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USA 1998
Directed by
David Mamet
112 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3 stars

The Spanish Prisoner

Although more convoluted than his methodologically-similar House Of Games (1987) writer-director David Mamet’s con-job movie permutes to such a degree of implausibility and it is so self-conscious about setting out its clues that is less satisfying than the earlier, more economical film.

The plot concerns Joe Ross (Campbell Scott) a company man who has invented a “process” that will make a fortune for his boss Mr. Klein (Ben Gazzara).  Klein flies Joe to a meeting in the Caribbean to meet with investors. There Joe meets Jimmy Dell (Steve Martin) with whom Joe strikes up a friendship. They arrange to meet back in New York but Joe quite quickly realizes that Jimmy is not who he seems to be.  That however is just the beginning of Joe’s problems. As the world opens up beneath his feet the only person he can depend upon is Susan (Rebecca Pidgeon, Mamet’s wife), a PA at his office who has a crush on him.

For a good half of the film we are thrilled by Mamet’s writing which is enjoyable both for its characteristic verbal stylings and for the way that it is evidently leading us into a web of deception, as it were, meta-narratively throwing out clues (or are they red herrings) along the way. This strategy works well for the stage illusionist but the problem with narrative cinema is that a simple “Hey presto” is not sufficient and Mamet has to put in place ever more Byzantine developments in order to lead us to a “happy” ending.  One still appreciates the cleverness but at a certain point (probably when Joe finds his colleague played by Ricky Jay, who was in House Of Games, is a friend of the director and an aficionado of magic and charlatanism, dead in apartment stabbed with Joe’s hunting knife) the elaborations acquire a life of their own, one divorced from any credible reality and interest starts to wane. It then seems as if Mamet the magician was relying more on smoke and mirrors than sleight-of-hand to pull off his tricks, and not only couldn't be bothered disguising the fact but actually makes it obvious (how was Joe's red-covered manuscript switched? How did the membership application to Dell's club become a request for political asylum and how did the police get hold of it? How did the microphone get behind Joe's St Patrick's Day shamrock?) as if, in the style of 1940's film noir relying on our investment in the plot to over-ride our objective perception. Either that or the whole thing is intended as a parody but that hardly seems to be defensible reading.

For the most part (bar the ending) Martin is effective although Scott, an actor one periodically sees in films without ever knowing who he is, is an odd choice for the leading man, Pidgeon's character with her strange self-awareness is by far and away the most unique creation. But you've got to watch the film to discover that.




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