The Spanish Prisoner

spanishprisoner2The playwright/screenwriter/director David Mamet has a rigorous sense of structure. His storytelling is clean, severe, obsessively designed; his complex stories are simply told, but that simplicity is the result of hard work. You feel you’re seeing the version of whatever story Mamet is telling — the distilled essence, the story without flab or waste. The Spanish Prisoner, Mamet’s fifth film as writer-director, is the most accessible and conventional of the movies he’s directed — which I have slight reservations about, but more on that later. First, it must be said that The Spanish Prisoner (named after a popular scam) ticks like a small, elegant clock. The rhythm of the plot is the heartbeat of paranoia: the protagonist, Joe Ross (Campbell Scott), finds himself in an ever-tightening web of lies and betrayal, a web meticulously engineered by Mamet to confuse us as much as it does Joe. We don’t have a clue where the movie is going, but we have full confidence that it’ll get there eventually.

Joe, an inventor who has devised some brilliant business formula called “the Process” (Mamet never tells us how it works), is sent by his company to pitch his idea at an island resort. There he meets Jimmy Dell (Steve Martin), a mysterious millionaire who seems to zero in on Joe. Joe is a magnet for inscrutable people — he also attracts a secretary (Rebecca Pidgeon, Mamet’s wife) who comes on like Barbara Bel Geddes in Vertigo, a lonely plain Jane enthralled by the virtuous hero.

And therein lies the problem I have with The Spanish Prisoner, the more I think about it. I enjoyed the film, especially the dead-eyed performance by Steve Martin, whose elegant menace is on a par with Robert Walker in Strangers on a Train. By this point in the review, it should be clear: this movie is Mamet’s Hitchcockian riff, a beautiful interlocking puzzle of a breed that Hollywood has forgotten how to make (that the film is an independent production speaks condemning volumes about the state of the movie industry). And on that level, The Spanish Prisoner is absorbing, sharp, and darkly funny.

But it doesn’t go beyond that level — which is not something you can say about Mamet’s plays or most of the other films he’s directed (like House of Games or Homicide or Oleanna). The movie shows Mamet the brilliant, clever craftsman, not Mamet the artist. There’s no primal howl here, none of the spasms of violence (or even profanity — the film mostly minds its language) found in American Buffalo orGlengarry Glen Ross or even such Mamet scripts-for-hire as The Untouchables. There’s no wildness — it’s too neat, too worked out, too locked in. That locked-in quality is engaging on an immediate, surface level, which — for me, anyway — has worn off slightly with time and distance.

I realize this is a different kind of movie, one that demands to be plot-driven, not messy or discursive, but Mamet’s true gifts lie elsewhere. You take pleasure in watching the pieces click together, yet nothing in the movie is all that surprising — you distrust Jimmy and the secretary as soon as you lay eyes on them. The question is never who is screwing Joe over, but how. Mamet uses the thriller form to make his usual paranoid themes explicit (he’s great on the way corrupt men talk to each other), but he doesn’t subvert the genre, as Hitchcock did. He works the genre gracefully but impersonally; at times, such as when Joe stupidly puts his fingers all over a bloody knife, Mamet seems to be daring us not to say “Give me a break.”

Lest this sound like a negative review, I should emphasize that The Spanish Prisoner offers pleasures that few other works of art or entertainment can manage these days: the satisfaction of a plot slowly unfolding, our ticklish insecurity when we realize we have no idea what’s coming next, the affable and decent Campbell Scott as a hero Jimmy Stewart could have played. The Spanish Prisoner may be a hermetic Hitchcockian doodle (I had the same reaction to The Usual Suspects), but it’s a compelling exercise — David Mamet’s variation on a theme.

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