[Originally written for Mr. Showbiz, April 3, 1998]
Set the wayback machine to 1998. Parallax View presents reviews of films released 20 years ago, written by our contributors for various papers and websites. Most of these have not been available for years.
Put aside any thought of the Inquisition, or revolutionary political cabals, or Spanish Civil War martyrs rotting in a Fascist jail. “The Spanish Prisoner” is the name for a classic confidence game. Once you know that, you’ll have little trouble appreciating why it’s an apt title for the latest movie written and directed by David Mamet, whose fascination with brazen bluffs and seductive scams has dominated House of Games and Glengarry Glen Ross and glancingly energized such screenplays as The Untouchables and last year’s The Edge.
Joe Ross (Campbell Scott) is an enterprising yuppie researcher who’s come up with a formula—The Process—with vast commercial implications, and Ross’s employer, a smoothie named Mr. Klein (Ben Gazzara), has flown him down to the Caribbean resort island of San Estèfe to impress his investors. Urged to unwind a bit during his brief time in the sun, Ross—who’s pretty much of a stick—finds himself distracted at every turn. Mr. Klein keeps evading his efforts to pin down promise of a bonus; Susan (Rebecca Pidgeon), the dowdy/pretty secretary who’s rather superfluously tagged along, keeps making her attraction to him clear; and Jimmy Dell (Steve Martin), a glib mystery man who may or may not have just stepped off a seaplane, wanders into one of Ross’s vacation snapshots, then initiates an increasingly intrusive friendship. By the time he gets back to New York City, our low-key hero is well embroiled in a byzantine design that will involve the F.B.I., grisly murder, several varieties of seduction, and the sort of simultaneous flight from danger and quest for vindicating truth we’ve learned to call Hitchcockian.
The Spanish Prisoner is a deliciously maddening entertainment. The Process is knowingly preposterous—a classic McGuffin. The screenplay must set a record for unfinished sentences and unanswered questions (somewhere, Harold Pinter is green with envy) while at the same time pushing inexorably deeper into sinister complication and dire possibilities. Mamet ups the tension at the generic mystery-suspense level, all the more persuasively because whatever’s going on in a criminal sense is reflected in and reinforced by the film’s real-world appreciation of the ins and outs of everything from corporate gamesmanship to the dark and bloody ground of personal relationships. The characters manifest an all-too-human propensity for believing what they most desperately want to believe, even if they aren’t aware of wanting it.
Visually, too, this is Mamet’s crispest work, right up there with his underrated Homicide. (It makes bedrock movie sense that this man of the theater’s strongest films should hew closest to formula-thriller lines, whereas the avowedly theatrical Glengarry and Oleanna tend to come off as sounding brass.) And although the creepy accumulation of misunderstanding and (self-)deception in the earlier reels is more satisfying than the final payoff, The Spanish Prisoner stays faithful to its own internal logic. There’s nothing like the self-destructive descent into absurdity that spoiled its upscale cousin, The Game. – Richard T. Jameson