Smart 'Spanish Prisoner' is a good mental workout


"The Spanish Prisoner" is the ultimate David Mamet movie, a cerebral thriller that combines the cat's cradle of con artistry featured in "House of Games" and the corporate paranoia of "Glengarry Glen Ross" (which Mamet wrote but didn't direct).

Indeed, the smooth attractiveness of "The Spanish Prisoner" -- the title refers to a famous con -- makes those two films look like rough-edged works in progress.

But it also throws Mamet's weaknesses as a director into sharp relief. "The Spanish Prisoner" is so superbly controlled, so carefully calibrated that it is denuded of human warmth. His characters crackle with intelligence, their motivations at once opaque and transparent (nobody is what they seem, and yet they're perfectly consistent), but Mamet zaps them of recognizable organic life. His movies are perfect to a fault.

Still, for filmgoers who share Mamet's fascination with words, the obscurity of human motivations and the singular beauty of a trick well-played, "The Spanish Prisoner" will provide a wealth of brainy delights.

Campbell Scott, bearing an uncanny physical resemblance to Mamet, plays corporate drone Joe Ross, who has invented a process (mysteriously called "The Process") by which his company stands to make billions. "The Spanish Prisoner" opens as Ross and an associate (Ricky Jay) arrive at a tropical-island company getaway to pitch the idea to their boss (Ben Gazzara). The meeting goes well -- Joe even strikes up friendships, with a pretty secretary (Rebecca Pigeon) and a wealthy tourist (Steve Martin) -- and he returns to New York flush with his imminent success.

Then, things start to go very, very wrong.

The joy of "The Spanish Prisoner" lies on its surface, in watching its permutations multiply and unfold in accordion-like waves. And it has a look and sound to it: Tim Galvin's spare production design makes every locale look vaguely like a prison, and Carter Burwell's resonant music score adds emotional weight. But to delve deeply in "The Spanish Prisoner" -- to search for any sweat or soul or sloppy emotion in its characters -- is folly. As beautifully controlled as the film is, as architecturally sound and pleasing in its details, the film has a chilly, hermetic quality.

The characters, who intertwine in fascinating and unpredictable patterns, are particularly problematic -- not so much in the way they're written but in the way they're characterized. There's a tendency in Mamet's films for the actors to announce their lines in loud, declarative statements; the dialogue sounds like it's being projected for the cheap seats (or idiots). In "The Spanish Prisoner," the effect is particularly offputting, especially in the case of Pigeon, whose arch appeal is undercut by her stagy delivery of the character's repartee.

But even with these idiosyncrasies, "The Spanish Prisoner" represents a welcome note of true intelligence to the screen -- its plot is so smart that it makes the so-called convoluted "L.A. Confidential" look like a Bazooka bubble-gum cartoon.

As long as filmgoers don't mind having their heads engaged rather than their hearts, "The Spanish Prisoner" is an ideal, inviting diversion for grown-ups -- who are advised to stock up on brain food as the monsters of summer approach.

'The Spanish Prisoner'

Starring Campbell Scott, Rebecca Pigeon, Steve Martin, Ben Gazzara, Ricky Jay, Felicity Huffman

Directed by David Mamet

Released by Sony Pictures Classics

Rated PG (thematic elements, including tension, some violent images and brief language)

Sun Score: ***

Pub Date: 5/01/98

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