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You heard me. Even if you prefer, say, Kevin Spacey's performance in `The
Usual Suspects' to Campbell Scott's here (to each his own), at least this is
a film that plays fair with us. We begin at what is, from the protagonist's
point of view, the beginning of the tale; things happen that are interesting
in their own right and not simply because we know that there's meant to be a
mystery lurking somewhere; we are given information as we go along; and
later revelations actually explain earlier puzzles. Mamet doesn't force us
through a maze. Rather, he lets us watch someone else walk through the
maze, and it's a pleasure.
I'm determined not to spoil this pleasure, so I'm unable to say anything at all, really, about what the movie's about. I can't even tell you to what the title refers. I can't even tell you whether it refers to something peripheral or central. I'd better watch my mouth. As the slogan of a poster in the film says, in letters screaming above a drawing of a torpedoed battleship, `Somebody talked.' Not me.
All of the cast turn in good performances - that's right, all of them. I'm tired of remarks about how Rebecca Pidgeon got her role because she's the director's wife. It could well be true, and it could also be true (for all I know) that she's an actress of minor abilities, but her abilities are more than sufficient to make us believe in the character she plays here. How, exactly, is she so very different from Campbell Scott, or from Steve Martin, who, everyone will surely concede, gave the performance of his life? This just isn't the kind of story suited to emoting-while-pretending-not-to acting. All of the characters must dissemble in front of at least one other of the characters (THAT gives nothing away, trust me), and all of them are just a little bit unsettling.
I'll close by putting in a word for Carter Burwell's score. The music consists of a single labyrinthine tune, which twists about until we THINK we've caught it, and then stops: it provides a perfect thumb-nail sketch of the film as a whole. Also like the film as a whole, it's simply fun. Unlike so many directors Mamet doesn't act as if he's working in a disreputable genre, in which it's somehow bad form to allow the audience to have too good a time.
What is so clever about this movie?
First: The dialogue is so wonderfully quirky and packed full of nuances. It was a delight to wait for the next round of words in each scene. The character played by Rebecca Pidgeon offered the best delivery of all the actors. Her vocal cadences were sheer fun to experience.
Second: It perfectly paced right down to the wonderfully offbeat and unexpected ending. It is NOT a slow moving film. Even if the drama unfolds methodically:
**WHAT is wrong with audiences today? WHY must every movie go faster than the Can-Can scene in "Moulin Rouge"? I get ill when I read yet another review which reveals the impatience and lack of concentration skills of the viewer. You want slow pace? Try Theo Angelopoulos!
Third: The cast is perfect for every role. Campbell Scott, Steve Martin, Rebecca Pidgeon, Felicity Huffman, Ben Gazzara and Ricky Jay. Each of them bring a special character to each performance.
Fourth: Movies like this, that don't feed you every morsel of the plot expectation in the first 15 minutes are a welcome breath of fresh air every time they are released.
Congratulations on a most memorable movie to Mamet and company.
I remember watching this film in 1998 at the theater and it became one of my favorites ever since. I have since watched every Mamet film I ran into, they were very good, but I believe this one's his best film yet. The story follows Joseph Ross (Campbell Scott), a salaried mathematician who's invented some truly valuable system that will make a fortune for his company. We meet him as he goes on vacation and befriends with a seemingly multi-millionaire who calls himself Julian "Jimmy" Dell (Steve Martin). Ross is then drawn into a big conspiracy surrounds his valuable "system". I won't go into the details so that i won't spoil the surprises and there are many. All the actors involved gives their best, most notable are Rebecca Pigeon as Susan, Joseph's pretty and sophisticated secretary and for Steve Martin, who was very refreshing to see in a serious role. The film has some unique and intelligent dialogs often appear in David Mamet's works. The twists are very surprising but MAKE SENSE, something that a lot of film makers have to learn these days. Overall an intelligent gem of a film you will not forget easily. Thumbs up and 10/10. Highly Recommended.
Steve Martin in a serious role in a Mamet film is reason enough to see "The
Spanish Prisoner", which I believe gets its name from a type of sucker scam
of the same name. And that's what this film is about. A young professional
invents "the process" which is very valuable to his company but he is
worried he will not get compensated well enough. This seed of doubt, which
others around him recognize, sets into motion a whole series of secrets and
deceptions. The dialog is snappy as in all Mamet writing, and you either
really like the style a lot, or you don't. I really like it. The various
twists get a bit hard to follow, and it is the kind of movie you have to see
at least twice for full benefit. It is not a great film, but a worthy
Beside Steve martin in his serious role, which he pulls off very well, the film also has Ben Gazzara and Mamet's wife, Rebecca Pidgeon who is very good in one of the key roles in this film.
