Spanish Prisoner, The (United States, 1997)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

What would it be like if celebrated playwright and screenwriter David Mamet collaborated with Franz Kafka? While we'll never know for sure, The Spanish Prisoner gives a good indication. This film, the fifth to be authored and directed by Mamet (whose recent script contributions include The Edge and Wag the Dog), is both a sendup of the Hitchcock-type thriller and a legitimate entry into the genre. It's Mamet's most convoluted plot since House of Games, but, while the overall structure and style are of noir twistiness, the underlying message is something almost any viewer can relate to: how corporate greed destroys trust and corrupts honest men.

Joe Ross (Campbell Scott) has just invented "The Process", a revolutionary procedure that is going to give his company control of the market (to use Hitchcock terms, this is the movie's McGuffin). But, while Joe thinks his work is worth a sizable bonus, the corporation's president, Mr. Klein (Ben Gazzara), refuses to commit to a specific figure, assuring Joe only that his effort is appreciated. While on a business trip to the Caribbean, Joe runs into Jimmy Dell (Steve Martin), a mysterious, rich stranger who offers Joe a few tips about life and business. Days later, in New York, Joe meets Jimmy again, and this begins his spiral into a strange world of deception, where nothing is what it first seems to be. Soon, like so many heroes in films like this, he finds himself in an untenable position, wrongly accused with a pile of irrefutable evidence staring him in the face. The only one he can trust is his secretary, Susan (Rebecca Pidgeon, Mamet's wife), who wants more than just a working relationship with him.

Mamet's script supplies us with a seemingly-endless series of twists and turns, only a fraction of which are predictable. At times, the audience is a step ahead of the screenplay, but, most of the time, we're playing catch-up. Although there are plenty of holes that Mamet has no interest is sewing up (trying to solve every riddle in The Spanish Prisoner is an exercise in futility), this is a smart film that develops a central character we can sympathize with – a modern version of Josef K. from Kafka's The Trial. The plot is delightfully preposterous, but holds together a lot better than the generic likes of Palmetto and Wild Things. The difference is simple: those two films are for viewers who prefer to turn their brains off while The Spanish Prisoner is for anyone who likes to think and feel along with the characters. Mamet offers us the same clues he gives to Joe; we can piece the truth together along with him.

The most curious thing about The Spanish Prisoner is the ending (which I will not reveal in this review). At first glance, it appears to be a common wrap-up that ties together several critical loose ends. There's a deus ex machina aspect to it which may indicate that Mamet is toying with the audience by sending up the manner in which this kind of movie must end to satisfy an audience. But are things as straightforward as they seem? Is this, in fact, the end, or is it just the latest twist in an incredibly complex con game?

The dialogue is, of course, pure Mamet. The writer/director's characteristic style infuses every exchange with its peculiar, staccato rhythm. There are those who find Mamet's approach to be off-putting, but, for movie-goers who allow its strange allure to captivate them (which usually takes a few minutes), it becomes apparent how crucial it is to the film's overall tone. One other thing worth noting – Mamet scripts are typically known for being extremely profane (see Glengarry Glenn Ross or American Buffalo for examples), but there isn't a single curse word in the whole of The Spanish Prisoner. Mamet has achieved something extraordinary – a PG rating.

One of the reasons the film is so strong is that nearly every major performance is impeccable. Campbell Scott is entirely sympathetic as the befuddled, naïve victim. Joe is, by his own admission, a boy scout whose chief trait is courtesy and who is ill-suited to emerge unscathed from the labyrinthine trap laid for him. Rebecca Pidgeon is captivating as Joe's outspoken, would-be seductress. Despite Susan's assertion that she has "a secretary mentality," it's clear that nothing could be further from the truth, and Joe's statement that he's "not looking for an office romance" doesn't dissuade her. Steve Martin plays Jimmy Dell with the right mix of charm and menace. He's clearly a dangerous figure – but for whom: Joe or Joe's enemies? Effective support is provided by Ben Gazzara and Ricky Jay (as Joe's lawyer friend).

Although most viewers of The Spanish Prisoner will be personally unfamiliar with the kind of sinister plot that Joe stumbles into, the concepts of corporate greed and backstabbing will hit closer to home. The subtext of this film is the same as the one in many other Mamet offerings – how the current business climate rewards those who act ruthlessly and punishes those who hold to a code of ethics. With a plot that would make Hitchcock proud, The Spanish Prisoner uses this outrageously elaborate, always-entertaining approach to illustrate these more serious concerns about what it takes to survive the '90s.

Spanish Prisoner, The (United States, 1997)

Director: David Mamet
Cast: Campbell Scott, Rebecca Pidgeon, Steve Martin, Ben Gazzara, Ricky Jay, Felicity Huffman
Screenplay: David Mamet
Cinematography: Gabriel Beristoin
Music: Carter Burwell
U.S. Distributor: Sony Classics
Run Time: 1:50
U.S. Release Date: 1998-04-03
MPAA Rating: "PG"
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1