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The Spanish Prisoner


The Newsletter of the David Mamet Society 
Fall 1998 • Volume 5 • ISSN 1095-9629




Screenplay by David Mamet. Directed by David Mamet. 1997.


Towards the beginning of David Mamet's The Spanish Prisoner, lawyer George Lang (Ricky Jay) observes "As humans we must dream, and when we dream, we dream of money." Money provides the motivation for all the characters in Mamet's fifth undertaking as writer/director, a film closely allied to his first, House of Games, and also to his twenty-year old radio play The Water Engine. As in the first work, Mamet guides the viewer through the machinations of a "long con"; like the second, though, he places the action of this film not within the underworld of petty thieves and grifters, but chooses the glamorous environment of urban big business. Anyone familiar with the writer's comments on American business, however, knows that these worlds are not so far apart in Mamet's mind: in his well-known New York Times interview with Richard Gottlieb, Mamet, discussing American Buffalo, defines "the American ethic of business" as:

how we excuse all sorts of great and small betrayals and ethical compromises called business. . . . There's really no difference between the lumpenproletariat and stock brokers or corporate lawyers who are the lackeys of business . . . . Part of the American myth is that a difference exists, that at a certain point vicious behavior becomes laudable.

As in so much of his earlier work, "vicious behavior" in The Spanish Prisoner concerns not so much physical violence as the violation of trust, the betrayal of friendship, and the exchange of love (or, at least, its potential) for profit.

At the center of this film's "vicious behavior" lies Joe Ross (Campbell Scott), a young, ambitious inventor who has created "The Process," a means for the company which employs him to "control the global market." Joe, a self-proclaimed "Boy Scout," believes that such a valuable invention will assure him a sizable financial reward from "the company." Instead, his superior Mr. Klein (Ben Gazzara) brushes off Joe's request for guarantees, assuring the younger man that he will be recognized for his efforts at an upcoming stockholder's meeting. In establishing this tension between employer and employee, Mamet invokes the "myth of suppression" he discusses in his essay "Concerning The Water Engine": "We feel these faceless monoliths ["The Government" and "Big Business"] can only wish us harm."

With the audience prepared for Joe's betrayal by the company (reinforced by Klein's later request, in the presence of company lawyers, that Joe "revalidate" his contract), two apparent allies come to the forefront: Jimmy Dell (Steve Martin), a mercurial member of the idle rich, and Susan Ricci (Rebecca Pidgeon), a perky, playfully seductive "company" secretary who accompanies Joe and Lang to the Caribbean for a meeting with "the group" (a collection of company executives and/or potential investors). An apparent American success story, Dell assumes the role of Joe's mentor, both introducing him to a world of private clubs and appointment-only rare car dealers, and instructing him to "Always do business as if the person you were doing business with were screwing you, because they probably are." Susan, on the other hand, appears in the role of Joe's moral compass, informing him on several occasions "You never know who anybody is." Together, Jimmy and Susan seem to provide an alternative to the "screwing" that the company is obviously attempting to perpetrate.

Of course, decisions of a moral nature are never simple in Mamet's work, and The Spanish Prisoner, like House of Games, toys with the audience's ethical sensibilities. Mamet provokes dis-ease in his audience, at least partly, through remaining faithful to his own statements on the art of film and theatrical direct ing in Writing in Restaurants, On Directing Film, and The Three Uses of the Knife: this film, like his others, relies primarily on the uninflected shot as the medium of communication. At the same time, though, shots can be deceptive. Upon second viewing, one notices that, in fact, Jimmy's boat does not come from a docking seaplane and that, as Joe later discovers, the "princess" that accompanies Jimmy is the woman from the hotel gift shop. Mamet accomplishes this sleight-of-hand by foregrounding the mundane: in this case, Joe and Susan taking pictures of each other on the beach. Suspense and even paranoia build in both Joe and the audience as one can never be sure who's a friend and who's after the Process; clearly, though, the director exposes his audience to the game of confidence from its inception.

While Mamet's direction plays heavily on misdirection through shot selection, his choice of a superior cast aids him in accomplishing this long con of a film. My first exposure to Campbell Scott came in the occasionally interesting but ultimately predictable Singles; in The Spanish Prisoner, however, Scott illustrates his versatility by comfortably adapting to Mamet's method of understated acting, relying on the writer/director's lines to establish Joe's financial motivation which, with Jimmy and Susan's prodding, provides the "confidence" he needs to fall victim to the machinations of Klein, Jimmy, Susan, and a host of faux FBI agents (played by, among others, Married with Children 's Ed O'Neill and Mamet regular Felicity Huffman). Rebecca Pidgeon's Susan, the femme fatale, combines just the right mix of "Golly, Joe" naivetÈ with an underlying sensuality; the viewer is blindsided by her involvement in the theft of Joe's invention, despite the clues she delivers on a regular basis. Steve Martin's portrayal of Jimmy Dell starkly contrasts with this megastar's goofy, arrow-through-the-head persona of the seventies: Martin masterfully portrays Dell's performance of a quirky eccentric with a spare directness that makes one wonder why this film represents his first outing with Mamet. Ricky Jay's new-found ability to play a good guy (relatively, anyway) and Ben Gazzara's menacing "old boy" round out a tightly-knit ensemble.

In the opening of his essay "A National Dream Life," Mamet claims that "We respond to a drama to that extent to which it corresponds to our dream life." The Spanish Prisoner brings out audience response not through the "American dream" of earned success but by portraying the nightmare of transactions of value, supposedly governed by ethical constraints, that are mediated by the lure of quick wealth. When money constitutes the "dream," loyalty, friendship, and love become disguises donned in the name of "business ethics."

University of Nevada, Las Vegas