The Spanish Prisoner
Director: David Mamet. Cast: Campbell Scott, Rebecca Pidgeon, Steve Martin, Ben Gazzara, Felicity Huffman,
Ed O'Neill. Screenplay: David Mamet.
David Mamet's latest contraption has its satisfying moments, but the film is rarely more than just that: a
contraption. Like last year's The Game, The Spanish Prisoner
expends considerable time and energy (though in a much sparer style than that of Fincher's film)
detailing a Chinese box of conspiracies and disguises piled up against Joe Ross (Campbell Scott). Rather
unassuming as protagonists go, though such is usually the case with Mamet, Ross is a self-described
"salaried employee" (no more, no less) at a sleek, oak-and-chrome firm, where and ostensibly for whom he
has drafted a formula called The Process, the nature of which remains unspecified but which, the film
assures us, will clearly comprise a financial windfall for whomever may claim it as his or her work.
Ross finds himself amidst a bidding war for The Process, the key players of which include his boss Klein
(Ben Gazzara) and another mysterious moneybags named Jimmy Dell, played in an admirable, uncharacteristic
dramatic turn by Steve Martin. Complicating matters is Rebecca Pidgeon, filling the same role Deborah
Kara Unger did in The Game: namely, the strange but strangely fascinating woman who is either Ross'
only advocate or a crucial figure in the plot against him.
A great deal of The Spanish Prisoner's plot rests on events, characters, or exchanges that are
hidden, obscured, or else somehow open to question. Pidgeon's character, for example, picks a sort of
friendly fight with Ross over whether, when Jimmy Dell arrived in the island resort of Saint Estephe,
where the three characters meet, he did so on board a seaplane that alights near the beach while she and
Ross are taking pictures of one another. In fact, the pictures she and Ross snap of one another seem
gratuitously and unemotionally "touristy," and later seem to have been taken merely to capture that
seaplane's arrival on film, though we have no idea why anyone would bother.
Those photographs are later offered as "proof" in the ongoing debate over Dell's arrival, but emblematic
of the picture is the fact that whether or not Jimmy Dell rode the seaplane is hardly the key information
at issue. Much more importantto Ross and to the viewer, though neither of us may realize it early
enoughis our own tendency to write off crucial events as "background detail," and thus place ourselves at
severe disadvantages when our knowledge or memories are later put in question. Ross could also do worse
than to wonder why Pidgeon cares so deeply about such a seemingly-irrelevant point, but again, he misses
that point amidst his other concerns. Given that those concerns include extortion, theft, surveillance,
and a murder for which he is made to seem responsible, his distraction is understandable.
Much can be said for and against The Spanish Prisoner, but my primary complaint is its essential
arbitrariness. The seaplane incident epitomizes on another the level, the entire plot of the film.
Mamet and crew make clear almost from the outset that the audience has no hope of
figuring out the dissonant plot strands and seeming contradictions they set forththe audience, in fact,
has no discernible role except to grow increasingly consternated and (the filmmakers hope) proportionally
appreciative when the answers finally arrive. Who cares, I ask? I am not terribly interested in a movie
that is not itself terribly interested in allowing me to get involved, or even really to form
reasonable or educated guesses regarding its central mysterieswhich, in the case of The Spanish
Prisoner, start to seem a lot like pure stunts.
Mamet's film convincingly sustains its atmosphere of quiet dread and duplicity, but eventually it seems
so contrived that even the cogs in the villains' Master Plan seem incredibly uncoincidental.
Confronted with information we are not able or allowed to process, we watch as the film grows
increasingly detached from our sympathies...and unlike The Game, which knew itself to be stuntish
entertainment, the whole picture has a self-conscious stoicness that confers a sort of weight on the
picture it doesn't really deserve. The Spanish Prisoner, however flauntingly clever, however
conceptually interesting, is a fairly remote exercise for the audience; yes, Mamet's dialogue still
fascinates, but not as much as it did when he wasn't just talking to himself. B