A lot of people are after The Process, a complex formula for a corporate product that will make tons of money for whoever gets their mitts on it. One of the beautiful touches in David Mamet's corkscrew drama The Spanish Prisoner is that the audience never learns exactly what The Process has been designed to do.
People discuss it, protect it, tell lies for it, and likely do more things to possess The Process than a single viewing of Mamet's film will reveal to even the most observant moviegoer. The Spanish Prisoner is an intricate scam noir puzzle, and the first film to invite close comparison to The Usual Suspects for the way it shuffles vague information and alluring characters. You keep guessing at every turn, with differing conclusions, until a solution evolves in your mind, without some late explanation of everything we've witnessed.
Even the movie's title is a con of sorts. It sounds like some period piece set in the time of the Inquisition, but Mamet's drama is as contemporary as it can be. One character defines it as the name of an ancient con game, but his rat-a-tat delivery and the duplicity we've recognized before makes us wonder if even that is true. For nearly two hours, Mamet makes an audience wonder and question and eventually distrust anything but our own detective instincts. That's a remarkable achievement in these days of superficial movies that dump everything you need to know in your laps in the first reel.
Campbell Scott, an actor who could be a matinee idol but never settled for that, plays Joe Ross, who devised The Process for an imposing consortium and gets the feeling he won't be rewarded for the profitable breakthrough. Ben Gazzara plays the silky-sinister boss who won't give him a straight answer about that during a Caribbean summit. Joe is being led by the nose with a whiff of a windfall when he bumps into Jimmy Dell, a jet-setting businessman played with a surprising serious confidence by funnyman Steve Martin.
Joe's nice-guy nature prompts him to do a favor for Jimmy that, like many of the twists in The Spanish Prisoner, comes to an apparent dead end. Don't bet on it. Mamet lays out similar plot threads that eventually begin to constrict like a noose around Joe's neck. There's the secretary (Rebecca Pidgeon) with an obvious romantic crush on Joe, and his partner (Ricky Jay), who disappears for much of the film (Mamet senses that this is one of the tell-tale signs of guilt in modern movies, and toys with it).
Toss in the FBI agents on Jimmy's trail who want Joe to help with the trap, plus a parallel investigation by the police, and after a while you start doubting what anybody says, even if it's merely a friendly greeting. Mamet isn't bashful about his Hitchcock stylings; the innocent man caught in a web of high-rolling deceit harkens back to North by Northwest and The Man Who Knew Too Much, without copying from those classics. Mamet's trademark of terse dialogue that reels moviegoers into the action may not be entirely foolproof, but it's magnetic.
It's so refreshing to review a movie that you don't want to reveal too much about, since the pleasures of The Spanish Prisoner lie in the manner that Mamet loops all of this intrigue together. Coincidences and close calls pile up with clarity and a subdued sense of alarm. Nobody is exactly what they appear to be here, and there's a running debate among several characters about whether human beings ever are what they seem on the surface, while at the same time everybody is lying to someone else about something.
Mamet is acutely aware of the cons that most movies pull on the people who buy the tickets, trying to make an elementary story appear cerebral or loading up with unnecessary red herrings to distract viewers from the film's maddening simplicity. The Spanish Prisoner does neither; it's intelligent enough to challenge, and entertaining enough to avoid being too complex. Everything on screen counts. That's Mamet's process, and his gift.
The Spanish Prisoner
Director: David Mamet
Cast: Campbell Scott, Steve Martin, Rebecca Pidgeon, Ben Gazzara, Ricky Jay
Screenplay: David Mamet
Rating: PG; profanity, violence, sexual situations
Running time: 112 min.
Theaters: Tampa Theatre and Beach Theater only