished film (3 mins.). (In the audio commentary, Jay remembers that a friend of his sent him a newspaper clipping after the film was released about an insurance salesman who had been successfully running the revised scam, as seen in the film, on the streets of Denver.) Finally, the disc sports an original trailer (2 mins.) that proves Orion didn't have a clue how to sell this movie.
The disc is packaged with a 28-page booklet that features a glowing five-page essay by writer and filmmaker Kent Jones and a 15-page piece by Mamet himself, "A First-Time Film Director," condensed from his introduction to the published screenplay. Mamet admits here that his idea of meticulously storyboarding the movie--explicitly constructing its narrative in terms of Eisensteinian montage--came from reading Sergei Eisenstein's film theory. Unfortunately, most of his boards had to be thrown out because, as his DP and his editor, Trudy Ship, had to explain to him, his grasp of film grammar was rudimentary. Although the essay is definitely entertaining, its tone is so arch and self-deprecating that it heads past modesty and comes back around to register as low-key boastful. He knows House of Games is a good movie and he's proud of what he accomplished as a first-timer. Fair enough.
102 minutes; R; 1.78:1 (1080p/MPEG-4); English 1.0 LPCM; English subtitles (feature only); BD-50; Region A; Criterion