Joseph Ross is a researcher for a major corporation. He is in the
for a business trip to discuss his invention with the heads of the firm -
formula that stands to make the company very, very rich. While on the
he meets the charismatic Jimmy Dell who he does a favour for and gradually
befriends. As Joe starts to realise that his employers are trying to
squeeze him out for his just deserves, Jimmy starts to offer him
understanding and legal help to secure his end.
I first discovered this film on late night sky about 5 years ago now and was very taken by it. Later I got to see it again when I had a free weekend of FilmFour (this weekend in fact!) and I was happy to see it again. The film is a con, from start to finish it is what the tagline claims - never what it seems. The whole audience know this and therefore are ready for twists and turns and it is to the film's credit that the twists are still gripping and enjoyable even if we expect it. The film has a very slow pace and is quite unshowy all the way.
In one regard this is to it's detriment but it does create a film that is unassuming and all the more surprising for it. However the lack of fire works also meant that it never got the audience it deserved. I believe that, if it had gone more dramatic and tense that it would have played better in multiplexes and drawn in less patient audiences.
In a rare (at the time) serious role, Martin is actually very good. He may not have a great character but he does a really good job with the two sides of his performance - even if the darker side is more revealed through Joe's fate than it is through his performance. Scott is good but is forced to play a rather bland simple man - meaning that his performance was rather bland at times. The support cast is good and features several Mamet regulars including the charismatic and distinctive Ricky Jay. Talking of Mamet, he is great as writer and director and this is yet another film that justifies his reputation in my mind.
Overall this is a great film that will engage you and entertain you with it's twisty and enjoyable plot. It may lack the fireworks or heavy slick style of other films of the genre but it is all the better for it. Criminally under seen and deserves to be discovered.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This is definitely a "thinking man's" suspense film that references
thrillers of yore. I was reminded of two old films in particular:
"North by Northwest" and "Charade". Both of these movies concern a
mysterious goal and questions about identity.
The high stakes involved are established in the first scene of the movie with the introduction of "The Process", a vaguely defined procedure or product that will make the company funding it very rich. Joe Ross, the inventor of "The Process", is soon marked for an elaborate con game and finds his world tipped upside down with no one being exactly who they seem.
A brief consideration of the plot will quickly reveal holes but plot really isn't the point of the film. It's the ideas presented here that make the film fascinating. Even the title "The Spanish Prisoner" that supposedly references an ancient confidence game doesn't make much sense. The actual confidence game that plays out on the screen bears little resemblance to the Spanish Prisoner as described. In fact, the Spanish Prisoner confidence sounds more like the basic structure of the cinematic thriller (the guy gets the money and the princess). It is this basic structure that Mamet twists just a little. A good example of this is the use of the "innocent remark" that triggers a memory of something essential. A mother berating her child become the example of this in the film but rather than making her remark once (as is usually done in such films) she repeats it over and over again. In doing this, Mamet is hitting us over the head with the comment's significance and calling attention to it as a cinematic convention.
Ultimately, what are interesting are the ideas being presented: the effects of deception, the slipperiness of identity and the ambiguity present in all our lives. All of these ideas are communicated via characters' comments and various objects with some kind of metaphoric meaning. For example, the film creates an interesting metaphor with Joe's glasses. At one point, Susan, his secretary, asks him to take them off as if asking him to stop looking at the world through "rose-colored glasses" and see her (and the world for who and what they really are). I wonder if Susan was truly drawn to him at this point and offering him a real relationship if he will only see it. However, he puts his glasses back on and gently rebuffs her. Susan, rejected, becomes committed to a course that will find her ultimately betraying him. Later, when Joe goes to the only person who appears to be his ally and finds him dead, his glasses (with a bloody fingerprint) are left on the table next to the body. He does not wear the glasses for the rest of the film, symbolic of his finally seeing world around him for what it is: untrustworthy and duplicitous.
Joe is referred to, somewhat disparagingly throughout the film, as a "boy scout." In fact, the film initially seems to be somewhat contemptuous of "nice guys" in general as it is this characteristic of Joe's that the grifters use to their advantage. Whereas most cons appeal to victims' baser instincts, this one appeals to higher ones. While this appears to be Joe's weakness, cleverly, it is also presented as one of his strengths. There are two times when the con goes awry and both times it is because of Joe's "boy scout" nature. The first is when Joe thoughtfully substitutes the worn-out book given him by Jimmy (to deliver to Jimmy's "sister") with a better copy and keeps the tattered book. The second time is towards the end of the film when Joe helps a woman struggling with her young child through airport security. The mother's comments (as mentioned earlier) spark Joe's memory. In addition, as Joe and the security guard help the woman through, the security guard misses the bag containing the gun handed to Joe by Susan. Unknowing, Joe leaves it behind in his hurry to get back to New York; narrowly avoiding an arrest that surely would have ended all his efforts to free himself from his nightmare. The screen with the x-rayed image of the gun is the only image in the move that we see and Joe doesn't. While it broadcasts an interesting twist, I think the scene was included to also punctuate the idea that "maybe nice guys don't always finish last".
