The Spanish Prisoner

David Mamet wrote and directed this very clever, very elegant film about a very intricate con game. I’m having a hard time thinking of a way to review it properly, maybe because I’m not even sure what’s the best way to watch it. Is it more fun if you trust what the film shows and tells you and are then surprised by the hidden secrets and twists, or would it be more enjoyable to be very attentive and constantly doublethink and try to beat Mamet at his game? Well, I don’t know. Personally, I had heard a little about the picture, so I knew I shouldn’t trust everything I saw. Hence I try not to be fooled, but if I did guess some little things, I was still struck by how complex and precisely tuned this con was. One thing’s for sure, I’d be one dumb motorfinger to spoil any of the surprises of the film. But I can still write a little about the set-up.

Campbell Scott stars as Joe Ross, an intelligent young man who just invented something that will revolution the business world. What is it? All we’re told is that this Process will earn a humongous amount of money to the company Joe works for. His boss (Ben Gazzara) conveyed a meeting in the Caribbean islands to discuss the Process. Joe is accompanied by George, a company lawyer and friend, and Susan, the new girl at work who has a crush on him. But once there, Joe spends most of his time with Jimmy Dell (Steve Martin), a rich businessman who’s having an affair with a friend’s wife. The two men bond immediately and promise to meet again when they get back to New York. And…

I know, I know, I’m telling you nothing in my plot summary, but it’s just that I can not! Almost right from the start, Mamet starts manipulating the audience. He makes you focus on unimportant stuff, pass seemingly pointless details right by your nose and constantly makes you change your mind about his characters’ intentions. But his film ain’t just a puzzle. It’s also a beautifully written piece filled with interesting characters and Mamet’s signature dialogue, in which every line or so is intelligent enough to be quoted. Mamet is also a great director. His film is always gripping, gorgeously shot and impeccably acted. Campbell Scott is great as the “hero” who’s smart but too nice and naive to survive in the business world. But it’s definitively Steve Martin who offers the most memorable performance as an original but likable millionaire who might not be just what he seems. Martin has always been a charismatic lead with a strong screen presence, but you gotta admit that we’re more used to see him in comedies. “The Spanish Prisoner” is truly a great film, much smarter than most thrillers.