David Mamet Double Feature – Part 1: The Spanish Prisoner (1997)

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Greetings all and sundry!

DavidMametWhile becoming more and more ensconced in the wonders and vagaries of apartment living. I’ve taken some time to fall back on one of, if not the best and most prolific writers and directors of the 1980s, 90s and contemporary times, David Mamet. Who started small. With screenplays for the stage, occasional episodic television. Then grinding out larger endeavors and stowing them away until the stars budgeting were properly aligned (The Verdict, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Things Change. Homicide. The Untouchables). Between award winning stage productions (Speed The PlowOleanna, Glengarry Glen Ross, Vanya on 42nd Street) to keep heath and home in comfortable order.

Best known for his more recent works, like Glenngary Glen Ross. It is well past time to shine a spotlight on his earlier works. Not too well known for Writer/Director’s trademark colorful profanity and fully developed characters, though easily showing a gifted novitiate’s touch with the force and beauty of words. Used to deflect, shroud or divert attention from the topic, or “McGuffin”. While cleverly taking around it. A very neat trick, if pulled off without a hitch. And in this first offering. That talent is displayed boldly in six foot tall Neon!

So, allow me a few moments of your time. To introduce or hopefully, reacquaint those reading with!

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The Spanish Prisoner (1997)

This first offering comes ten years after Mr. Mamet premiere film, ‘House of Games’. And carries on the Writer and Director’s penchant for the confidence game. Though, on a higher level of subtlety, trade craft, tricks and potential payoff.

Which begins with a chartered jet whisking whisking premiere engineer and numbers cruncher, Joe Ross (Campbell Scott. Underplaying with a neophyte’s near wide eyed abandon) off to the Lower Florida Keys and Archipelago, St. Estephe. Vacation paradise. Home of crystal waters, immaculate beaches and plenty of free time after a meeting with Joe’s boss, Mr. Klein (Ben Gazzara) and George Lang (Ricky Jay). To talk about Joe’s recently discovered “process” that will make all at the meeting incredibly rich!

The meeting goes well, but not as well as Joe had hoped. with no mention of immediate reward for his many after work hours of calculations and discovery. A bit disconsolate, Joe walks out to the beach. Where a dark haired, attractive woman (Rebecca Pidgeon) offers to take Joe’s photo. With a lone seaplane riding the waves in the distance. The photo is taken. The woman leaves with a promising smile. And a voice states. “I’ll give you a thousand dollars for that camera.”

The owner of that voice is tall, tanned, comfortably, yet expensively dressed. Immediately giving off an aura of danger and mystery. Perhaps, someone who is indulging paranoia? Or is more than politely concerned about his privacy.

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Julian “Jimmy” Dell. More than comfortably rich. Living on wisely invested family money. With friends and connections in Massachusetts and Manhattan. Slowly, subtly befriending Mr. Ross. Revealing glimpses of his laid back worldliness by asking a favor for his sister. Would Joe be so kind as to deliver a wrapped and packaged book once Joe is back in New York?

Joe agrees, but is cautious of Drugs and Customs. Opens the package and tears the cover of a book on tennis. Joe scours high and low for a duplicate. With that accomplished, Joe keeps the torn copy in hos office. Finds her austere, old money digs. Only to be told that she has flown off to Spain. Joe and Jimmy cross paths and Joe explains over drinks at Jimmy rather swank loft. Talk turns to money and Jimmy mentions a Swiss account. Jokingly asks if Joe has one? And sets up an account with the Suisse Banque Nationale for a paltry sum. Protected by a password, “Paddy”.

A dinner at Jimmy’s “Club” fares badly. Since Jimmy’s guest is not a member. Words are exchanged in the darkly oiled and paneled anteroom and bar. Joe fills out what he believes is a membership form. Jimmy loses his patience and a cheaper eats are sought. Joe is also off put to discover that the dark haired, attractive Susan Ricci is a newly hired secretary with Joe’s firm. Who seems just a bit more interested in Joe and his skills than necessary.

