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David Mamet's got a bridge to sell you in "The Spanish Prisoner."

By Jesse Fox Mayshark

JUNE 8, 1998:  I got another one last week. It came, as always, in the mail, a fluorescent green postcard that said I'd been chosen to win. Me, chosen. And I didn't even enter anything. But there it was—I was guaranteed at least a TV or a mountain bike or $2,000 in cash or the vacation of my dreams. All I had to do was call to claim it. If I didn't, someone else would get it. Call now.

I never have, of course, but I can't say I haven't been tempted. Partly, it's true, I harbor the tiniest fear that some other lucky stiff is out there enjoying my TV, my bike, my cash, and my week in Acapulco because I was too suspicious to follow through. But mostly, I'm curious. When you make the toll-free phone call, at what point in the conversation does the bait turn into a hook? When do they say, "OK, Mr. Mayshark, we'll send that right out to you, we just need your credit card number for verification..." Or, "Yes sir, that mountain bike is a $300 value, available as a premier bonus of our vitamin of the month club, which you can join for 15 installments of just $25.99..." Or do they just route the call through a switching station in Antigua at a rate of $57 a minute? I want to know how it works, what the catch is.

So does David Mamet. The writer-turned-director loves con games. He made one of the all-time great con movies in 1987's House of Games and co-wrote the screenplay for last year's political con Wag the Dog. Most of his films and plays, from the hard-bitten salesmen saga Glengarry Glen Ross to the mistaken-identity gangster comedy Things Change, deal in deceit and betrayals of trust. The Spanish Prisoner, his latest offering, is the canniest, conniest of them all.

From the beginning, you know The Spanish Prisoner is a set-up. And Mamet knows you know. So the film becomes an entertaining shell game, with Mamet slyly testing the viewer, daring you to keep track of the multiple red herrings and misdirections on-screen.

The title refers to a centuries-old con scheme (unless Mamet just made it up, which would be one more sleight of hand), but I won't go into details, since the mechanics of the con are the movie's central focus. Suffice to say the film doesn't have anything to do with Spain or prisoners.

It's about a naive, brilliant mathematician, Joe Ross (Campbell Scott), who has invented a formula that's going to make his employer extremely rich. (With Hitchcockian tongue in cheek, Mamet never says what the formula—known only as "the Process"—actually does.) But Joe's afraid his boss, Mr. Klein (Ben Gazzara), doesn't intend to amply reward him for his work. The movie opens with several representatives from Joe's company traveling to a Caribbean resort to meet with investors. There, Joe happens to meet affable millionaire Jimmy Dell (a welcome appearance by Steve Martin), who asks him to take a package back to his sister in New York. Meanwhile, new secretary Susan (Rebecca Pidgeon), who has a crush on Joe, is warning him to watch his back.

Mamet's deadpan writing and lingering glances at apparently incidental things tip you off right away that something's up. But if you're always a few steps ahead of Joe, you're also five or six steps behind Mamet. By the time the ending comes and all is revealed, you're forced to go back and retrace the whole movie, figuring out where you got suckered.

The film is less emotionally driven than much of Mamet's work; there's a light touch that separates it from the poker-faced flintiness of House of Games (which is arguably a better movie, but not as much sheer fun). The eternal questions—Who can you trust? Who do you really know?—are still there, but they're played for kicks rather than pathos. The cast is terrific, nailing the script's tricky balance of irony and earnestness. Pidgeon, whose wide flirty eyes always hide more than they show, and Martin, who makes you want to like him even when you know you shouldn't, are especially sharp.

And then there's that dialogue, Mamet's signature trait, full of staccato repetitions and double-edged observation. What's missing this time out is the customary profanity—The Spanish Prisoner is rated PG, a trick in itself for Mamet. (My wife does a parody of Glengarry Glen Ross that consists entirely of "F—- you!" "No, f—- you!" "F—- me?" "Yeah, f—- you!") Because he first got famous as a playwright, movie critics tend to characterize his writing as "theatrical." But it's not, exactly. It's a distillation of hard-boiled noir and pulp clichés, coupled with the hyper-naturalism of early TV writers like Paddy Chayefsky. The rhythm of the words counts as much as the words themselves, and there are dazzling passages where mundane conversation starts to seem nearly orchestral.

That said, The Spanish Prisoner has its weaknesses, mainly to do with the mind-bending plot. As you almost expect from this kind of thriller, the resolution feels like a bit of a gyp. And there's a central implausibility that no amount of clever dialogue can camouflage. But then, that's what con games are all about. You pay your money, you have your fun, and if you end up a little ripped off, you've got no one to blame but yourself.

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