Thursday, June 4, 2009

The Spanish Prisoner


The Spanish Prisoner, directed and written (and overwritten) by David Mamet, is a convoluted twist on the thriller genre, a daytime neo-noir in which an ordinary working Joe (Campbell Scott, whose character really is named Joe, in case we miss the point; he's ordinary!) is set up as the fall guy for a pretty ambitious and well-organized ring of thieves and con artists. It's a tricky plot, and Mamet never lets his audience forget just how tricky it is, just as he never lets anyone forget that he's a writer, or maybe preferably a Writer. And boy can he write. One gets the sense, listening to his dialogue, that he just loves to write, that he loves the sound of his own words, that he loves the wordplay and clever twisting of familiar quotes and clichés to new purposes. One does not get the sense that he has ever actually heard the way real people talk, or that he has any feel for (or interest in) writing in such a way that actors can actually deliver his lines without coming across as stilted and inhuman. Maybe he doesn't care, maybe he's quite content creating this stylized Mamet world where these humanoid figures sort of look and sometimes act like people, but speak as though they learned about human interactions by studying amateur productions of Shakespeare. There's stylized dialogue that works (His Girl Friday, still the model for artificial but infectious patter), and then there's stylized dialogue that merely calls attention to its own stylization without compensating for it by being, you know, clever or fun or intelligent. Maybe you can guess which category this falls into: "Money, it depresses everyone but what did it ever do for one?"

Yeah. That clunker comes courtesy of the suave con man Jimmy Dell (Steve Martin), the ringleader of a very involved plot intended to wrangle poor Joe into giving up the big secret he's just invented for his company. It's obvious from the start that Dell is up to no good, and Mamet skillfully establishes this fact without a word or an overt revelation. The film's first half moves with a kind of clockwork inevitability, setting up the delicate structures that will soon come crashing in around Joe. Mamet gives each seemingly innocuous incident, each object, each moment, a portentous quality. His camera moves subtly call attention to key details, underlining them, as though to say, "remember this, it'll be important later." A photograph of Jimmy's sister, a club membership certificate, a pontoon plane, a book about tennis: objects take on great significance here. It's not clear exactly what's going on, but it's certainly clear that something is up, and that all is not as it seems.

This is masterful filmmaking, perfectly calibrated, and Mamet's visual acuity becomes even more apparent in the second half when his camera moves begin to mirror those in the first half, this time exposing new aspects of the situation. There's a camera move — a pan across the screen of an airport baggage X-ray machine — that's repeated several times, each time treated with the importance of a big moment, a climactic reveal, and then each time allowed to pass without fuss. It becomes routine, so by the time Mamet repeats the shot towards the end of the film, at a pivotal moment, it becomes startling again, devastating even. Mamet knows how to use repetition and patterns, how to tweak audience expectations. In the film's second half, as Joe revisits familiar places, subtle shifts in framing reveal previously unseen facets. It's as though the world is simply an elaborate theater set, and Joe had never before bothered to peek around the edges, to see that what he assumed was the whole picture was in fact only a 2D façade. When he finally looks deeper, the audience gets a peek as well.


As admirable as Mamet's filmmaking is, there's also something disturbingly schematic about all this, something mechanical that goes beyond his tortured dialogue to the structure of the film itself. It's a convoluted web of cons and deceit and games, with elaborate fake organizations and false identities, and multiple layers of reality being peeled away as the protagonist struggles through his predicament. But beneath all the games, all the lies and treacheries, what's there? It's perhaps making the same point that Mamet made in Glengarry Glen Ross, that a life dedicated to business and money is an empty, pointless life, but it's still hard to escape the conclusion that this is also an empty, pointless movie at its core, a con as shallow as Jimmy's labyrinthine tricks. There are plenty of movies like this, of course, entertainments whose whole point is to twist the audience up into knots. And at that, it's a pretty good example of the genre — certainly much better than Tony Gilroy's recent Duplicity, which seems to have stolen whole sections of this film's plot and ethos but wasn't nearly as interesting (even before I realized that Mamet did it first).

