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 fa├žade 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 New York. 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.

Back in New York, 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 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 Venezuela. Ross goes to George's apartment and finds him stabbed to death.

Ross is now on the run and goes to Susan. They decide that he should go back to the island from Boston 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 Caribbean 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 Japanese tourists."

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.

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