Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

The Spanish Prisoner

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

The Spanish Prisoner

Article excerpt

Another wimp called Joe (Campbell Scott) is the focus of the action in David Mamet's The Spanish Prisoner. But whereas The Land Girls hobbles arthritically, Mamet's new film, though almost exactly the same length, snaps and sizzles along. Joe, who works for a huge corporation, has invented something called "The Process" which is worth billions. This Process, though, is simply what Hitchcock called the McGuffin, the device which triggers the chase.

The corporation's boss, Mr Klein (Ben Gazzara), keeps dodging Joe's requests to be recompensed for his invention. Jimmy Dell, a mysterious millionaire (Steve Martin, in a subtly menacing performance which earns forgiveness for all those awful comedies in which he has recently starred), advises Joe on how to handle Klein. A secretary called Susan (Rebecca Pidgeon, Mamet's wife) tells Joe, "I'm stuck on you," warns him against Dell, and helps him when he goes on the run, suspected of murder.

Early in the film, Joe is told of a convoluted confidence trick called "the Spanish prisoner". Mamet, in turn, has created an intriguingly convoluted plot in which each con, when opened up, reveals another. And if Joe is enmeshed by con inside con, the audience is duped even more.

The action starts when the leading members of the corporation fly off to the Caribbean for a brainstorming session. Ask yourself why. Dell offers to buy Joe's plastic camera for $1,000. Why? Pat McCune (Felicity Huffman) reveals herself to Susan as an FBI agent. …

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