SPANISH PRISONER, THE

PG
Reviews

Somewhere Alfred Hitchcock is smiling, for The Spanish Prisoner is the most deliciously labyrinthine homage to the master of suspense in recent years. David Mamet's new film features the writer-director's trademark staccato dialogue, but, as in his earlier House of Games, the film's stylized language (which can become wearying in some Mamet scripts) is matched with a confidence-scam plot that's almost dizzyingly complex, and is completely absorbing from start to finish.

Mamet has found the perfect fall guy in Campbell Scott, who plays up his handsome Boy Scout charmer image as Joe Ross, a young, ambitious businessman invited by his boss Klein (Ben Gazzara) to the (fictitious) isle of St. Estephe in the Caribbean to introduce 'The Process,' which is some sort of secret scientific breakthrough he invented that will make his company (and presumably him) very rich. Ross hasn't yet been told exactly how he will be compensated, and his cynical buddy George Lang (Ricky Jay) has put the notion in his head that if he has to wait for an upcoming board meeting, he'll be left holding the bag. Accompanying Joe to the island is faithful secretary Susan (Rebecca Pidgeon), who's carrying a torch for the young shining star. While taking photos with Susan on the beach, Joe is approached by suave Jimmy Dell (Steve Martin), who offers him $1,000 for his camera as he thinks the shutterbug might have just snapped him in the act of infidelity. Slightly miffed by the offer, Joe decides to give Dell the camera for nothing, and he ultimately takes a liking to the sophisticated stranger. When asked to take a package back to New York to deliver to Dell's sister, he readily complies.

On the plane ride back to the States, Susan asks Joe the film's signature question: 'Who in the world is what they seem?' Joe's curiosity gets the best of him, and he retreats to the plane's bathroom to unwrap Dell's gift, which turns out to be a first edition of Budge on Tennis. (The tennis theme echoes Strangers on a Train, as does a later scene which features a carousel as a rendezvous point. The film's other obvious Hitchcock reference point is The Man Who Knew Too Much.) Back in New York, Joe decides to entrust Dell with his fears about being less than amply rewarded for 'The Process,' and Dell offers to get Joe in touch with a copyright lawyer to protect his rights. The film then becomes an exercise in 'who can you trust?' and once Joe realizes he's the pawn in a vicious game, he finds the answer is nobody, though it's an answer he must learn the hard way-and several times.

The centerpiece scam in Mamet's twisting, tense tale finds Joe falling victim to one of the world's oldest confidence games known as 'The Spanish Prisoner,' but to reveal more about the plot would be a disservice. 'The Process' and the business of the company in question is a classic Hitchcockian red herring-it's not important to understand why the formula is so valuable, but only that it's worth stealing at all costs (in a typically macabre touch, 'Someone Talked!' screams the poster that adorns Joe's company's reception area). One of Mamet's tenets holds that you can't con an honest man, and that confidence games play on their victim's pride and ego. To that end, Campbell Scott elicits just the right amount of youthful vanity, which gradually crumbles as he gets increasingly entrapped in the scheme to play him for a fool. Martin's supremely cool, calculatingly menacing turn as the enigmatic Jimmy Dell neatly contrasts Scott's golden-boy image. The strong supporting cast features fine work from Rebecca Pidgeon as the secretary who's more than what she seems, and Ricky Jay as Joe's platitude-spouting sidekick. ('Worry is like interest paid in advance on a debt that never comes due' is typical of his many Mamet-speak one-liners.) Barbara Tulliver's editing is crisp-the pacing never flags for a moment-and Carter Burwell's score is fabulously moody and evocative. When Joe's seeming pal Jimmy offers that 'people aren't that complicated...good people, bad people, they generally look like what they are,' you have to laugh-after all, this is a Mamet film, and in his world things are never that easy.

--Chris Grunden