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Old 10-05-2004, 07:02 PM
Closet SCREAM fan
Scored: 10
Views: 8,158
Default House of Games

Reviewer: Jeremy
Review Date: February 14, 2001

Released by: MGM
Release date: 12/19/2000
MSRP: $19.99
Region 1, NTSC
Widescreen 1.85:1 | 16x9: No | P&S: Yes (Side B)

The Story

inline Image Dr. Margaret Ford (Lindsay Crouse) is a famous psychiatrist with a best-selling book and a successful practice. But her life begins to unravel one day during a session with Billy Hahn (Steven Goldstein), a compulsive gambler. Billy starts wailing that there's no way she or anyone else can ever help him, and he pulls out a gun and threatens to kill himself. He owes $25,000 to Mike, a poker player at a downtown establishment called the House of Games, and if he doesn't produce the money by tomorrow, something he can't do, Mike will have him killed. Margaret persuades him to give her the gun, but Billy remains inconsolable.

inline Image That night, Margaret goes to the House of Games to talk to Mike and tell him to leave Billy alone. Mike (Joe Mantegna), a slick but foul-mouthed man playing poker in the back room, reveals to Margaret that Billy's debt is actually a measly $800, and he makes Margaret an offer. He explains to her that everyone has "tells" - little things they do to give away their intentions and their thoughts. He's playing poker right now with a man who plays with his gold ring every time he's bluffing. That's his "tell", and if Margaret will help him spot it, Mike will forgive Billy's debt. Margaret agrees and sits down with Mike at the card table, pretending to be his girlfriend.

inline Image After a few minutes, Mike gets up to go to the bathroom, and Margaret quickly spots his opponent playing with his gold ring. When Mike comes back, she informs him of the "tell", and Mike calls the guy's bluff. Unexpectedly, the man reveals that he has a straight flush and has won the hand. Mike now owes him $6,000, and he doesn't have the money! The guy gets so agitated that he pulls out a gun and demands that he get the money immediately, and Mike has to reluctantly ask Margaret to write a check. Margaret is about to, when she notices water dripping out of the gun, and realizes that it's just a water pistol. As it turns out, the whole story about playing with the ring was false - it was just a trick to try and get a some cash out of her. Mike apologizes, and he and his friend Joey (Mike Nussbaum), both of whom are actually con men, demonstrate to her a few of their other tricks.

inline Image The next night, Margaret feels a strange urge drawing her back to Mike. She goes to see him and tells him that she wants to learn more about how he and the other con men operate. Mike agrees and takes her down to a local Western Union office, where he demonstrates to her the essence of his trade - building a false trust with somebody. Pretending to be a military veteran, he nearly succeeds in conning a U.S. Marine (William H. Macy) out of some of his cash. Mike then proceeds to seduce the woman, and they go to a hotel to have sex. Later that night, Mike and Joey are planning on pulling a trick on a businessman from a local convention, and Mike reluctantly agrees to let Margaret participate. Pretending to be husband and wife, the two walk to a nearby crosswalk where the businessman (J.T. Walsh) and Joey, who's pretending to be one, are waiting for the light to change. Suddenly, they notice a briefcase lying on the ground. Mike picks it up and it comes open, revealing $80,000 in cash stuffed inside. The four go to a hotel room to discuss what to do with the money.

inline Image Finally, after arguing all night, everyone comes to an agreement - the businessman will give them a $30,000 deposit for them to hold. He'll take the briefcase to his bank and get the cash checked out. If it's not counterfeit, they'll give him the deposit back and they'll split the money evenly. But it's actually a scheme to defraud the guy of his deposit. As they get ready to leave the room, the businessman goes into the bathroom to get cleaned up, but Margaret hears him talking on a walkie-talkie inside - he's an undercover cop! The three of them try to get away, but the officer confronts them. A struggle ensues, and the unfortunate man is shot and killed by accident. The group manages to escape the hotel, narrowly dodging several officers guarding the entrance.

