DATELINE: MOVIE MASH
Campbell in the Soup
The Spanish Prisoner from 1997 is Kafkaesque. That means the paranoia is palpable. It also means you can kiss off any chance of finding an answer among the questions.
The trailer claimed this movie was on the order of North by Northwest and The Usual Suspects. Those movies knew something about entertaining us with smart characters and witty situations. Don’t look for that in The Spanish Prisoner.
Since we enjoyed both those classic films, we wondered what on earth the critic saw in this film that reminded him of stories with comprehensible plots. There is no satiric humor on old movies, and there is no maddening chase around the country. Instead, you have dull businessmen doing what they always do.
Of course, this is a David Mamet film—so its ambiguity helps it pass muster as cerebral fare.
From the beginning, the businessmen are selling some intangible product called “a process.” From there, you are heading into the world of layers of abstractions. It makes it easier to write and direct if you don’t have any real explanations.
On top of that, the naïve protagonist (Campbell Scott) seems all too trusting when surrounded by bosses, secretaries, partners, and casual acquaintances that cry out for a cursory criminal background check.
Mamet features some beautiful settings and well-respected actors to dress up this enigma wrapped in a mystery plot. Somewhere along the way, the hoodwinked pigeon (Scott) is told about scams called Spanish Prison games.
Oh, that clarifies the potholes in the plot. It also makes it easier to leave open-ended questions as concrete road markers.
Well, we do agree that life is usually full of surprises and double-crosses. It is so hard to find talent and art in commerce that we never expected to find Steve Martin and Ben Gazzara giving us art in a movie.
Campbell gives us a pea-souper for sure.