Pay Attention: Things are never as they seem with Mamet
BY MARIO M. MULLER
People are not always who they appear to be. So says the character Susan Ricci in David Mamet’s new film, The Spanish Prisoner. Truer words were never spoken. Susan is only one of a dozen or so characters that comprise
Mamet’s immensely intricate and engrossing new film. Cued by music, cadence and voyeuristic camera angles, the first few minutes of the film serves adequate notice to any audience member: Stay alert, pay attention and, for God’s sake, don’t make assumptions. Suffice it to say, the characters aren’t nearly as aware as the audience and therein lies the propulsion for a wonderful Mamet filmic experience.
The plot’s catalyst is fairly straightforward: Joe Ross (played with gullible excellence by Campbell Scott) is the inventor of “The Formula,” a breakthrough which will earn his company a sizable fortune and a distinct market advantage. In typical Mamet literary economy, what this breakthrough is and even what the company does are never revealed. The value of the formula is evoked, however, in stunning detail and, after all, it is the worth which drives the plot. Joe is deeply concerned about the compensation in his new development, but any such inquires to his boss, Mr. Klein (the long missed Ben Gazarra) fall on deaf ears. Anything that is valuable is worth stealing. Again in Mamet high fashion, the more valuable something is, the more circuitous the path to itís acquisition must be.
Author David Mamet is renowned for being an avid poker player and scrupulous researcher of games of deception. The Spanish Prisoner allows him to apply these well honed talents with a surgeon’s accuracy. Not only is the script as well crafted, the direction cajoles our sensibilities into being willing dupes in the great and glorious cause of great entertainment. We give ourselves over to his duplicitous intentions with reckless abandon.
The cast is nearly flawless, welcoming Steve Martin back to the silver screen in the dramatic turn of Jimmy Bell, a role that he was born to play. Martin has mellowed with age and this maturity is much needed in the landscape of casting decisions that Hollywood wrestles with on a weekly basis. Martin’s wit and intelligence, most recently evident in his satiric writing turns in the “Shouts and Murmurs” section of The New Yorker, is harnessed to perfection. His suave and seamless countenance is set in direct contrast to Campbell Scott’s lumbering self-doubting oafishness. Scott, too, has matured into a leading man of some stature. As played by Scott, Joe Ross is the unremarkable everyman whose extraordinary deeds immediately paint a target on his back.
Rounding out the upper echelon of the cast is Rebecca Pidgeon whose portrayal of Susan Ricci, the sympathetic secretary is flawless. We are first introduced to Ricci as she wears a wide, white fedora and sports dark sun glasses on a Caribbean beach. She looks like a movie star and carries herself with the effortless poise of someone in complete control. In short time she becomes a valuable ally to the hapless Ross. In the end it’s her honesty and directness that make Ross turn to her for help in a series of events that lead his life down a slippery slope of disaster. Susan has the knack for repeating things to Ross for emphasis. This propensity for re-elocution should come as no surprise to anyone who has seen either a Mamet play or film. This characteristic repetition builds a hypnotic cadence that beguiles any audience.
Ultimately The Spanish Prisoner seduces and satisfies. The script is tight and filled with gems that if seen on a VCR would have throngs lunging for their rewind buttons. However, the film is not to be missed on the big screen. The rich cast and outstanding writer/director demonstrate a subtle range that will leave you breathless.