Taken as a twisty thriller, The Spanish Prisoner is certainly enjoyable enough, and it's interesting that Mamet makes little attempt to hide his villains. Instead, he places everyone under suspicion almost immediately, then delays the moment when he outs the crooks, leaving the audience with the impression that some of these people will turn out to be corrupt, while others are red herrings. Not so; everyone's corrupt, everyone's a crook, and there are no red herrings here. It's a clever variation on thriller conventions, since Mamet manages to craft a twist from the revelation that there is no twist, that everything you've suspected all along is true. He encourages, and then confirms, the audience's natural paranoia. He can do all this because his craft is carefully honed and precise. He has a subtle way of handling the scenes of corporate espionage and treachery, using a light touch to imply rather than state things outright. At one point, Joe's secretary Susan (Mamet's wife Rebecca Pidgeon) is turned away from Joe, talking to someone else, while he places his mysterious notes into a safe behind her. Mamet stages the scene with Susan in the foreground, seemingly talking to someone offscreen, but obviously paying some attention to what's going on behind her; you can see the mental gears turning.

It's a great scene, and probably Pidgeon's best moment of acting here, because once she opens her mouth it takes an enormous effort of will power not to punch one's hand through the TV screen. There's no way to be diplomatic about this: she's bad, so bad that she manages to make everyone else delivering Mamet's clunky dialogue look amazing. No one here can quite get a handle on the stilted rhythms — Steve Martin, in a fine performance, comes closest, though even he can't get across Mamet's worst stinkers, like the line I quoted above — but Pidgeon is painfully bad, a bundle of quirky mannerisms and weird vocal inflections. She is perfectly suited to Mamet's dialogue, which is not necessarily a compliment. She seems to have actually come from this weird Mamet planet where everyone speaks English like they're sounding out the words phonetically because their first language is Martian. She does get one of the film's better moments, though, a love scene where she tells Joe, with laconic understatement, "I'm fond of you," then cheerfully chirps "crikey!" after he kisses her. (Of course, that this rich moment winds up being part of an empty deceit is only more evidence of the film's failure to invest its serpentine plot with anything deeper.)

Nevertheless, Mamet crafts moments like this frequently enough that it's apparent he's a talented auteur, that he has sensitivity and humor and panache, both visual and verbal. The Spanish Prisoner is not a bad movie by any means, despite all its problems, but it makes it absolutely clear that the biggest limitation and obstacle in Mamet's filmmaking is Mamet himself. The film's best moments and its worst ones are those sequences where Mamet is most apparent, where his intervention is unmistakable, either behind the camera or in the stylized dialogue. It's tempting to wish for him to step away a bit, to let things play out naturally, to tone down his worst verbal indulgences. But the paradox of this film is that its greatest attributes arise from and are tangled with its excesses and failings. For better or worse, one pretty much has to take Mamet as he is, to take his verbal stylization along with his crisp visual storytelling, to accept his flat characters as intertwined with his satisfyingly elaborate plots.

26 comments:

Greg said...

Don't tell Bill about this.

I liked this movie for its twist and turns and have always liked that kind of thing anyway but I too felt Mamet's dialogue in this movie was pretty bad. However, depending on the work, like American Buffalo or Glengarry Glen Ross, I think he makes the dialogue work for the characters more often than not.

Ed Howard said...

Oops, guess I shouldn't have emailed him the link. I hear he kills people.

I usually enjoy twisty thriller plots, too, and this one was good at it, but man that dialogue is just distractingly bad. I'm going to keep giving Mamet a chance, because he obviously has talent, but I'm starting to wonder if he's just not for me.

Jason Bellamy said...

Terrific review. I haven't seen this film in years and I barely remember it, but the Mamet issue is of course familiar to me.

"One does not get the sense that he has ever actually heard the way real people talk, or that he has any feel for (or interest in) writing in such a way that actors can actually deliver his lines without coming across as stilted and inhuman. Maybe he doesn't care, maybe he's quite content creating this stylized Mamet world where these humanoid figures sort of look and sometimes act like people, but speak as though they learned about human interactions by studying amateur productions of Shakespeare."

That's very well said. Of course, the same could be said of Tarantino. I've yet to find Mamet's writing profound, but others do. Likewise, I don't gush for Tarantino, in general, but I find his dialogue more musical. (Actually: Let me refine that ... I guess do gush for QT's dialogue; I'm just tired of the majority of his characters all sounding nearly identical.)

