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The Spanish Prisoner: For once, a movie of Hitchcockian proportions

By Vladimir V. Zelevinsky
Staff Reporter

Written and directed by David Mamet.

With Campbell Scott, Rebecca Pidgeon, Steve Martin.

Fortunate are the artists whose names have mutated into adjectives. While I don't think "tarantinoesque" is quite an established word yet, "Hitchcockian" undoubtedly is. The funny thing is that not only can it be applied to the movies made without any contributions from Alfred Hitchcock himself, but the best movies of this type (for example, Charade) are made by other people. David Mamet's The Spanish Prisoner is an exemplary specimen of the genre, not only being a tense thriller in its own right, but also providing some serious subtext to go along with all the precise movements of the clockwork plot.

There are no prisoners in The Spanish Prisoner, nor has it anything to do with Spain. I would explain the meaning of the title - but I will refrain from doing so (it is explained about two-thirds of the way through the film); also, I will limit the plot description to a few lines only, since one of the biggest pleasures the film provides is watching it unfold from the same unknowing perspective as its protagonist.

Said protagonist is Joe Ross (Campbell Scott), a bright young contractor at an unnamed New York company, working on the development of something called "The Process," which is so important that the application of it will bring major profits to the company (the amount is not disclosed), and is bound to be a target of industrial espionage (from whom is not disclosed either). It is, in a word, a McGuffin. And then things start happening to Joe.

The Spanish Prisoner is written and directed by David Mamet - and, speaking of adjectives, "mametian" is also the word. Mamet's plays and screenplays are usually very distinct because of their complex plots, terse rhythmical dialogue - usually laced with profanities - and the characters who are well-defined but utterly fail to provoke any empathy from the audience (witness, for example, Mamet's last screenplay, Wag the Dog, which for all intents and purposes was clever but completely uninvolving emotionally).

Most of this is on display here, but with unusual twists. The Spanish Prisoner is rated PG - and thus has not a single four-letter word. Campbell Scott does a highly competent work, playing the protagonist as a clean-cut Everyman, and his plight is truly exciting to observe. Of course, he is abetted by an excellent supporting cast, and not in the least by Steve Martin as mysterious Mr. Dell, who offers to solve Joe's problems. Martin, with his steely narrowed eyes, aloof demeanor, and carefully controlled line delivery, exudes the sense of genuine menace to whoever would happen to be in his way. As the other major player in the game, Joe's secretary Susan (Rebecca Pidgeon) is a weaker link in the chain, perhaps because Pidgeon is somewhat annoying when she's trying to act chipper. However, in her couple of serious scenes, she's as good as everyone else.

And, of course, there is the story - a classical hitchcockian thriller, where every single word, glance, or object ultimately is essential to the plot, where the audience is tricked to carefully watch the magician's right hand, while his left hand is actually the one which is doing the trick, where each detail contributes to the motion of the plot's gears. At least, until the very end - the finale is, perhaps, a bit anticlimactic: Mamet tries to resolve the main plot and simultaneously hint that this might not be the real resolution yet. While this is certainly clever, it lacks the same kind of unflagging momentum the rest of the story has.

The story also has a subtext - a classical mametian rumination about the power of greed, and its influence on people (similar to Glengarry Glen Ross). The great part about it is that nothing is spoon-fed; the subtext is merely in character's motivations - but it doesn't take away any of Mamet's deeply ironic observations about human nature.

By the end of the film, in the struggle for The Process, Joe's life is manipulated by such ominous forces that his experience brings to mind the works not of Hitchcock, but rather those of Franz Kafka. After all, in Kafka's novel The Trial, the protagonist's name is Joseph as well. And, speaking of this, the original German title of The Trial is Der Prozess. Do I sense some dark and mysterious connection here?