However, even Joe's good behavior can't protect him from everything and, to save him, Mamet employs the "deus ex machina" a tried and true method of rescuing the protagonist in suspense films of this ilk. Many a hero has appeared doomed only to have help from some totally unexpected and obscure corner. But even this convention is twisted a bit as the Japanese US Marshall who ultimately saves Joe actually appears in previous scenes.
In conclusion, The Spanish Prisoner is a film that entertains you while it's on and leaves you pondering a bit after it's done.
This movie wasn't filled with sex, violence, filthy language or anything like that. It relied on solid characters, an awesome story and excellent directing, something totally unheard of in Hollywood today. It makes me cry to think that no one has heard of this great thriller, but Crap-fests like "Armageddon" make trillions of dollars at the box office. If you haven't seen it yet, don't listen to anyone's opinion, don't read any summaries of the plot. The less you know, the better it will be. The Spanish Prisoner was the first movie in a while to make me THINK. Go see it if you like thought provoking mysteries. This show is awesome.
It's hard to say that 'The Spanish Prisoner' is the best film of the year,
because it quite obviously isn't. It's more like a filmed play in that many
of it's locations, especially those in the Carribean, look positively fake.
What can be said, is that the film is the year's most complex and
interesting film, and one of the best.
The script by acclaimed playwright David Mamet (Who also wrote 1997's The Edge) is stunning, excellent with a perfect, credible plot. It's a wonder how anyone could even come up with such a great story.
The acting is also very good. Campbell Scott, who we have never and likely never will see much of is well cast and delivers the flick's best performance. A-List star Steve Martin skips the big bucks for a good script, and it's a wonder he ended up with this project in the first place, an unlikely but excellent career move. The rest of the cast is unremarkable when put up against Scott and Martin, but still good on their own right.
If you have a liking for complicated, though-provoking puzzle-like films 'The Spanish Prisoner' is highly, highly recommended, as is the similar, more accessible 'The Game'. Very intriguing and absorbing 'The Spanish Prisoner' is a must see.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
David Mamet's "The Spanish Prisoner" has been described by the
writer-director as being "a light, romantic, Hitchcockian thriller."
The film lacks the visual strengths of Hitch, of course, but it makes
up for this with a clever script and a series of neat twists toward its
The plot? Campbell Scott plays Joe Ross, an unassuming guy who has invented a mysterious process worth a lot of money. Joe's boss promises to compensate him richly for the process, but Joe is sceptical. Will he really be paid for his work? Joe's growing nervousness is subtly stoked by Jimmy Dell (played by Steve Martin), a charming and apparently wealthy new friend who...well, to say anything more about the film would be to spoil the fun. Suffice to say that "Prisoner" delights in subverting expectations, and continues Mamet's trend of casting comedians (Steve Martin, Danny Devito, Tim Allen, Ed O'Neil) in serious, tough guy rolls; Mamet's all about scrambling preconceptions.
"The Spanish Prisoner" lacks the big set-pieces "necessary" to draw in the blockbuster crowd, but it's nevertheless well written. Of course the key word here is "written". Mamet's films are oft exercises in style, but unlike most of cinema's stylists, he sculpts entirely with the pen. He's playing with words, with syntax and rhythm, his characters often even pausing to discuss linguistics and the "nature" of words themselves. They argue over the meaning of words, of literature, and often stop to question the motivation of another character's use of a certain word. For Mamet, language and prose are merely tools for persuasion, and cinema is itself the ultimate card trick, language the ultimate con.
8/10 - The joy of Mamet is in recognising how carefully he straddles the line between cliché and genius, taking the conventional beats of the thriller/con/heist genre and using them to sing his own tune.
"The Spanish Prisoner" comes closer to Hitchcock than anything I've seen in
a long, long time. The cast is excellent; I haven't seen Campbell Scott in
a movie since he was much younger, but he really turned in a great
performance, loaded with nuance and subtlety. Steve Martin is truly
outstanding--I think it's fair to say that this is one of his career's best
performances. The only clunker is Rebecca Pidgeon; her character is poorly
written, and she's not much of an actress. Just between you and me, I
think she only got the job because she's sleeping with the director (she's
Mamet's wife). Ed O'Neill even shows up halfway through the film with a
I don't want to give away much about the story for those who haven't seen TSP, but it really is amazing. Many of the plot twists actually made me laugh--not because they were ridiculous, but because they were so ingeniously crafted and actually plausible. Since he wrote AND directed the movie, though, David Mamet let himself get away with a few bad lines and one or two hokey plot devices. In the greater context of the movie, however, they're forgivable.
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