The Spanish Prisoner

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Steve Martin? In a serious role? It works. That all-too-coiffured white hair, which has never not been white, is really rather austere anyway.

David Mamet’s The Spanish Prisoner (1997) isn’t Hitchcockian, but I’ve mentioned Hitchcock now, and as you can see I haven’t edited it out. You can see where one might make such a comparison: it features an innocent man in over his head thanks to the machinations of people far more insidious than himself. There’s much in the way of confusion, obfuscation and dastardly plots lying in wait for him too as he uncovers the machinery behind the curtain.

You won’t find swishes of Hitchcock’s bravura visual style here, or his knack for keeping things moving at a steady but heart-tickling speed. Our territory here is most assuredly Mamet-ian. David Mamet prefers the theatre with all its rhythms and artificiality intact. The characters here speak exactly as real people don’t. And the plot moves steadily and deliberately.

This isn’t why you’re going to watch The Spanish Prisoner, though. You’re here for the twists, the turns, the twisty-turns and the smarty-pants dialogue. What you thought was going to happen happens, then it doesn’t, then it does again and then that sequence repeats but backwards. Not all of the revelations will be entirely unexpected, or even convincingly revealed, but the creaky bits are obviously homage to thrillers from another era, so you can forgive it that.

Joe (Campbell Scott) is the inventor of a process. Something very valuable which has to be hidden away. It doesn’t matter what it is and we never find out anyway. What’s important is that people want it and are prepared to go to mind-bending lengths to get it.

Scott turns in an everyman performance and that’s fine; it’s what’s needed. Rebecca Pidgeon is maddeningly perky and amateurish but it suits her character, and anyway, she’s married to the director, so that’s fine too. Ricky Jay is here because he’s a seasoned Mamet actor and Mamet has to have him in his films. It’s a law of nature. Ben Gazarra is typically charismatic and inscrutable. And Steve Martin is playing out of type, which is good because he’s really rather adept at throwing his acting chops around. I can’t understand why he doesn’t take more of these roles.

I can’t tell you more; I really can’t. I don’t want to spoil the surprises on offer. Pay rapt attention, though. Every object is imbued with implication, every glance can be interpreted two or more ways and every word drips with meaning. And all will be referred to later on in some form of satisfying pay-off. You’ll need to concentrate and at the end you can give yourself a hearty pat on the back for doing so.

The Spanish Prisoner is available on DVD, though out of print, so some copies can fetch a high price.

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1 Comment

  1. Big fan of Steve Martin, as a comedian and an all around solid actor, so I’m going to have to hunt this one down. Thanks for the fine, non-spoilery review!

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