The Spanish Prisoner
directed by David Mamet
(Sony, 1997)

Joe Ross is a bright young man who's about to make more mistakes in a month than most people make in a lifetime.

His fortune would seem to be made: He's developed a process by which global markets can be controlled for several months, and his firm has sent him and an attractive young secretary to the tropical paradise of St. Estephe to help pitch it.

But while he's taking a little R&R, he meets a man who's going to shape the course of his life for the next few weeks: the mysterious Jimmy Dell.

Dell exudes wealth the way snakes exude venom, and Ross, a working-class kid who's irked over his company's reluctance to pay him what he's worth, is drawn to him, despite the ruthless undercurrent in Dell's dealings.

Before long, Ross (Campbell Scott) is drawn into a three-sided game of "Who Do You Trust" with Dell (Steve Martin), the aforementioned secretary (Rebecca Pidgeon), Ross' boss (Ben Gazzara) and a woman (Felicity Huffman) who may or may not be an FBI agent on Dell's trail.

The Spanish Prisoner is David Mamet's fifth directorial effort, and the 18th film on which he's received credit as a screenwriter. His works, which include Wag the Dog, Oleanna, Hoffa and House of Games, invariably bear two trademarks: intense interpersonal relationships and crackling dialogue, some of it transferred directly to the screen from his stage plays. Prisoner is no exception.

As a shrewd observer of the American scene, Mamet has a lot to say about how people do business in the '90s.

"We must never forget that we are human, and as humans we dream, and when we dream, we dream of money," Scott's partner (Ricky Jay) tells him after they've completed their pitch.

Dell has his own entrepreneurial philosophy: "Always do business as if the person you're doing business with is trying to screw you, because he probably is. And if he's not, you can be pleasantly surprised."

Suffice it to say that in The Spanish Prisoner, many people are surprised, but none of them pleasantly, as Ross loses faith in one person after another, beginning with his boss and ending with most of the U.S. government.

The result is a suspense film that leaves the viewer as off-balance as its protagonist -- a sensation Mamet uses to good advantage in a scene where Ross meanders through a whirling carousel in search of an FBI contact. Everything is off-center and off-balance. The outwardly calm Ross is inwardly spinning out of control.

Adding to the intensity are a dirge-like score with a thumping bass line and a dead-serious portrayal of Jimmy Dell by a man known to do anything for a laugh: a smileless Steve Martin adds much to the ominous tone of an already foreboding tale.

Best of all, The Spanish Prisoner marks a sea change in the way Mamet does business. Unlike American Buffalo (1996) or House of Games (1987), Prisoner, for all its quotable dialogue, is much more a movie than a filmed play. Mamet's visual sense is in full bloom; many scenes say much without a spoken word.

That's good news for Mamet -- and even better news for Mamet fans.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

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