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With: Lindsay Crouse, Joe Mantegna, Steven Goldstein, Ricky Jay, Mike Nussbaum, J. T. Walsh, Lilia Skala, William H. Macy
Written by: David Mamet
Directed by: David Mamet
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 102
Date: 10/11/1987

House of Games (1987)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Brains Over Con

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

David Mamet's directorial debut, House of Games is a beautifully-made film, with lots of back-room gambling dens, bars, and hotel rooms at night. It's rich with atmosphere, and, of course, that tough, stylized Mamet dialogue, as characters try to read each other while maintaining the upper hand, snapping out hard words like they were laying down cards. It's also a film from a simpler time, built entirely around cons. At the time, these were collected from real-back alley deals (most likely by the late, real-life magician and movie consultant Ricky Jay, who appears here as a card player), but nowadays they are common screenwriter's tricks. Where they were once fresh, and perhaps even dangerous, we have become used to them; they're on TV every night. So to watch House of Games in 2019 is to be aware of the fact that it's a con, and awake to whatever twists may be coming. But regardless of whether the film still delivers its intended zing, it's still hugely satisfying to watch all the moving parts click into place. Lindsay Crouse (an Oscar nominee for Places in the Heart) plays a psychiatrist, whose patient confesses that he is in debt to a gambler. She goes out into the night to confront the gambler, meets Mike (Joe Mantegna), and becomes involved in her first con. J.T. Walsh co-stars as a businessman, and William H. Macy appears in one scene as a soldier. Roger Ebert famously selected this as the best film of 1987, and one of the ten best films of the 1980s.

The Criterion Collection released this film on a new Blu-ray for 2019, with a typically excellent audio (an uncompressed monaural soundtrack) and video transfer; the picture was supervised by director of photog­raphy Juan Ruiz Anchia. It includes a commentary track by Mamet and Jay, recorded in 2007; interviews with Crouse and Mantegna, also from 2007; a short documentary shot in 1987; a storyboard of a con suggested by Jay; and a trailer. The liner notes booklet includes an essay by Kent Jones, and excerpts from the book of the published screenplay.

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