Film and TV

Strong Stuff

When it comes to gamesmanship and the testosterone wars, no writer in America is more obsessed than David Mamet. Whether his combatants are duking it out in a seedy Chicago real estate office (Glengarry Glen Ross) or fighting for survival in the Arctic wastes (The Edge), the story remains the same: Only the strong (and smart) survive.

The Spanish Prisoner, Mamet says, began percolating when, on vacation in the Caribbean, he spied a yacht with a helicopter on its deck and started to speculate about the owner. From that germ sprang this cautionary tale combining greed, pride and an elaborate con game in which the prize is a secret marketing formula called "The Process." The film is part Hitchcock, part Dostoyevsky and pure Mamet--thrilling enough, if a bit theoretical, and steeped in the myths of business-world warfare.

Here we have Campbell Scott as Joe Ross, an ambitious yuppie who wants his own piece of the pie after he develops his unspecified "Process" for an unnamed company. But the elusive boss, Klein (Ben Gazzara), demurs. Joe winds up looking to a well-heeled stranger named Jimmy Dell (Steve Martin) for help, and a tangled mystery takes wing.

Who is Jimmy Dell? What are Joe's real motives? Does the company secretary Susan (Rebecca Pidgeon) have a hidden agenda when she comes on to her co-worker?

"Always do business as if the person you're doing business with is trying to screw you," Dell advises. Words to live by. In the world of David Mamet, no one is what he seems, money talks and the waters of commerce are teeming with sharks. In content and conception, The Spanish Prisoner (the title refers to an ancient and complex con) most resembles the playwright's debut as a movie director, House of Games, and it gives off the same artificial vibrations as it ruminates on power and duplicity. For Mamet, crime always seems to be an intellectual exercise--sin as concept.

The plot meanders from a sun-drenched beach on the fictional island of St. Estephe, to an exotic-car showroom in Manhattan, to a Brooklyn walkup, to a carousel in Central Park. Mix in suspicious FBI agents, a philosophizing lawyer (who else but sleight-of-hand master Ricky Jay?) and enough deception to fill a Ph.D. dissertation. What do you have? Another meditation on misplaced faith, dog-eat-dog capitalism and the vanity of human desire. What you have is another trip to the heart of Mamet country.--Gallo

The Spanish Prisoner.
Written and directed by David Mamet. With Campbell Scott, Steve Martin, Rebecca Pidgeon, Ricky Jay amd Ben Gazzara.

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Bill Gallo
Contact: Bill Gallo