Greetings all and sundry!
While 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 Plow, Oleanna, 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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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