The Spanish Prisoner (1997)
Written and directed by David Mamet
Produced by Jean Doumanian
Cinematography by GAbriel Beristain
Music by Carter Burwell
Edited by Barbara Tulliver
Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics
(1:50) Sony Pictures DVD
Ten years after the release of House of Games, the film Roger Ebert called the best movie of 1987, David Mamet directed The Spanish Prisoner, which also focuses on con artists, although in a different way. Both films are clearly Mamet creations with Mamet characteristics, arriving from a Mamet universe, which is not quite like anyone else’s, even that of Alfred Hitchcock, to whom Mamet is often compared.
The Spanish Prisoner revolves around a corporate engineer named Joe Ross (Campbell Scott) and his mathematical formula called “The Process,” which will allow the possessor of the formula to control and manipulate global markets on an unimaginable scale. A man named Mr. Klein (Ben Gazzara), the head of a company considering buying exclusive rights to “The Process,” asks Joe and his partner George (Ricky Jay) to meet Klein’s new secretary Susan (Rebecca Pidgeon) as she accompanies them to the Caribbean to meet with Klein’s investors.
During this meeting, Joe gives a vague, yet intriguing description of “The Process.” Our interest is further piqued with subtle visuals as Joe gives part of his pitch while hidden behind a chalkboard, and Mr. Klein stands up after being seated underneath a gun rack. This is where a major problem with the film is introduced, which I’ll discuss later. But we don’t really have time to think about “The Problem” with “The Process,” since Mamet has more cards to add to the deck.
Two such cards include a mysterious stranger who strikes up a relationship with Joe on the beach and a woman Susan befriends: a vacationing FBI agent named Pat (Felicity Huffman). We meet others along the way, any of which could be interested in taking “The Process” off Joe’s hands. In addition to these characters, Mamet throws at us several visual and auditory details that may be important, or simply red herrings. I will leave these for you to discover.
Mamet’s background is in theatre, which provides a different atmosphere than film. Attend just one play (even a high school production) and you can detect many of those differences. There’s a fantasy world in both, as well as a suspension of disbelief and a level of artificiality. Although I’ve never seen a Mamet play performed, I’ve watched enough of his movies to know that he employs several structures that we as the audience must buy into if we’re to enjoy his films.
The first structure is Mamet’s dialogue. Characters talk to each other in a manner that seems artificial, as if they’re dancing around some secret they’re not quite sure whether they can trust the other person to know.
Just after his presentation of “The Process” to Mr. Klein and his associates, Joe and Susan take turns snapping photos of each other against the backdrop of the St. Estéphe beach as others pass in the background. As Joe turns to walk away, a stranger approaches Joe:
Stranger: “I’ll give you a thousand dollars for that camera.”
Joe: “I beg your pardon?”
Stranger: “I said I will give you a thousand dollars if you give me that camera.”
Joe: “Are you asking a favor of me? Is that the idea? Because if it’s important to you, take the camera. As a gift. Why don’t you take it?” (Joe hands him the camera.) “There you go. My gift to you.”
The stranger is a wealthy businessman named Jimmy (Steve Martin), who doesn’t like his picture taken. (Again, I will leave it to you to discover why.) The exchange is brief, but it underscores what’s common with most of the dialogue in Mamet’s films. People don’t talk like this in real life, yet the characters behave as if such exchanges are totally natural. Mamet’s actors also have a way of delivering his lines with immaculate precision and articulation, far more than people concern themselves with in real life, approaching the type of delivery more associated with the theatre. Part of this is a brilliant stroke on Mamet’s part. Since the dialogue does sound artificial, we soon understand that not only are the actors performing roles, so are the characters. We’re not sure who’s who and can’t immediately put a finger on their motives.
The next structure to consider is the believability of Mamet’s characters. In Mamet’s first film, House of Games, the protagonist Margaret “Maggie” Ford (Lindsay Crouse, above) is a psychiatrist and self-help author who finds herself obsessed with the world of con artists. Although Maggie is a highly intelligent, well-educated woman, we believe her attraction to the charms of the con artist lifestyle. We know that she’s unfulfilled by her life and wants to experience a little risk and danger. Yet Joe Ross seems less believable as a character. Anyone who could come up with something as unique and impressive as “The Process” is clearly brilliant, but sometimes even the most brilliant people lack common sense and discernment.
Throughout the film, Joe displays moments of caution, but is too easily swayed by the people he encounters. I couldn’t completely believe that someone who invented something so potentially valuable and powerful would be so careless with his actions. And Joe’s given plenty of warnings. One of the characters (I won’t reveal which one) says to him, “You never know who anybody is. With the exception of me. I am what I look like… We have no idea who anyone is.”
Neither Maggie nor Joe understand the level to which people can deceive one another, but with Maggie, the situation is more believable. Both actors, Crouse and Scott, give good performances, but the character of Maggie is written with more depth than the character of Joe.
Mamet also uses visual clues, not so much as structures, but as puzzle pieces for the viewer to keep track of and put together later. I mentioned two subtle clues from Joe’s pitch early in the film. We also see a well-constructed scene in House of Games when Maggie and the con man Mike (Joe Mantegna) stand in front of a shop window at night, facing each other. “Everybody gets something out of every transaction,” Mike tells Maggie. He then adds, “What do you get out of this transaction?” As we’re watching them, we also see their reflections in the shop window behind them. If Maggie had just turned slightly to see this image, she may have been able to look outside of herself just long enough for a bit of self-examination, a different type of reflection. But instead, she remains focused on Mike. Although this is less a visual clue and more about character, it’s significant to the story.
The Spanish Prisoner presents several “Ah-ha” moments for Joe and for us, but the visual clues preceding them are far less subtle than the scene above from House of Games. The Spanish Prisoner shows us more than enough shots of video monitors for us to understand “Hey, this must be important!” We also see several scenes involving cameras and even a glaring poster which practically shouts “Somebody talked!” And even if we miss these revelations, an auditory clue near the end of the movie - a conversation between a mother and her young child - is painfully obvious and heavy-handed.
Unfortunately, this is where The Spanish Prisoner begins to unravel, approaching a denouement that’s simply too unbelievable and untenable, displaying forced humor that seems like an attempt at irony. Yet the biggest disappointment is in treating “The Process” as a Hitchcock MacGuffin, which isn’t really a problem if it’s a MacGuffin that holds up to at least a modicum of scrutiny. This one doesn’t.
On the positive side, the film refuses to reveal just how much money can be earned with “The Process.” Joe writes a figure on the chalkboard, but we can’t see it. Mamet has given a few glances at mathematical figures in Joe’s (glaring red) notebook, but it’s enough for us to believe its intricacies. What we can’t quite grasp, however, is how much is really at stake. Early in the film, Joe states that even if his notes on “The Process” were to fall into the wrong hands, it would take those who acquired it three to five years to work out its intricacies in order for them to gain any benefit. But if you, the original owner of “The Process,” can control global markets in the meantime, what’s three to five years? In that amount of time, the creator (and legitimate purchaser) of the formula could clean up on a worldwide level. And who’s to say that smart observers of the change in markets wouldn’t be able to figure out at least the basics of “The Process” without the notebook? There’s simply not enough at stake for us to buy into the immediate importance of stealing Joe’s notebook.
This marks the second time I’ve watched The Spanish Prisoner, the first being over 20 years ago. I liked the film, but something bothered me about it then, and watching it again (with a bit more experience), I’m better able to put my finger on some of its problems. That doesn’t mean I don’t like it (I do). It’s still a fun ride, a must-see for fans of con artist movies, but I yearn for what could’ve been…
Photos: DVD Beaver, IMDb