Tuesday, September 25, 2007

The Spanish Prisoner (1997)

Were David Lynch to jettison his penchant for explosions of over-the-top violence and rediscover linear plots, he might possibly make a film like this. The Spanish Prisoner is an odd little low-budget thriller much too obsessed with its own cleverness but fun to watch nonetheless. Written and directed by famed playwright David Mamet, the movie overflows with overly playful and witty dialogue and wears its contrivances proudly on its sleeve. This results in a neat if not completely odd little thriller that defies all rules of reality. Technically, the movie is full of completely unexpected twists; on the other hand, if one begins to expect the unexpected, it becomes oddly easy to predict the next twist. If there is a message in this film (other than "Nobody looks at a Japanese tourist"), it is too deeply hidden to be found; more than anything else, The Spanish Prisoner is simply a celebration of Mamet's ability to write fine dialogue. One source states that Mamet used a metronome to rehearse the dialogue with his actors, which is very easy to believe, as no one in this movie comes close to delivering a naturalistic performance and instead all talk in the slow, perfectly timed mode so favored by David Lynch and bad avant-garde European films of the past (like Andrezej Zulawski's confusing horror-film-cum-drama Possession (1981)).
The title is a direct reference to a specific con game, an updated version of which Joseph A. 'Joe' Ross (Campbell Scott) suddenly finds himself caught in. A small clog in the machinery of a large firm, he invents an unnamed and un-shown "Process" which is guaranteed to make untold masses of money for the company he works for. On a business trip to the Caribbean, he meets millionaire Julian 'Jimmy' Dell (Steve Martin) and is befriended by an even lowlier coworker, the secretary Susan Ricci (Rebecca Pidgeon), who obviously has the hots for him. Back in NYC, he slowly begins to feel that his boss Mr. Klein (Ben Gazzara) is out to screw him, but before he can protect his interests, he not only finds out that it is actually Jimmy who is out to screw him but actually gets screwed. A twist and a turn and a twist and a turn and a double and triple twist and turn later, Ross is not only bereft of The Process but is also seemingly framed for the murder of his buddy George Lang (Ricky Jay). Everything everywhere points to Ross, while Jimmy is nowhere to be found. With the help of Susan, he sets out to prove his innocence, but the film still has a good dozen twists to go before the last line of smart dialogue is crisply delivered…

The Spanish Prisoner
is not for fans of blood and guts or visual pyro-techniques or mystery-movies of the week. In fact, it is hard to say exactly who the movie is made for – in all likelihood it was made simply for Mamet himself. But most people out looking for something interesting and a little odd will probably find the movie a nice alternative to the big budget crap normally served by the film industry. Hard to believe it was written and directed by the same man who wrote the script for Hannibal (2001).

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