Sunday, August 23, 2015
The Spanish Prisoner
SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.
David Mamet again explores the thin line between what appears to be legal and legitimate and the dark side of the human soul that lies beneath that outward, supposedly civilized façade in this 1998 film.
Joe Ross (Campbell Scott), under contract by a firm headed by a Mr. Klein (Ben Gazzara), has developed a "process" which is worth a fortune. The mathematical equations which describe this breakthrough are written down in a binder, which is placed in a safe to which only Ross and Klein have the key. Ross, his words-of-wisdom spouting partner, George (Ricky Jay Lang), Klein, and a newly employed secretary, Susan (Rebecca Pidgeon) fly to a
Caribbean island to firm up the deal
between the principals. Ross and Susan run into Jimmy Dell (Steve Martin – no
joking around in this role) who appears to be coming off of a seaplane with a
beautiful Japanese woman. Tourist pictures are taken, and Dell offers Ross a
thousand dollars for his camera without giving a reason. Later Dell meets Ross and says that he didn't
want the picture to get out because the woman is a princess who is married. She
was sent off to wherever her unnamed principality exists. Susan has drinks with
a woman who turns out to be an FBI agent, named McCune (Felicity Huffman).
Dell and Ross become chummy. Dell asks Ross to drop off a gift for his sister in
Ross wants something specific from Klein as to how much he is going to be paid
for his contracted work, but gets only vague reassurances. Susan, who openly
starts to flirt with Ross, plants the seed of suspicion in Ross about Dell,
saying that they didn't really see him come from the plane. She also says people
sometimes use others as "mules" to smuggle contraband. She says what
becomes the theme of the film: "Things
aren't what they seem." Ross opens the gift that Dell gave him for his
sister, and sees that it is only a book about tennis, with a broken spine.
, Ross gets a new book and drops it off with the
doorman at the sister's building. Dell and Ross have dinner at the former's
club, but it is a "members only" night, so Ross signs a certificate
which makes him a member. Also, Ross and Dell talk about bank accounts and
jokingly Dell opens up a Swiss bank account for Ross. When Ross makes known to
Dell that he questions Klein's good intentions, Dell says that he should meet
with his attorney and bring the process along. Ross begins to suspect Dell when
he goes to the sister's home to give another gift and sees that she is not a
young tennis player but is really an old woman.
Ross contacts McCune, and she implies the FBI has been after Dell, which
is why she was in the islands. She and her agents meet Ross in NY's New
York Central Park for a sting. He brings the process, and they
set him up with a wire. Dell never shows up and all the agents disappear. Ross
calls the FBI and finds out that McCune was a fraud, and the binder he now has
of the process is blank. It was all a scam – Dell's office and club were fakes.
The police now suspect Ross, since he spent lavishly on himself, (the money was
really from partner George's casino winnings, which he also used to buy a first
class ticket for Susan). Ross has a Swiss bank account and the dining club membership he signed was really a request
for asylum in .
Ross goes to George's apartment and finds him stabbed to death. Venezuela
Ross is now on the run and goes to Susan. They decide that he should go back to the island from
and retrieve the video surveillance tape of Dell so that the FBI will be able
to go after the career criminal. Before
he flies off using the round trip ticket he bought for Susan, he remembers that
he has Dell's fingerprints on the first tennis book. We now realize that Susan is in on the scam
because she gives Ross a camera bag with a gun in it so that airport security
would arrest him. Ross also sees Susan with the fake McCune. He wants to go on
a ferry back to New York, and sees that Susan
has swapped his plane ticket for one to Venezuela to implicate Ross
further. He grabs Susan and they get on the boat before Huffman and others can
catch up. Ross makes known to Susan that he knows she is part of the plot.
However, Dell is on the boat. Ross goes to the back and a Japanese man places a
microphone on Ross' lapel and tells him to get Dell to tell him where the
process is located. The audience does not hear Dell's response which is drowned
out by a ship horn. Just as Dell is ready to shoot Ross, a young Japanese woman
shoots Dell with a tranquilizer dart. He and Susan are arrested. The Japanese
man and woman work for the U.S. Marshall Service, and they have been tracking
Dell. Klein was the one setting it up because he wanted the process for
himself. (How else would they know what the binder looked like – if the plot
were tighter, Ross should realize the fact that there had to be someone working
on the inside at the company).
Mamet uses the "appearance versus reality theme" in many ways here. Dell, Susan, McCune and Klein all appear to be legit, but are really part of a conspiracy. Ross, looking like the clean-cut Boy Scout who has been played, surprisingly is able to sort things out. Mamet has fun with the Japanese motif. Klein paints the Japanese as evil, by saying to Ross not to double-cross him and sell the process to the Japanese. The Japanese "princess" is not really royalty. Japanese are referred to in the
as being tourists with cameras all over the place. In the end, there are
Japanese Americans posing as foreign tourists who are the real government
agents who save the day. As the NY policeman says, "nobody suspects
The appearance versus reality theme is reinforced by Mamet's words which sound cryptic, using unfinished sentences reminiscent of the Watergate Tapes. He writes the script so that one word, such as "look" repeated differently in a short span takes on different meanings. There are also the repeated times that people are referred to as having the flu. George becomes sick. Dell says his sister can't meet them because she has the flu. Even Susan calls her place of work, saying she is sick with the flu so she can "help" Ross. These references tell us that there is something rotten in the state of Mamet.
Next week’s movie is Rebel Without a Cause.