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Spanish Prisoner

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: Spanish Prisoner

Starring: Campbell Scott, Rebecca Pidgeon
Director: David Mamet
Rated: PG
RunTime: 112 Minutes
Release Date: April 1998
Genres: Drama, Suspense, Mystery

*Also starring: Steve Martin, Ricky Jay, Ben Gazzara, Felicity Huffman, Ed O'Neill

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

The Bible says, "Respect, but suspect." Ronald Reagan's favorite quote (about a new relationship with the Soviets), was "Trust, but verify." Any gambler will tell you, "Have faith, but cut the cards." It's a tough world out there, as David Mamet well knows, where you just don't know who people really are. The lesson we take home from "The Spanish Prisoner" is, "Don't be naive, don't be a victim. Harden your shell or you'll be taken for a ride." But "The Spanish Prisoner," despite this moral and its PG rating, is not didactic, it's not a junior high- school lesson, and in fact it's for a special, mature, adult audience that can appreciate his signature dialogue, craft at developing a plot, and ability to capture and challenge his viewers. With due respect to "House of Games," which featured his wife (from 1977 to 1989), Lindsay Crouse, in an absorbing tale of cheating card sharps, "The Spanish Prisoner" is perhaps his most intricate and arresting film to date. A Hitchcockian fable, it will keep you guessing to the very last frame.

Mention con arts and you're likely to think of small-timers like the 3-card monte players who, working with shills, take suckers for $20 a shot on urban street corners. Or you may recall cases of ATM scams usually involving elderly women who freely withdraw money from their accounts in the hope of gaining larger sums from the tricksters. "The Spanish Prisoner" deals at base with situations that are not very different, but they involve much larger sums of money and the gamesmanship involves surprise antics such as the setting up of Swiss bank accounts, romantic interludes at a posh Caribbean resort, a hushed dinner conversation at a chic private clubs, and conversations between executives in a modish Manhattan office. The name of the game is money, and the villains are more likely wear Armani suits than Adidas sneakers and baseball caps.

Featuring a superb performance by Campbell Scott (son of George C. Scott and Colleen Dewhurst who looks nothing like his folks), "The Spanish Prisoner" deals with a plot to steal the blueprint of an invention, one which is called a process and consisting of a notebook filled with mathematical symbols that only Will Hunting and a few people of an inner circle could decipher. Only one copy exists, and that is kept under lock by its inventor, Joe Ross (Campbell Scott) in a safe in his company office. The confidence people are determined to pry that book from his hands and play on Joe's resentment at being put off each time he asks for the bonus he knows he deserves. When businessman Jimmy Dell (Steve Martin) hears of the Joe's plight during a conversation they have in the fictional Caribbean island of St. Estephe, he offers to help and invites the inventor to a dinner when they return to New York. In an intrigue involving a company secretary, Susan (Rebecca Pidgeon--who is the wife of writer-director Mamet) and a company lawyer, George Lang (Ricky Jay), Joe finds himself getting deeply involved in an machination which takes him far afield from his original motive to receive his due from his reluctant boss, Klein (Ben Gazzara). Though he receives the assistance of an FBI agent, Pat McCune (Felicity Huffman)--who sets up a sting to capture the alleged criminal Dell--Joe becomes the perfect patsy, a Kafkaeseque victim who is arrested and who faces a long jail term for acts he would not dream of committing.

David Mamet's critics have long held that his movie characters are nothing but cold, skilled mechanics; that his films are simply games that are not playful and hardly absorbing. While the anti-Mamet contingent may well consider "The Spanish Prisoner" another in a line of films like "House of Games" with the idiomatic dialogue found most conspicuously in "Speed-the-Plow," his fans--and indeed a crossover audience as well--will not only love his latest effort but be tempted to see it once more to catch clues they may have missed.

The noir ambiance of "The Spanish Prisoner" is furthered by Carter Burwell's eerie soundtrack in a movie that seems always to hold back the very information which could give away the store. Crackling dialogue, a wonderful cast which includes Steve Martin, who is apparently seeking to broaden his base with serious roles, and a riveting performance by Campbell Scott as a vulnerable everyman, should be included on every serious moviegoer's schedule.

Copyright 1998 Harvey Karten

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