Sensing something is amiss. Joe calls the FBI. And a meeting is arranged with Agent Pat McCune (Felicity Huffman) whom Joe had seen down in St. Estephe. Sharing a drink with Susan. Who is well aware of Joe’s situation, process, others interested in it. And Joe’s meeting with Jimmy at the Central Park Zoo the next afternoon. Wheels turn. Plans go into effect for an earlier with with other agents. And Joe being wired and briefed on what to do. In the Zoo’s far off men’s room. With Ed O’Neil (Married With Children, Modern Family) in charge. Doing the talking, Giving a brief history of “The Spanish Prisoner” as one on the oldest cons in the world. Where the mark is “lured in to get the money and the girl. And gets neither”.

Joe is in the middle of a slight variation. And is to listen to Jimmy’s proposition. And say “No.” Which makes things very interesting, afterwards. Joe is taken by the hand. To Jimmy’s now vacant, much smaller loft. And the bar to Jimmy’s “Club”. Is nothing more than a very elegant and expensive cloak room. The Feds and local cops continue snooping and discover that the process is missing. A large sum of money is now in Joe’s Swiss Account. And the “membership” to Jimmy’s club was a document seeking political asylum in Venezuela. Requiring only Joe’s signature.

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If joe wasn’t going to play along before. he is now. Damnably implicated for high crimes and being the fall guy for the murder of George Lang. Not sure if Susan is working for Agent McCune. Or vice versa. Joe returns home to his apartment. Where Susan is waiting, Having called in sick. And seeking a way out. Airline tickets are arranged for Logan Airport. Since local airports are probably being watched. While Joe showers and cleans up.

The noose starts to tighten slowly, As Joe detours around police check points. Susan picks up the tickets and a change in plans is made. The Boston ferry to Montreal. And a flight from there to Venezuela. Joe doesn’t want to. But has little choice. Stepping aboard at the last moments. As members of the FBI and Marshal Service discreetly make themselves known before a final showdown with Jimmy and Susan.

I’ll leave the tale right here for now.

Now. What Makes This Film Good?

A circuitous tale well told. With the love and care and slow revelation of being caught in the web of a con. By one who loves the nuance and give and take of making others take the next step in their own possible destruction. Borrowing a page from Roman Polanski. In letting the audience see and hear only what the director wants them to see and hear.

Spoken in a language of vagueness, Without specifics, but heavy hints of intimation. Skirting the borders of legality and illegality. As though the principals of the cast are worried about wire taps and hidden microphones. In other words. Mamet doing what Mamet does best. And making the film much better because of it!

With a television and stage heavy cast giving great mysterious depth to their spoken words. Intriguing and alluring on one side. Opposite comfortable and confident on the side of the law. And even that is up for grabs!

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Cinematography by Gabriel Beristain is exceptional. On location in the Florida Keys. Well decorated sets and about the Central Park Zoo. And editing by Barbara Tulliver is inspired. Lingering on the beauty od St, Estephe. While giving equal balance to shadows and tension in several tetes a tetes with Mr. Campbell and Ms. Pidgeon. Solidly aided by an occasionally ethereal, dreamlike percussion, tubular bell, reed and brass sound track by Carter Burwell. That keeps the mystery and tension slowly rising through the merry chase.

What Makes This Film Great?

Campbell Scott underplaying his character wondrously. As he treads the edge of playing a Grade A Sap. With the stalwart belief that he has done nothing wrong. And just wants to make a nice sized chunk of the large rewards his “process” will bring about. An every man. with every man dreams. Until things seriously go awry.

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The beginnings of a clutch of secondary actors who will grace several later Mamet efforts. With card sharp Ricky Jay, Ed O’Neil and an aspiring, just starting out Clark Gregg (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) in short or cameo scenes. Though it is Rebecca Pidgeon who dives right into her role as a carefree Femme Fatale with polish, style and the allure of more.

While comedian, Steve Martin surprises across the board as master juggler and bad guy Jimmy Dell. A total cypher. Never tipping his hand as to whom he’s working for. Fronting serious cash to keep the game afoot. Is he in it for himself? His crew, which may contain Agent McCune? An unnamed foreign entity? Others? We’ll never know. As he delivers a performance that made me wish he would never have slipped back into comedies!


