The Austin Chronicle

The Spanish Prisoner

Rated PG, 112 min. Directed by David Mamet. Starring Campbell Scott, Rebecca Pidgeon, Steve Martin, Ben Gazzara, Ricky Jay, Felicity Huffman.

REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., May 1, 1998

Writer-director David Mamet is up to his old tricks again. In fact, if the title were not already taken, he might have named this film House of Games. As it is, he named this new film The Spanish Prisoner, a term described as the moniker for “the oldest con in the world.” Mamet seems intent here on creating a labyrinthine Hitchcockian thriller, along the lines of The Man Who Knew Too Much or North by Northwest. Campbell Scott makes an excellent Jimmy Stewart-style Everyman -- seemingly a patsy ripe for duping. But the key word here is “seeming,” as the film takes great pains to point out on numerous occasions. Mamet sets up the situation in a way that encourages the viewers to consider all the angles. Good guy, bad guy; is she or isn't she? We're invited to mull every possibility, as though the mental game of trying to uncover the magician's sleight of hand is the real endgame and the fluffy rabbit is mere window dressing. And to a certain degree that's true. However, The Spanish Prisoner seems an almost purely theoretical exercise, with Mamet as the con man whose sole goal is to make us believe anything he wants. It feels rather manipulative and makes us feel a bit too conscious of the trickery at hand, especially given all the film's explicit warnings that things are rarely what they seem, and conversely, that things are usually exactly what they seem to be. And with Campbell Scott practically walking through this whole thing with a “kick me” sign on his back, he's the perfect foil for all this push me/pull me action. Add to this structural artifice the calculated clip of Mamet's unique dialogue blocking, and the result is a work that never lets us escape the knowledge that it is a work of pure fabrication. The Spanish Prisoner is populated with constructs rather than a sense of flesh-and-blood characters. We never fear for any of these characters or worry whether the crop duster is going to mow them down. Nevertheless, taken for what it is, The Spanish Prisoner is actually quite a lot of fun. The performances are all solid, and the cat-and-mouse storyline is always a diverting amusement. (And who ever suspected that David Mamet had a script in him that could pass PG muster?) But for such a lot of supposedly smart people, these characters do an awful lot of dumb things.

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