The Spanish Prisoner

Tightly plotted con drama. Amongst its weaponry are such elements as distinctive dialogue, great twists and nice red uniforms

Released in 1997, certified UK-PG. Reviewed on 03 Oct 2003 by Scott Morris
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Interest in revisiting this little number was piqued mainly by Campbell Scott's performance in the recently released Roger Dodger and the release of the similarly themed Matchstick Men, although it has a number of other little oddities. While David Mamet has written more than a few screenplays in his time including the all-time classic Glengarry Glen Ross his trips behind the camera are a little rarer, and possibly the biggest kerfuffle on it's 1997 release was that it's one of the very few absolute straight roles for Steve Martin, no gurning required and it proved he has at least some talent in this field after a run of rank awful films, the one prior to this the almost universally hated Sgt. Bilko remake. It's possible his involvement in this movie saved his career.

Joseph Ross (Scott) is a mathematician of some variety who has created a process of some kind worth some amount of money to some company. Exactly what it is never made clear nor is it of any import, a mere McGuffin to drive the plot. From the vague hints and notes it seems to be something like Max Cohen is busy working on in Pi, a means to control or predict stock prices. It's clearly awffy, awffy valuable and the company is keen to keep it secure, only one written copy of the mysterious formula inscribed on a red book sitting in a safe. Joe is taking part in a meeting with company bigwigs on a Caribbean island, a junket in an idyllic location. The meeting itself is over quickly giving Joe some downtime on the island.

After shaking off the attentions of his infatuated secretary Susan (Rebecca Pidgeon) he relaxes with his homily dispensing friend and lawyer George (Ricky Jay) before bumping into a wealthy chap by the name of Jimmy Dell (Martin). Dell may or may not have flown in from a private plane, although Susan doubts this and says she has photographic proof. Like so many proofs it seems to prove nothing, but it's only a little hint to have you start questioning events and people. Despite getting off on an entirely antagonistic wrong foot Dell and Joe strike up a friendship for the night before Joe has to fly off home to New York. Jimmy asks Joe to transport a package to Jimmy's sister back in New York. Joe agrees without hesitation.

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On off handed remark on the plane made by Susan introduces a fairly common theme, who can Joe trust? He doesn't really know Dell from Adam, as the phrase goes, and there could be anything in this package. He panics, opens the package to find...a book, with a note recommending Joe as a fine fellow to Jimmy's sister. Strangely, rather than deliver the fairly battered edition Dell had purchased Joe buys a pristine copy of the first edition book, delivering this to the doorman at the hotel Jimmy's sister stays in. A few days later he happens upon Dell who gives him the cold shoulder, followed by a rant about not delivering the book in person. By this point enough doubt and oddities have been thrown on screen to make us question exactly what's going on with Dell, and what's running through Joe's mind.

Which is useful, because talking about the plot of the movie in any more depth would ruin in for those unfortunate enough not to have seen it. For once this isn't just a lazy way out of typing another couple of hundred words, it would genuinely spoil the movie and there's no point in scrambling a recap that would only be read by people who have seen the film.

Broadly, Dell sows some seeds of doubt in Joe's mind as to exactly how much he is worth to the company. His boss refuses to pony up a bonus for his Joe's hard work, which sets his mind on ways to get more dough that he doesn't seem to really need. Greed is considered a sin for a reason. Dell's advice that perhaps Joe's company is about to screw him seems more and more likely, but can Joe trust anyone he knows?

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This film is a sleight of hand exercise pretty much from the outset all the way through to a few minutes after the film ends whereupon you wonder if there wasn't a further realisation that's been left for you to write in on your own. It twists and turns continually, something that normally gets my goat, or would do if I had a goat. What sets The Spanish Prisoner apart form something like Basic is that it's simply far better thought out here. Each new development is a comparatively logical progression from the last and while you're watching at least it makes sense.

Even while Mamet is throwing the odd curveball at you it makes previous scenes all the more telling. If an undue amount of attention is placed on any seemingly innocuous prop or cute little plot device it ought to set your mind turning as to how it going to show up later on. Mamet understands that as with any good magic trick the fun is in the set-up, trying to guess what he's going to do before he does it. As Basic et al have a tendency just to lay these developments flat out on the table with no foreshadowing at all it tends to swing them more towards irritating than enchanting.

The dialogue is typically Mametian, all clipped sentences spoken hurriedly, dialogue clashing into each other. It's Campbell Scott who has to deal with the most of it, his performance occasionally decried as wooden but I figured him more as naive, played for a fool by the world which comes across in a fairly innocent performance. The character Rebecca Pidgeon plays doesn't seem to belong in this film, first few scenes especially. In a terse world she waxes lyrical and flowery which jars with the stuttering flows of Scott and the seemingly random witticisms from Ricky Jay and Steve Martin that occasionally bear little relation to what's happening. There are a few jokes but they're of the clever Wildeian variety rather than a common or garden gag, you may permit yourself a slight ironic grin but you won't laugh. And nor should the film attempt to, it's a very serious affair.

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The first twenty minutes plays exactly like a stage play and it doesn't seem comfortable with it. Even the actors seem to be trying to project to the back of the non-existent stage with all the loss of subtlety that entails. It passes, as the locations change from the brightly lit beaches to the claustrophobic offices and apartments so does the dialogue and deliveries, tighter, darker, more laden with unspoken meaning.

Perhaps I'm just gullible, but this film had me thinking and guessing until its conclusion in a way that Confidence never did. For that alone I'd forgive it plenty, but in truth there's little to forgive. There's perhaps too much going on for the characters to have any real depth to them, as there simply isn't the time to devote to it. For all the discussion of character vs. plot driven narratives it's all rendered meaningless when there's a plot this damn good. Anyone with even a passing interest in the nebulous 'thriller' genre really ought to track down this film.

Were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements, I'd award this 4/5 TippyMarks.

David Mamet
Cast list:
Campbell Scott (Joseph Ross)
Steve Martin (Jimmy Dell)
Rebecca Pidgeon (Susan Ricci)
Ben Gazzara (Mr. Klein)
Ricky Jay (George Lang)
Felicity Huffman (Pat McCune)