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All Snap, No Plot

[whitespace] The Spanish Prisoner
James Bridges

Lost at Seashore: Campbell Scott gets trapped in a circle of deceit in 'The Spanish Prisoner.'

'The Spanish Prisoner' lies flat on David Mamet's pages

By Richard von Busack

DAVID MAMET'S FILMS demonstrate the wisdom of the old movie-studio practice of teaming a dialogue man with a plot man. Writer/director Mamet's gift isn't plotting, it's the cool snap of his language. When he directs, he depends on that snap to say everything. To ensure that only what's on the page gets up on screen, Mamet directs with a lack of inflection that's been described as resembling an army training film, although it personally reminds me more of a foreign-language instruction tape. The flatness and the repetition are supposed to keep you hypnotized. At times (in Glengarry Glen Ross, for example), the aimless aggressiveness of guy culture does come through powerfully. But The Spanish Prisoner, Mamet's latest, is a retread, an unconvincing story about confidence artists.

Campbell Scott, looking as if he were weaned on a pickle, plays inventor Joe Ross, who has just finished some sort of high-tech process he's certain will make him rich. The company he works for is paranoid about industrial espionage, and Ross' boss, Mr. Klein (Ben Gazzara), presses him to make doubly sure that nothing is leaked. The dissatisfied Ross goes with Klein to a Caribbean resort to meet with investors. There, the inventor is befriended by a wealthy man named Jimmy Dell (Steve Martin), who convinces Ross that he's about to be chiseled out of the money for his life's work. While Ross becomes suspicious of Dell, he also has to fend off the advances of a secretary at his office.

In House of Games, Mamet cast Lindsay Crouse (the first Mrs. Mamet). In The Spanish Prisoner, the second Mrs. Mamet, Rebecca Pidgeon, plays the secretary, Susan Ricci. There is cute and there is cuter--and then there is mental case. Susan seems to be in the third category. She's addicted to deliberate archaic slang--she utters an ironic "Crikey!" when she's kissed. Susan's artificiality is meant to make us suspect her, too; the problem is that the entire film is full of such similar artifice that there's no way to plug into it, even as a crime-movie fantasy.

There is one performance that's worth noting. Martin knows how to handle Mamet, how to bring his own nuances to the director's nuance-free world. His comedic career has been a study of surface calm and subsurface mania. Seeing him play a wealthy man, it occurred to me that Martin would make a wonderful Jay Gatsby. You'd believe the formality, the burning obsession under the ice; and there's enough of the air of fraud in Martin's classiness that when Gatsby's roots are exposed it wouldn't seem like a cheat. Whenever Martin paces through The Spanish Prisoner the film lights up with possibilities; his natural wit moistens dry nuggets of dialogue like "Good people, bad people, they generally look like what they are." It's the case with good movies and bad movies, too; the trust games in The Spanish Prisoner look like what they are: an insufficiently worked-out sketch.

The Spanish Prisoner (PG; 112 min.), directed and written by David Mamet, photographed by Gabriel Beristain and starring Steve Martin, Ben Gazzara and Campbell Scott.

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From the April 16-22, 1998 issue of Metro.

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