"The Spanish Prisoner"

Charles Taylor reviews 'The Spanish Prisoner,' directed by David Mamet and starring Campbell Scott and Steve Martin

By Charles Taylor
Published April 10, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

The obliquely titled "The Spanish Prisoner" plays as if David Mamet had ingested old issues of Town and Country, Patricia Highsmith novels, Alfred Hitchcock movies and compilations of modernist film stills and used them to put a gloss on his own squalid, pissant view of the world. In "The Spanish Prisoner" Mamet is trading once again on his predilection for con men and con games. It's a who's-scamming-who movie, and when the big scheme is put in motion and its mark, Campbell Scott, find his life turning into quicksand, the picture is moderately diverting. But it's never much fun.

Scott plays Joe Ross, who we know is in trouble as soon as we hear him praised as a nice guy. Joe is some kind of young whiz who's invented some kind of business thingy that is sure to make his company some kind of moola. His boss, Klein (Ben Gazzara -- we know Joe's in trouble when his boss is Ben Gazzara), keeps fobbing off Joe's requests to be cut in on the impending windfall with bland words of appreciation and vague promises of waiting for the stockholders' meeting. The movie opens on a business trip to the Caribbean, where Klein has taken Joe to sell his whatsis to their company's board of directors. There Joe befriends a wealthy American named Julian "Jimmy" Dell (Steve Martin -- we know Joe's in trouble when he meets a wealthy American named Julian). Back in New York, Jimmy tells Joe to trust his suspicion that Klein is trying to screw him out of the profits and offers to set up a meeting with his lawyer. We know Joe's in trouble when Julian offers -- aw, fuck it, as Mr. Mamet would say.

Mamet has cast the great sleight-of-hand artist Ricky Jay as Joe's friend, a lawyer who works for the same company. If only Jay had taught Mamet something about diversion. A movie about con games needs to con the audience. It needs a director who can sidetrack us with dazzle while setting up the con. When you think back on "The Spanish Prisoner," the plot unravels into neat coincidences and implausibilities. But that seems less important than the way Mamet's deliberate pacing and airless atmosphere telegraph every twist and turn. Mamet appears to think that the cleverness of his setup is sufficient. But the movie starts so somnambulantly, with so little sense of any kind of life (this must be one of the most underpopulated pictures ever made), that for a while I had the sensation of watching a filmed theater piece.

When a tourist couple strolls by in the background of a shot at the Caribbean resort, it couldn't look less stagy than if you heard Mamet giving them their cues on the soundtrack. Mamet has placed his entire movie under a bell jar. The dialogue -- alternately enigmatic, portentous, absurdist and bland -- is surrounded by huge patches of dead air. How can Jay (or any actor), whose lines are peppered with quotes and allusions, deliver a line like, "As humans we dream, and when we dream, we dream of money"? Here's an exchange between Scott and Rebecca Pidgeon (who is married to Mamet):

Scott: "Funny old world."

Pidgeon: "Funny old world? Dog my cats."

Scott: "Dog my cats indeed."


Pidgeon, who spends the first part of the picture in a Thurston Howell straw hat and the ugliest collection of resort clothes you've ever seen (just where do you get a ladies' tailored seersucker blazer?), plays a company assistant who has a crush on Joe. Although she improves as the movie goes on, at first I couldn't stand her mixture of forced brightness and flat, pointed delivery. This is the type of person we've all been stuck working with at one time or another, someone whose constant self-deprecation is a veiled challenge: You get the feeling she'll judge you a boor if you don't contradict her lousy opinion of herself. That's the type of character that passes for a love interest here, a gal whose response to a surprise kiss from Scott is "Crikey!"

But romance seems to be one of those common things Mamet is above, along with glamour and the eroticism of danger. What's the point of setting a thriller among the rich if you're not going to give the audience some lushness? Would it have sullied Mamet's artistic purity to throw in a few luscious landscapes in the Caribbean scenes, or to make Manhattan look as if somebody actually lived there?

It's amusing to see Scott, who has always seemed one of the least trustworthy of actors, play a patsy. But Mamet hasn't given us enough of a stake in Joe to share his desperation -- or made him into the sort of worm we'd enjoy seeing squirm. Actors seem to love doing Mamet for the same reason they used to love doing Pinter. He writes in performance rhythms, and can be ambiguous enough to support lots of meanings: Any vague intentions in the delivery can be made to look like part of a menacing subtext. (Though his wonderful translation of "Uncle Vanya," used in the film "Vanya on 42nd Street," shows what his sense of acting rhythms can accomplish when it's brought to bear on someone else's sensibility.) Martin gives a precise, controlled performance that nicely balances friendliness and threat. But it's a who-woulda-thunk role, the sort of thing designed to make people in the lobby afterward ask, "Who woulda thunk Steve Martin could play a guy like that?" as if this is acting and what he's done before was just monkeyshines. I'd much rather see him in this than in the likes of "Sgt. Bilko," but his classiness deserves a more elegant setting.

I had a lot more fun watching the con games in the current "Wild Things" than anything that goes on in "The Spanish Prisoner," though I can't imagine the audience for this picture turning out for that unabashedly tawdry, whorish movie. "Wild Things" is a yummy, sun-drenched combo of tacky fantasies of wealth and porno fantasies of sex (it's the sort of picture where the sexpot cheerleader drops her panties only to have them land on her Mary Janes and white ankle socks). "The Spanish Prisoner" is like an evening spent among the dark mahogany heaviness of old money. Both movies are con-game entertainments, but Mamet's, by virtue of who he is, will be treated as art. In the movie's production notes he says, "The con man looms large in the history of Western civilization." I couldn't have said it better myself.

Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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