The Spanish Prisoner is arguably David Mamet’s finest cinematic experiment to date.
Though it lacks his signature penchant for poetic bursts of profanity, 1997’s The Spanish Prisoner is arguably David Mamet’s finest cinematic experiment to date. Even for those largely uninterested in the prolific playwright’s movie output, this genre exercise is one of the sharpest displays of visual storytelling and structure of its time. It’s the living manifestation of every lesson espoused in Mamet’s books on storytelling, On Directing Film and Three Uses of The Knife, a final project that exemplifies his concept of the platonic ideal of film. Echoing the deceptively plain look and feel of his debut House of Games, it finds Mamet once again playing with the tropes of conman-driven crime fiction, but this time out, it’s less street level sleight of hand and more globe-trotting, corporate espionage.
Campbell Scott stars as corporate engineer Joe Ross, an intelligent everyman who has created a MacGuffin called “The Process,” a nebulous but valuable formula that will net his company a considerable windfall so long as it doesn’t fall into the wrong hands. At a work retreat on St. Estèphe, Joe meets Jimmy Dell (Steve Martin), an eccentric man of wealth with whom he forms a strange bond. Joe grows increasingly paranoid that his company, run by casually sleazy Mr. Klein (Ben Gazzara) is going to ultimately fuck him out of his creation, and he grows closer and closer to Jimmy, who is not who he appears to be.
No image in this film is wasted. Even the first shot, of a sign in the airport asking if you packed your own bag, is a portent of the cons to come, as characters interject perpetual paranoia into even their most innocuous interactions. Mamet only shows images that are essential to tell the story, masterfully exemplified in the initial “pitch” scene for The Process, where Joe writes the dollar amount the project is worth on a chalkboard, out of view of the audience, cutting instead to his bosses’ gluttonous gazes. This lean, propulsive visual style calls to mind the brutal image economy of Alfred Hitchcock. Outside of Brian DePalma, who inherited the melodramatic verve and psychosexual obsessions of the legendary auteur, Mamet is perhaps Hitchcock’s most apt pupil, stripping his wrong man thriller framework down to its barest essentials.
In Mamet’s hands, this spy-fi, conman pot boiler becomes like an ornate math problem. It’s difficult to recall another film with so many intricately laid callbacks. Every throwaway non-sequitur, every lingering close-up, every furtive glance, each comes back in new forms for maximum dramatic impact. The knife used to make a sandwich in one scene may reappear an act later sticking out of a slain friend’s chest. The location of a posh dinner club might be revisited, revealed to be little more than a dive restaurant. The Spanish Prisoner takes the “nothing is what it seems” maxim to absurd levels. Every repeat viewing lays bare a new puzzle piece that was hiding in plain sight the whole time.
Mamet’s usual repertory of thespians, including his wife Rebecca Pidgeon as Joe’s primary love interest, a comically naive office worker, and Felicity Huffman as an FBI Agent, all form the solid foundation from which these quirky but effective performances spring forth. But it’s the interplay between Scott, a criminally unsung leading man here channeling Jimmy Stewart (in a role Bradley Cooper might make sing should a remake ever materialize), and Martin, a comedian turning in arguably the sharpest performance of his career as the sly confidence man pulling all the strings. If the film has one flaw, it’s in its game of cat and mouse that seldom bothers with making you afraid for the mouse. Instead, it luxuriates in the ornate arrangement of mousetraps that Mamet stages with a sniper’s focus.