Check out Jack’s other posts and reviews


Agree or Disagree? The Floor Is Open For Discussion.

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23 thoughts on “David Mamet Double Feature – Part 1: The Spanish Prisoner (1997)

  1. I’ve only briefly scanned this article, Kevin. ‘Spanish Prisoner’ has been in my stack for awhile and I really should get to it. Especially since it’s a work of Mamet’s, and that it makes your list to write about. Will come back after I screen it, my friend. Thanks 🙂

    1. jackdeth72

      Welcome, Michael:

      Thanks very much for such a great start to the discussion!

      To quote Alton Brown for his Food Network ‘Good Eats’:

      “Your patience will be rewarded.”

      I’m looking forward to your perspective!

  2. I haven’t seen this, but it’s been on my watchlist for some time. Seeing Steve Martin in a role like this is very intriguing, and I’m a fan of a lot of Mamet’s work.

    1. jackdeth72

      Hi, Josh:

      It seems I’ve piqued your interest.

      Casting Steve Martin is a work of inspired genius for Mr. Mamet. Creating on of slickest and smoothest confidence men in film history. While the rest of the players start, catch up and run abreast with just the proper pacing.

      A true gem on many levels. And well worth the effort of finding and savoring!

      I think you’ll have a ball enjoying this work.

    1. jackdeth72

      Hi, Stu:

      Interesting stuff, indeed!

      One of the great advantages of being old is catching a constantly rising star when first starting out, And ‘The Spanish Prisoner’ has all those twists, turns and memorable attributes seen in later works writ large.

      Surpassing other offerings in subtlety. Moving at its own pace as the net is cast and the hook baited. Then tightening things up as Mr. Campbell’s Joe bites and moves from pillar to post. To a surprise ending I didn’t see coming!

  3. Great post, Kevin. What an underrated genius! His construction of plots and superb dialogue is always appreciated by me. Mamet follows his own drummer and I respect him for that. Nice tribute 🙂

    1. jackdeth72

      Thanks very much, Cindy:

      I was hoping you’d drop by!

      Mr. Mamet has always followed his own path. And no one constructs or lures an audience as subtly or obliquely with words and actions. Very much like Roman Polanski (”Rosemary’s Baby’, ‘The Tenant’, ‘Bitter Moon’) in many regards, but more polished and human.

      With so many having their first taste of Mamet with ‘Glengarry Glen Ross’. It was time to bring attention to one of his best early works. And revel in the beginnings of a master!

  4. Ted S.

    I like a lot of Mamet’s work but I missed this one when it came out years ago. I remember I was working at a video store and we only had one copy of this movie and it always got rented out. Then the video cassette tape got tangled because so many people rented it so I didn’t get a chance to watch it, lol. I’ll see if it’s available on Bluray/DVD or streaming.

    I think the last movie I saw that was written/directed by Mamet was Spartan, it’s a flawed thriller but I thought it’s Val Kilmer’s best performance of his career.

      1. jackdeth72

        ‘Redbelt’ is a compact martial arts film. Made better with under rated Tim Allen, Max Martini and Chiwetel Ejiofor delivering more than required or asked.

    1. jackdeth72

      Welcome, Ted:

      That a tape is out constantly is testament to how good its content are! Never heard of one being tangled before. Which may play into its arrival when word of mouth held a lot of weight before the net made itself known.

      ‘Spartan’ is slated as this post’s bottom half of a double bill. And I agree with Kilmer and others’ performances. With lots of John Sayles and Mamet stalwarts (Joe Morton, Ed O’Neil) aiding in delivering a thriller quite well.

  5. Hey Kevin! I really need to see more of Mamet’s work, so thanks for the recommendations. I’ve had Glengarry Glen Ross on my Netflix queue for some time. Better get to that soon. Whatever happened to Scott Campbell, he’s quite an underrated talent that somehow never get recognition in Hollywood.

