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Mamet's "The Spanish Prisoner" is a marvel of runaway nouns and artifice.

By Stacey Richter

MAY 11, 1998:  DAVID MAMET IS an acquired taste. Much of the work of this playwright and screenwriter is intentionally awkward, mannered, and strange. His characters tend to repeat themselves, to avoid verbs, and to echo one another's words like graduate students punchy from reading Gertrude Stein. For example: "Yes the, yes I mean the...yes but...yes." I'm sure a lot of people find this annoying, and in fact it is annoying, but it's also strangely compelling, beautiful and effective. Like the modernists (maybe Mamet fancies himself one), this style calls attention to language itself, and toys with the whole notion of "believable" dialogue. I mean, no one in real life talks the way people do in movies and plays anyway--why not just make it artificial in a different way?

The Spanish Prisoner, the latest film written and directed by David Mamet, puts his idiosyncratic style to good use. The Spanish Prisoner is a clever, intricate and satisfying thriller, cast in the same mold as Mamet's House of Games. Mamet is interested in the strange intimacies that spring up between people--particularly between men--and how these intimacies are betrayed. Salesmen, conmen, and cops people his screenplays, and like House of Games, The Spanish Prisoner is about a sort of con. Half the fun of this movie is trying to figure out who's taking whom for a ride. "You never know who anybody is," the office girl keeps repeating, and this is the central mystery of the plot.

Mamet shows a great devotion to nouns, and you can tell he really believes in the power of little bits of language to shoulder great authority. So much so that the central character in The Spanish Prisoner, Joe Ross (Campbell Scott), turns out to be a company man and an inventor who has developed something referred to only by the vague and ominous name: The Process. The Process is potentially worth an enormous amount of money to The Company. When the question arises of how much The Process is worth, Joe Ross writes a figure on a chalkboard, but we never get to see what he has written. It seems that in Mamet's world, things are more powerful when left vague or unspoken. It certainly is creepy.

And it's also sort of funny. In a brilliant bit of casting, Steve Martin appears as Jimmy Dell, the shady stranger who tries to win Joe's trust. It's not a comic role, but Mamet's dialogue is all about timing and keeping a straight face while still acknowledging that there's something absurd going on. Martin is great at this--and as always, immensely likable--so that it's difficult to tell if he's the one trying to steal The Process from Joe, or not.

Because it's clear that someone is trying to steal it. Everyone seems to be a candidate. There's the pretty new girl in the office, Susan Ricci (played by Mamet's wife, Rebecca Pidgeon), who has a crush on Joe and seems just a little too smart for her position. To top it off, she keeps talking like she's in a 1940s romantic comedy, uttering lines like: "Why do I trust you? Because I'm stuck on you, that's why," in that deadpan style the actors all share. One of the ways in which Mamet puts his dialogue to good use is by having everyone speak in such a strange manner that it's impossible to tell who's the "bad guy," or who is pretending to be something they're not, because everyone seems to be faking something. The Spanish Prisoner is like a '40s crime movie that's been translated into Flemish, then translated back into English by a non-native speaker. All the words sound wrong. When Joe asks a co-worker with a hangover how he's feeling, he replies: "I put a thief in my mouth to steal my brains." Really.

There are so many blank and wooden characters running around, with such an essential sameness to them, that on a certain level Mamet has managed to reduce The Spanish Prisoner to pure plot. This is hardly an emotional or character-driven story. (In fact, when one of the characters asks Joe if his feelings were hurt, the question sounds strange. Feelings? What feelings? ) On the other hand, the plot is elaborate and full of reversals that are thought-provoking, rather than insulting. Watching The Spanish Prisoner is a lot like reading a good mystery novel, where you keep trying to figure out who's pulling the strings, and it's never clear who anyone really is.


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