David Mamet loves games: the games that he plays with words and the games that his characters play with each other. This is especially evident in his affection for movies featuring con men. His directorial debut House of Games is a shining example of the genre done right and Heist is a minor masterpiece featuring some of his most quotable lines ("Everybody needs money. That's why they call it money" and "I'm as quiet as an ant pissing on cotton" being two of my personal favorites).
With that said, I have a real soft spot for his 1997 thriller The Spanish Prisoner. Perhaps it's partly due to nostalgia because the film was my first true exposure to Mamet (which sparked an enduring fascination) but I'd like to believe there are deeper reasons at play. It could be the pitch-perfect performances of Campbell Scott, Steve Martin and Rebecca Pidgeon. It could be the twisty plot that keeps moving in unexpected directions right until (and perhaps even beyond) the final scenes. It could be Mamet's sure-handed direction that keeps all the plates spinning in the air even as we breathlessly wait for the whole affair to come crashing down. Actually, it's all of the above. This is a darn near perfect exercise in suspense that Hitchcock himself would have been proud of.
Speaking of Hitchcock, the film even has its very own MacGuffin. You see, Joe Ross (Campbell Scott) has invented something known as The Process. We're never told what it is and frankly it doesn't matter. What matters is that The Process will give its possessor control over the global market. This point is driven home in a wonderful less-is-more scene where Ross writes a number on a board obscured from our view; a number so large that the assembled bigwigs simply stare on with mute appreciation. Joe is deservedly proud of his creation but would feel even better if he knew how it would impact his bottom line. His boss (Ben Gazzara) has made reference to ample compensation but has been slippery on the specifics.
Joe's life gets a little more interesting when he meets Jimmy Dell (Steve Martin), an inscrutable and wealthy businessman. Their first encounter comes under less than favorable circumstances (Joe took a snap of Jimmy running about town with a lady whose husband was missing her dearly) but they quickly strike up a friendship. Pretty soon, Jimmy is trying to set Joe up with his sister and making recommendations about how he could go about ensuring his big payday for The Process. The paranoid little voice of reason in all this belongs to an assistant at Joe's company, Susan (Rebecca Pidgeon). As Susan says repeatedly, "You never know who anybody is". She's not sure that Jimmy has presented himself honestly or that Joe should have as much faith in him as he does. In fact, the only thing that she's sure of is that she's attracted to Joe, a fact she communicates quite bluntly with her line "I'm a helluva person, I'm loyal and true and not too hard to look at. So what do you think?"
There's a great deal more I want to say about Joe and the pickle he soon finds himself in. I would love to talk about the book that starts and ends it all, about Jimmy's sister who can't quite get her act together, about Jimmy's ability to go swimming without getting his hair wet, about Joe's BIG HUGE MISTAKE at the meeting by the carousel...I would love to talk about all these things but I won't because this movie is chock full of surprises that should be preserved for your first viewing (and relished in subsequent ones). This is a slow-burn thriller that ramps up in a believable fashion with plenty of payoffs along the way. Mamet exerts such exquisite control over the proceedings that you are forced to watch helplessly as Joe digs himself deeper and deeper into a hole that's eventually big enough to bury him. Seemingly innocent actions of well-wishers take on sinister tones as cons are revealed to be parts of even bigger cons.
Campbell Scott is perfectly cast as the beleaguered lead. His character is described as a real boy scout who is just too nice so it's not too surprising when his trusting nature comes back to bite him hard. At the same time, there's a hint of superiority in Scott's portrayal which prevents him from being seen as an everyman. He holds himself in high regard so his fall from grace feels that much more pronounced. Going toe to toe with Scott is Steve Martin in a decidedly non-comedic role. Martin gives Jimmy Dell a cool, guarded aura that hints at sophistication streaked with danger. His is not a showy role but Martin commands the screen whenever he's present. Pidgeon, who is also Mamet's wife, presents her character as a Plain Jane but carries herself like a Femme Fatale. I'm not just talking about the words that Mamet gives her (which are clever and entertaining in their directness). There's something about Pidgeon's delivery and manner that makes her seem warm and alien at the same time.
Speaking of Mamet's words, the other major player is his dialogue itself. Mamet speak is wondrous in the way it manufactures its own reality. Not quite natural and yet not fully theatrical, it forces the viewer to be actively engaged. Trailing sentences, cyclical arguments, repeated words that go from mundane to menacing...they are all present and help build up the progressively suffocating noir-tinged atmosphere that is impossible to ignore. It also helps when Mamet has actors at his disposal that know just how to work their way around his words. While the central trio are all very capable, Pidgeon takes the prize for relishing every turn of phrase that spills from her lips and injecting them with a mystique all her own. The always reliable Ricky Jay is also on hand (as Joe's partner) with his wry sense of humor that works so well with Mamet's sensibilities.
I could go on and on with praising The Spanish Prisoner while trying to beat around the bush regarding its specifics, but that isn't fun for anyone. Every moment you spend reading me wax poetic about Mamet's creation is a moment that you could be spending (re)watching the film. Soooo...lets you and I take care of that.