  6. jackdeth72

    Hi, Ruth:

    ‘Glengarry Glen Ross’ is probably the most “In your face. And dare you to back down!” of Mamet’s many projects. Where ‘The Spanish Prisoner’ is its opposite. Moving sedately at first as characters are introduced and the plot winked and peeked at. Then picking up speed as Mr. Scott is swept up in trying to figure a way out of his predicament. Both are well worth the trip!

    I thought Mr. Scott was destined for greater things as well. Being the son of George C. Scott and Coleen Dewhurst. Though, he has leaned more towards writing and direction (‘Big Night’. With Tony Shaloub and Stanley Tucci. And a contemporary ‘Hamlet’ for television), production (‘The Secret Lives of Dentists’, ‘Roger Dodger’), Taking on recurring roles in television (‘Damages’ and ‘Royal Pains). When not playing an absolutely arrogant womanizing cad in ‘Roger Dodger’. Making waves quietly and on his own terms.

  7. Although I often find myself either loving Mamet’s work or left a little cold by it, he’s a terrific writer of character and dialogue. I’ve some of his plays on stage and been thoroughly engrossed, while Glengarry Glen Ross is one of the best films I’ve ever seen.

    I think, in terms of something like The Edge, he’s often let down by producers or directors (under pressure from producers) to make their films more commercial. It often hampers his ability to get his true “vision” across. When it works, and that creative freedom is enjoyed, it has made for some of Hollywood’s best: Wag The Dog, Glengarry, The Verdict.

    I also enjoyed State and Main and Heist although both have that Mamet-under-pressure-to-do-something-more-commercial feel about them.

  8. jackdeth72

    Cheers, Dan!

    Excellent deduction with Mr. Mamet being given free rein. As opposed to riding herd and delivering under pressure.

    Kind of like the major studios signing on Orson Welles decades ago. The best thing to do is just back off. Leave him alone and let him do what he does best! Get the most. And often more from his cast and deliver on time. And on budget!

    ‘The Spanish Prisoner’ and other early works, ‘House of Games’ and ‘Homicide’ still have that untapped grit and freshness about them. As do the titles you mentioned. While ‘The Edge’, ‘Heist’ and ‘State and Main’ are decent enough, though come up short.

    Thanks very much for such an insightful comment!

  9. Not sure how I feel about Mamet. His twists are always interesting but his dialogue delivery sometimes ruins the movie for me. Mantegna, Macy and Jay generally deliver it the best and I’ll take Lindsay Crouse over Rebecca Pidgeon anyday. I loved House of Games but something like Oleanna I could barely get through and Things Change is a really underrated movie. The last thing I liked by him was Redbelt. His writing for other directors is great. The Verdict, The Untouchables, Wag The Dog, Ronin, etc. Nobody writes “tough guy” dialogue like him. It’s been so long since I’ve seen The Spanish Prisoner (probably since ’97) I may have to go watch it again.

    1. jackdeth72

      Hi, Dave:

      I was wondering when you’d drop by!

      Excellent points.

      Nobody stays on top forever. Though Mr. Mamet has fared better than most. Excelling in writing and directing projects that today’s more sensitive, safe and less offensive cinematic standards may not be in line with.

      No argument with Mr. Mamet’s flair for ‘tough guy” writing through the years. Though for a pallet cleanser where the dialog is directed at talking around a subject; ‘The Spanish Prisoner’ has no contemporary equal.

      While Lindsay Crouse, the first Mrs. Mamet has more presence and foundation to work with. The second, present Mrs. Mamet, Rebecca Pidgeon had the mystique in ‘The Spanish Prisoner’.

  10. You’ve gotta love David Mamet. Nice piece Jack! I seen the Spanish Prisoner many years. I remember really liking it and it was good to see Steve Martin in a rare dramatic role at the time. However, my memory is a little sketchy on it. A revisit wouldn’t go amiss.

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  12. jackdeth72

    Welcome, Mark:

    My apologies for responding so late!

    The cast of the film excels, but Mr. Martin; even more so, Projecting a fluid and calm exterior while staying two or three moves ahead in the game. A very refreshing change of pace with Campbell Scott as the perfect naïve mark.

    Most definitely work a revisit!

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