Written by: Michael Mackenzie on August 16th, 2005
Theatrical Release Date: Italy, 2004
Director: Dario Argento
Writers: Dario Argento, Franco Ferrini, Jay Benedict, Phoebe Scholfield
Cast: Stefania Rocca, Liam Cunningham, Silvio Muccino, Adalberto Maria Merli, Claudio Santamaria, Fiore Argento, Elisabetta Rocchetti, Vera Gemma, Conchita Puglisi
DVD released:August 23rd, 2005
Approximate running time: 96 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen
Sound: Dolby Digital 5.1 English, Dolby Digital Surround English
DVD Release: Anchor Bay
Region Coding: Region 1 NTSC
Retail Price: $19.98
One morning, Rome police inspector Anna Mari (Stefania Rocca) receives a mysterious email from an individual calling himself “the Card Player”. He claims to have kidnapped a British tourist, Christine Girdler (Jennifer Polley), and wants to challenge the police to a game of online video poker with Christine as the jackpot. If they lose, she dies. If they win, she goes free. Oh, and for every round the police lose, he’s going to cut something off. The game is soon set up, and sure enough, Christine is visible on-screen, bound and gagged and in hysterics. The police commissioner (Adalberto Maria Merli) decides that they will no play, and before their eyes Christine is killed. The next morning, her naked body is discovered at the bottom of a lake. The British embassy in Rome sends in John Brennan (Liam Cunningham), an Irish cop booted off to Italy after he managed to kill two people, including a child, in a bungled hostage situation in London. Brennan is on the case till it’s finished, and he wants full cooperation. This includes playing the video poker games when more women are inevitably kidnapped, and kidnapped they are. Opposites attract, and Anna and John find themselves falling in love as they work together to track down the Card Player. They soon hit on the bright idea of hiring an “expert” to play the poker games for them, since the police are all useless. The expert turns out to be Remo (Silvio Muccino), a teenager with an incredible track record for winning poker games. The stakes are raised, however, when the commissioner’s own daughter, Lucia (Fiore Argento), is abducted, and it becomes clear that the Card Player knows a little too much about both Anna and the goings-on at the police station…
I’ve reviewed The Card Player twice now, once when I saw it theatrically and then again when I bought the Region 2 Czech DVD release. Suffice to say, my opinion of the film has not changed dramatically since then, and if you want a more in-depth overview of what I think then I advise you to give these earlier reviews a look.
For the purposes of brevity, I’ll just say that The Card Player is an unusual film in the Argento canon: an attempt to court the mainstream, it would seem, although Argento swears blindly that it was not his intention to chase Hollywood. Lacking in on-screen gore, it creates dread by way of establishing mood and hinting at off-camera brutality, which is sometimes successful and sometimes not. Oddly enough for an Argento film, the visuals, while professional, are quite subdued, with the emphasis falling on the performances of the lead actors, which are actually pretty good. This is a film that seems to improve with repeat viewings, and although it’s little more than a pale shadow of Argento’s greatest successes, it remains an enjoyable if insubstantial distraction.
Anchor Bay presents The Card Player anamorphically in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. This is the third version of the film I have seen on DVD (the others being the Czech and Italian Region 2 releases), and this is definitely the weakest of the lot. The actual source material looks like exactly the same print that was used for the Czech DVD, but unfortunately, this release has been encoded interlaced. I initially suspected a PAL to NTSC standards conversion, but this would appear not to be the case, as the film runs 4% longer than its PAL counterparts, and the music during the opening credits is clearly of a lower pitch. Therefore, it would seem that the technician responsible for encoding this transfer simply hit the wrong button – a silly mistake that could easily have been avoided. I must say that I am very disappointed with Anchor Bay for doing this, as I had thought that they were above such things. The transfer looks relatively good, all things considered, but it could have looked so much better, as the interlacing introduces all manner of ghosting artefacts during pans (of which there are a lot in this film, due to its constantly moving camera) and moiré effects (again, these are fairly common, as the police station in which much of the film is set is heavily decorated with horizontal blinds).
Audio options on this released are comprised of Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby Surround 2.0 mixes of the English soundtrack. The film was shot in English with many of the actors providing their own natural speaking voices, so the Italian dub actually works out as being inferior – still, it would have been nice if it had been included for completeness’ sake.
Bereft of the pounding full bit rate DTS track that graced the Czech release, the film still sounds impressive here, but was always going to fall short when compared to that version. Still, I suspect that people will have nothing to complain about on the audio front if they choose to go with this release, barring the lack of subtitles of any kind – always a major sticking point for Anchor Bay releases.
This version is certainly the most feature-backed of all the film’s releases, and indeed many people have chosen to hold out for it in anticipation of this fact, despite it showing up almost a year later than the various European and Asian releases.
The meatiest feature is undoubtedly a feature length Audio Commentary with Alan Jones, author of the book Profondo Argento. Jones has covered the production of all of Argento’s films since Opera, personally spending time on the set interviewing the cast and crew and witnessing the production process first-hand, and The Card Player was no exception, making him arguably the most qualified person to talk about the film (Argento is notoriously reluctant to discuss his films in-depth, and the commentaries he provided for Tenebre and Phenomena should give some idea of that). He discusses a range of subjects, from providing background details on the script and the various actors to the influence of the likes of Fritz Lang and Brian De Palma on various scenes. At times he falls back on simply describing the on-screen events, but by and large this commentary is wonderfully insightful and filled with enough trivia to satisfy even the most ardent Argentophile.
Dario Argento and Claudio Simonetti are interviewed separately, in featurettes entitled Playing with Death and Maestro of Fear respectively. Argento talks specifically about The Card Player, discussing his intentions, the world of technology and his relationship with the actors, while Simonetti provides an overview of his musical career, culminating in a discussion of his work on The Card Player. Both interviews are presented in Italian with burned-in English subtitles.
Various promotional materials are also included, most of which have shown up on previous DVDs of the film. New to this release is the international Trailer, an odd and rather clumsy affair that includes a handful of shots and alternate takes not used in the film itself. The package is rounded off with a collection of trailers for other Argento titles available from Anchor Bay.
Anchor Bay’s release of The Card Player had the chance to be the best version of the lot, but sadly it disappoints on the visual front. While viewers with standard interlaced TVs will have little to complain about, those with progressive scan equipment are advised to go for the Czech release instead, unless they are restricted to Region 1 territory or absolutely must see the extras.
This review originally appeared at Whiggles.com and is reprinted here with permission.