REVIEW: The Spanish Prisoner [1998]

Rating: 8 out of 10.
  • Rating: PG | Runtime: 110 minutes
    Release Date: April 3rd, 1998 (USA)
    Studio: Sony Pictures Classics / Ammo Content
    Director(s): David Mamet
    Writer(s): David Mamet

Dog my cats.

Anyone who’s on social media has seen the “name” memes where your “whatever name” is formed by that of the first pet you owned and your grandmother’s maiden name—or some riff on this pattern. Everyone does it because it’s fun and they’ve been trained like sheep to participate in such activities so their feeds remain pop culturally relevant. But then you hear the jokes about how the meme is perfectly suited to mine a person’s security question answers due to the specific nature of those details being collected. Now people worry what they’ve unwittingly volunteered so enthusiastically for the entire world to see. Criminals adapt to new technologies faster than their marks because the latter doesn’t usually think with an opportunist’s mind. Our trust becomes our downfall.

It’s therefore interesting to watch David Mamet‘s The Spanish Prisoner today with that background so prevalently exposed. Here he was two decades ago using those same tactics to flood us with a wealth of information that may or may not prove relevant to the film. He has characters asking poor Joe Ross (Campbell Scott) seemingly innocuous questions throughout the runtime to both pique our paranoia and confuse our attention so he might pull the rug from under our feet. So don’t get frustrated that you’ve solved everything after the first half hour. Mamet only wants you to believe you have so that sense of superiority clouds your sight from the bigger picture. By letting you figure out layers one and two, the third can arrive out of nowhere.

He’s utilizing his penchant for flowery prose and theatrical rhythms to overload our processing power. This is why Ricky Jay‘s George Lang spouts random tidbits of faux fortune cookie wisdom at Joe while Rebecca Pidgeon‘s Susan Ricci perpetually turns up with expressions colored in a noir tint every time our hapless hero is struggling to come to a decision about something that seemed so important until the exact moment it’s not. Rather than bore us with the minutiae of Joe’s top-secret project under boss Mr. Klein’s (Ben Gazzara) watchful eye, Mamet ensures we know its value so those in its orbit can play with notions of greed, power, and justice. He’s wrapping Joe up in subterfuge we see in order to wrap us in that which we don’t.

And it’s a highly effective strategy hinged upon the dynamic between a Boy Scout in Joe and a cutthroat in Jimmy Dell (Steve Martin). That is the central relationship our minds gravitate towards because it’s the one that commences on-screen rather than off. It’s an adversarial one that Jimmy diffuses with aplomb whenever his entitled presumptions work at getting under Joe’s skin to earn an uncharacteristically hot-tempered reaction. Is it a test that needs to be passed to earn Jimmy’s approval as far as letting Joe potentially date his younger sister? Is it foreplay that works towards stealing the project? Or is it simply two men from different worlds colliding in a way that pushes their antagonistic instincts to the surface? It might just be all the above.

Why? Because Jimmy does to Joe what Mamet does to us. He strings Joe along with affluence to distract him from a hole-riddled reality the latter has willingly let his imagination fill. As Susan asks early: Did Jimmy really disembark from a plane he said was his? There was a plane in the water and he was on the shore, but it’s Joe’s trusting nature that took this stranger at his word to make the connection true. The same goes with an FBI agent (Felicity Huffman‘s Pat McCune) who happens to make their acquaintance while on vacation. What reason other then corroborating a thought that Jimmy is a bad guy would she have for being there? Everything is both conveniently measured and completely coincidental at the same time.

That goes for Mamet’s dialogue too. It comes in fits and starts with an artificial lilt manufactured to provide meaning between the lines. Some will get frustrated while others work to decipher what’s happening below the surface. He plays visual tricks with hands shielding papers and also deceivingly sets-up future attitudes and ideas with carefully sprinkled words from the start. His characters want Joe to feel as though he’s exposed a confidence game because he won’t look for another one being played if he’s so busy concerning himself with the first. What then happens if every single person Joe meets gets revealed as being in on the game? How wide does the net he’s caught within span? Perhaps nothing he’s done is by his own volition.

The result becomes a legitimate thrill ride despite the intentional fabrication of it all. Mamet plays with our preconceived notions of gender, ethnicity, economic prosperity, and privilege to keep us off-guard and unaware of the machinations unfolding beneath his façade of already questionable activities. Joe is on that ride with us—helpless to do anything but follow a path drawn up for him as though he’s a puppet ruled by a compromised psychology. Everyone is thus simultaneously playing a role for Mamet and the game itself. Sometimes their goals align and other times they don’t. It’s only at the conclusion that we realize which is which. This end may feel unearned via its ability to blindside, but you cannot deny the genuine adrenaline rush facilitated along the way.

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