"Who in this world is what they seem to be? Who?" asks secretary
Susan Ricci, played with sweetness and innocence by Rebecca Pidgeon, to
her would-be boyfriend and coworker Joe Ross. As Joe, Campbell Scott
from THE BIG NIGHT has to be wary of everyone in THE SPANISH PRISONER.
"You never know who anybody is, except me," Susan reassures him. "I am
who I am." Well, maybe. You can never be sure in this fascinating
labyrinth, written and directed by David Mamet in his unique and highly
literate style. (The title comes from a famous confidence game, or so
the movie claims.)
Mamet, whose most recent screenplay was the incredible WAG THE
DOG, has given us a host of brilliant pieces of writing, from the more
popular ones like THE VERDICT and THE UNTOUCHABLES to the even better
art house films such as THINGS CHANGE and HOUSE OF GAMES. It is the
latter picture that comes closest to the plot and tone of THE SPANISH
PRISIONER, and HOUSE OF GAMES, being his best film ever, is the one
most deserving of inspiring another.
Mamet, who has come up with a few miserable scripts, THE EDGE
being his worst, generally does his best work when he is both the
writer and the director as he was also for HOUSE OF GAMES. His best
films, THE SPANISH PRISONER being one, are characterized by dense
dialog in which the actors speak in staccato voices, constantly
interrupting each other and sometimes completing each other's
sentences. More like poetry than prose, the words and the situations
of his movies are like Impressionist paintings. They make strong
statements, but don't attempt a completely realistic approach.
A good example of this is Joe's office at a small firm. As the
inventor of a "process" that turns out to be worth a fabulous but never
disclosed sum of money, he is required to take extraordinary security
precautions. These include, not only a locked door, but a heavy
curtain to cover over the invaluable process notes which he keeps on
his blackboard. The details of the process are written in a paper
notebook and kept in his office in a safe, which is hidden behind an
oil painting. This computerless environment is completely divorced
from modern reality, and yet works marvelously well in the context of
Joe works for a boss named Mr. Klein (Ben Gazzara), who is
straight out of a Dilbert comic strip. Never saying what the company
will give Joe for his discovery, Mr. Klein keeps promising to talk to
the board about it. "If we all do our jobs, we will each be rewarded
according to our just desserts," Mr. Klein claims, not very
Steve Martin plays a mysterious, rich tycoon named Jimmy Dell.
Jimmy offers Joe $1,000 for his camera in their first meeting since Joe
has taken a picture of Jimmy and a married woman who, Jimmy claims, is
a princess of an obscure country. Felicity Huffman, as FBI agent Pat
McCune, is hot on Jimmy's trail. But why?
Among the many delicious scenes is one in which Jimmy discovers
that poor Joe doesn't have a numbered Swiss bank account. He sets him
up with one and deposits 15 francs in it. Jimmy says this will give
Joe great prestige since people will be able to find out that he has
one, but no one will be able to determine its value.
That there will be a scam to get the process from Joe is clear
from the beginning, but Mamet takes the entire first half of the story
to meticulously set everything up before the con begins. And when Joe
inevitably gets the rug pulled out from under him, the movie yanks it
hard and long.
In a sequence that could serve as a metaphor for the entire story,
when one of the Japanese tourists speaks, she isn't a tourist after
all, but a native Texan. She says her few lines with a thick hillbilly
accent,. Even in picture filled with surprises, this one manages yet
again to remind us that things indeed are far from what they seem in
THE SPANISH PRISONER.
THE SPANISH PRISONER runs 1:52. It is rated PG for thematic
elements including tension, some violent images and brief language and
would be fine for kids age 10 and up.
Copyright © 1998 Steve Rhodes