The Spanish prisoner is an old con game, Mamet tells us. But then, so is the movie thriller: a genre about sucking us into an exotic world full of promise only to spite us with sadistic fantasies. A genre that sets out to torture the dark neurotic corners of the things we Hate About Ourselves. Mamet knows nothing lies better than a convincing picture. But, as Hitchcock knew, to get the trick to work you've got to know how far you can push the con.A poker player knows a few tricks about what to hold on to and what to throw away and Mamet plays them here, in this tricky, amusing flick, very like his 1987 debut House of Games. Except The Spanish Prisoner is better: it's smarter, faster and it offers, in amongst the tortuous aphorisms of Mametspeak, and the intricate plotting that is a pure joy to watch unfold, a severe critique of how people "do business" these days.
For instance, his hero Joe (Scott), a coolly brilliant man with a transparent yearning for recognition. He's developed the Process: a multi million dollar earner for Gazzara's obscure little company and yet, he still complains about money/status. If that weren't enough to mark him out, one look at his fey, wire rim spectacles and you know, this guy is a sap.
Then there's Pidgeon's secretary Susan. She thinks Joe's cute and she thinks his new pal, the mysterious Manhattan millionaire Jimmy (Martin, excellent) isn't who he says he is. Maybe she's right, but who's Susie?
Mamet has learnt his Hitchcock well. The Spanish Prisoner takes Joe's vulnerability, and turns it into a cruel joke; just when things get bad for him, Mamet makes it worse. But better than the droll-thrills-errant-form of an expertly calibrated thriller mechanism is Mamet's obsessions and his painful insights about power and behaviour.That is, people aren't conditioned to seek the truth of what they see - they'd rather believe what they already know. And that's dangerous. --- Peter Galvin