inline Image Unfortunately, it seems that Joey forgot one little item at the hotel - the briefcase with the $80,000 in it. The problem is that the money in the case was real cash that the guys had borrowed from the mob, not counterfeit, and if they don't pay it back by that night, they're all screwed. Margaret withdraws eighty grand of her own money from the bank to make up for it, and Mike says goodbye to her - he and Joey have to disappear. She'll be safe, since the police couldn't possibly identify her. Margaret goes back to her office, but almost immediately the guilt starts to eat away at her. But it isn't long before she begins to realize that she was the victim of a "con" more cunning than any one that Mike ever showed her, and she begins to plot her revenge....

inline Image After hearing many positive things about it, I must say that I was a little bit disappointed by House of Games. There were two major problems with the film that really stuck out, the first one of them being the storyline, which was regrettably predictable. Almost every plot point, every little twist, became obvious before it happened, and it ended up robbing the movie of a lot of suspense. A good example of this is when Margaret, Mike and Joey are in the hotel room arguing with the undercover cop. It's a cliched situation, and it's just too obvious that something is going to happen. However, an even bigger problem is the lack of characterization on the part of Margaret. The fact that she is strongly drawn to Mike and fascinated with the various schemes he and the other con men play is a major part of the story, and as such, would logically be given an adequate explanation. Unfortunately, it isn't. There are some hints to Margaret's behavior thrown out, including several scenes where she's chastised by one of her friends (Lilia Skala) for leading an overworked, joyless life, but in the end we're still wondering what makes this woman tick.

However, there are also some notable qualities that deserve mention. Writer/director David Mamet puts in a notable effort to capture the dark, seedy atmosphere of a con man's world. From smoke-filled back rooms to dimly-lit pool houses and bars to rainy, misty streets, House of Games is visually slick in a way that many other modern pieces of film noir haven't been able to emulate. The morally unredeemable Mike is an excellent creation that fits right into this world. Mike is a villain, but he's not a traditional movie one. He's not a violent thug or an evil mastermind, he's just a scumbag, the same type of worthless sociopath you could find practically anywhere. Joe Mantegna is perfectly believable in the role, playing the character with the right amount of charm, slickness and sleaziness. In fact, it's really a pit that despite quite a bit of notable film work, Mantegna isn't a much more famous actor.

All in all, House of Games is definitely an interesting thriller. It's not a classic, and people used to more hard-hitting crime films probably won't enjoy it, but if you're interested in this genre, the film is definitely worth a glance.

Image Quality

House of Games is presented letterboxed at 1.85:1 and is - inexplicably - not enhanced for 16x9 TVs. There is also a fullscreen version available on Side B of the disc, but you'll probably want to stick with the letterboxed version. The transfer boasts strong colors and a superior level of detail, but is marred by some specks on the print and some occasional scratches. It's a good transfer, but there's certainly room for improvement, so I'll give it a B.


The soundtrack is in Dolby 2.0 Mono. The effects and music both sound great, although since this is a mostly dialogue-driven film, their replication isn't as vital. Also included are 2.0 Mono French and Spanish tracks, as well as English captions and French and Spanish subtitles.

Supplemental Material

inline Image Theatrical trailer only.

Final Thoughts

Once again, MGM has given us a decent bare-bones disc. I wish they could've scrounged up a few more supplements (a commentary track would've been nice), but at least this isn't a release that will gut your wallet. So give it a try.


Movie - B-
Image Quality - B
Sound - B
Supplements - C

Technical Info.
  • Running Time - 1 hour 41 minutes
  • Color
  • Rated R
  • 1 Disc
  • 24 Chapter Stops
  • English Mono 2.0
  • Spanish Mono 2.0
  • French Mono 2.0
  • French subtitles
  • Spanish subtitles
  • English captions
  • Theatrical Trailer

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