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Overall Rating

Worth A Look: 28.81%
Average: 3.39%
Pretty Bad: 16.95%
Total Crap: 1.69%

5 reviews, 29 user ratings

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Spanish Prisoner, The
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by Rob Gonsalves

"Intricate if mechanical Mamet thriller."
4 stars

The playwright/screenwriter/director David Mamet has a rigorous sense of structure.

His storytelling is clean, severe, obsessively designed; his complex stories are simply told, but that simplicity is the result of hard work. You feel you're seeing the version of whatever story Mamet is telling — the distilled essence, the story without flab or waste.

The Spanish Prisoner, Mamet's fifth film as writer-director, is the most accessible and conventional of the movies he's directed — which I have slight reservations about, but more on that later. First, it must be said that The Spanish Prisoner (named after a popular scam) ticks like a small, elegant clock. The rhythm of the plot is the heartbeat of paranoia: the protagonist, Joe Ross (Campbell Scott), finds himself in an ever-tightening web of lies and betrayal, a web meticulously engineered by Mamet to confuse us as much as it does Joe. We don't have a clue where the movie is going, but we have full confidence that it'll get there eventually.

Joe, an inventor who has devised some brilliant business formula called "the Process" (Mamet never tells us how it works), is sent by his company to pitch his idea at an island resort. There he meets Jimmy Dell (Steve Martin), a mysterious millionaire who seems to zero in on Joe. Joe is a magnet for inscrutable people — he also attracts a secretary (Rebecca Pidgeon, Mamet's wife) who comes on like Barbara Bel Geddes in Vertigo, a lonely plain Jane enthralled by the virtuous hero.

And therein lies the problem I have with The Spanish Prisoner, the more I think about it. I enjoyed the film, especially the dead-eyed performance by Steve Martin, whose elegant menace is on a par with Robert Walker in Strangers on a Train. By this point in the review, it should be clear: this movie is Mamet's Hitchcockian riff, a beautiful interlocking puzzle of a breed that Hollywood has forgotten how to make (that the film is an independent production speaks condemning volumes about the state of the movie industry). And on that level, The Spanish Prisoner is absorbing, sharp, and darkly funny.

But it doesn't go beyond that level — which is not something you can say about Mamet's plays or most of the other films he's directed (like House of Games or Homicide or Oleanna). The movie shows Mamet the brilliant, clever craftsman, not Mamet the artist. There's no primal howl here, none of the spasms of violence (or even profanity — the film mostly minds its language) found in American Buffalo or Glengarry Glen Ross or even such Mamet scripts-for-hire as The Untouchables. There's no wildness — it's too neat, too worked out, too locked in. That locked-in quality is engaging on an immediate, surface level, which — for me, anyway — has worn off slightly with time and distance.

I realize this is a different kind of movie, one that demands to be plot-driven, not messy or discursive, but Mamet's true gifts lie elsewhere. You take pleasure in watching the pieces click together, yet nothing in the movie is all that surprising — you distrust Jimmy and the secretary as soon as you lay eyes on them. The question is never who is screwing Joe over, but how. Mamet uses the thriller form to make his usual paranoid themes explicit (he's great on the way corrupt men talk to each other), but he doesn't subvert the genre, as Hitchcock did. He works the genre gracefully but impersonally; at times, such as when Joe stupidly puts his fingers all over a bloody knife, Mamet seems to be daring us not to say "Give me a break."

Lest this sound like a negative review, I should emphasize that The Spanish Prisoner offers pleasures that few other works of art or entertainment can manage these days: the satisfaction of a plot slowly unfolding, our ticklish insecurity when we realize we have no idea what's coming next, the affable and decent Campbell Scott as a hero Jimmy Stewart could have played.

'The Spanish Prisoner' may be a hermetic Hitchcockian doodle (I had the same reaction to 'The Usual Suspects'), but it's a compelling exercise — David Mamet's variation on a theme.

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originally posted: 02/03/07 05:56:53
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2003 Starz Denver Film Festival. For more in the 2003 Starz Denver Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

12/26/10 the dork knight Dreadful community player actors, reading lines like they're on Ambien.. 2 stars
6/13/09 Mary Predictable, boring, with lame "twists" 2 stars
2/11/09 Banana Phone good thriller with insane twists, drags a bit in some parts but overall very good 4 stars
12/11/08 djorian 3 un fracaso total! bad dialogue, bad casting, a lame plot, boring, a complete waste of time 1 stars
7/30/08 the dork knight why are these actors so bland? Is it on purpose? 3 stars
4/24/07 Will If you don't know the mom-kid scene was a parody you shouldn't review movies this smart. 5 stars
8/20/05 ES Dull, be prepared to sit and stare for a while, not worth the watch 2 stars
7/25/05 Jake A smart, complex, and ingaging thriller 5 stars
10/06/03 Jack Sommersby Smoothly done, but dramatically sparse and easily figured out. 2 stars
7/17/03 Mr. Hat Very very engrossing & enjoyable. Steve Martin is an excellent villain. Thumbs up 4 Mamet. 5 stars
4/11/03 Jack Bourbon Good, but The Water Engine was much better (TSP's predecessor, also by Mamet). 4 stars
6/03/02 R.W. Welch Twisty and involving plot line pretty well carried out though the ending is a bit too pat. 4 stars
4/02/02 lauren mccreight trys a little too hard.....Glengarry Glen Ross it ain't. 3 stars
12/24/00 joh wow-holy fuck was this good 5 stars
9/04/00 DarcyElaine I nearly spent the 2nd half of TSP peeking out from under my desk -- INCREDIBLY suspenseful 5 stars
5/26/00 Add Great stuff, totally involving with great performances from all concerned. See it now! 5 stars
5/15/00 seldom scene easy to follow and easy to guess wrong 5 stars
12/18/99 Matthew Smith a thriller that will suck you in from start to finish. 5 stars
9/25/99 KK 5 Stars all the way!!! Never got the recognition it deserved when it was released. 5 stars
4/15/99 Jon Jackson Really really good for 3/4 then it drops off a little yet noticeably 4 stars
1/26/99 donkey_dew I can't get enough of this. Mamet is king! 100% enjoyable stuff. 5 stars
1/14/99 Steve Kelley Fantastic film, all around. 5 stars
12/27/98 demon_shredder This movie rocked. David Mamet rules. 5 stars
12/20/98 Binky Wow! Where was this hiding when it was released!?! 5 stars
11/19/98 Doobie Boy This was an unexpectedly great film. I loved it. 5 stars
11/08/98 Christ Monkey Like THE GAME done better. 5 stars
11/08/98 {{{OZ}}} This is a good fucking film. 5 stars
11/04/98 Johny First half depends on your liking of deadpan dialouge. Second is loads of fun. 4 stars
11/04/98 Bluntman Loads of fun. Blows away THE USUAL SUSPECTS with its mind game plot 5 stars
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  03-Apr-1998 (PG)


  15-Oct-1998 (M)

Directed by
  David Mamet

Written by
  David Mamet

  Campbell Scott
  Rebecca Pidgeon
  Steve Martin
  Ben Gazzara
  Ricky Jay
  Felicity Huffman

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