I watched GGR recently and I just marvel that there are people who go weak at the knees for Mamet. I respect the contrary opinions, of course. But save for a few moments here and there, it doesn't compute for me at all.

It seems to me that dialogue -- no matter how genius -- can only handle the spotlight for so long before wilting. When I watched GGR, I felt like just about every scene would have been more effective at half the length.

Then again, Shakespeare is words, words, words. To each his own, I guess.

bill r. said...

How shall I put this:

I disagree with you. Yeah, that's pretty good, I think.

Look, how can I argue my side, at least regarding his dialogue? I can say -- and will -- that I do not understand AT ALL how you can watch Glengarry Glen Ross and come away thinking that Mamet doesn't understand how people talk. Yes, it's stylized, but good Lord, man! I'm honestly left speechless. And Greg mentioned American Buffalo, which you never claim to have seen or read (the film version, by the way, isn't very good), so take this all with a grain of salt, I guess, but, well...Greg's right. I don't know how anyone can hear Teach complaining, regarding an order of bacon that was delivered to him from a nearby diner, that "they fucked it up too burnt" and not laugh in recognition at the odd, twisted phrasing most people use when they're speaking off-the-cuff.

The Spanish Prisoner, and other Mamet films, are a bit of a different prospect, and I can't -- not at the moment, anyway -- argue you into understanding why I think most of the dialogue just sings. Note that I said "most", because I won't deny that Mamet has a few clunkers to his name, but his stuff just speaks to me. I respond instantly to it. The dialogue in The Spanish Prisoner isn't an exact reproduction of human speech, nor is it meant to me. To me, it's a fascinating and entertaining and musical adaptation of it.

Also, I think you're overthinking the "Joe" thing. For the last several years, Mamet has had a thing for that name. Some of his characters named Joe are ordinary, many aren't, but you can find it in Heist, Spartan, State and Main and Redbelt. He just likes the name.

Joshua said...

I liken Mamet to Chayefsky, albeit not as brilliant. He makes stylistic, as opposed to realistic, choices with his dialogue and I respect him for that. While SP does nothing for me, I really do enjoy GGR, but I reckon it's a case of poor casting. Some actors can handle stylized dialogue and some can't, and while plenty of the actors in GGR can, in my opinion, no one in SP shows that capability.

bill r. said...

Also, I find it curious that you posted this review on the same day I found out that Dennis apparently loved Mamet's Homicide (I don't know the specifics, but he gave it ***1/2 on that "Marquee" thing he has going). He's also not a big Mamet fan, and I've been pushing that one on him for a while. So it's one step forward, one step back for us Mamet folk.

Ed Howard said...

Bill, I know I'm complaining about pretty subjective things -- if you think the dialogue "sings," nothing I can say will convince you otherwise, just as I can't hear Mamet's writing as anything other than grating and stilted. For the most part, I'm with Jason on this one: Tarantino's dialogue is equally stylized and artificial, but I can feel its rhythms, I understand its relationship to real people. Mamet hasn't done that for me so far, it all feels too writerly, somehow. Yes, even in Glengarry, which everyone seems to love but I felt like I was hearing the same few lines being repeated over and over again for two hours. As Jason said, any given scene could have been cut in half with not much loss. For what it's worth, I enjoyed this movie much more, though that's not exactly a high bar to sail over. Mamet's direction is a lot let hamfisted than Foley's on Glengarry, too: a lot less of the aggravating shot/countershot cutting where the two people in the conversation seem to be in totally different room. (Although there's an unintentionally funny conversation between Martin and Scott early on in this movie, where they seem to be in different cities, the cutting is so abrupt.)

And yes, I've only been exposed to Mamet through 2 films so far, so I have more to watch. Though I'm not exactly in a rush for obvious reasons.

Greg said...

for us Mamet folk.

Are Mamet folk like the Amish? Can you help me raise a barn later?

Kevin J. Olson said...

This is a great review Ed. Count me among the Mamet folk, but I can understand how one thinks that Mamet's recent slate (starting with The Spanish Prisoner) is a tad grating. Also, the line you mention from this film about money reminds me of the much better line from Heist when Danny Devito spouts out this gem: "everyone needs money, that's why they call it money." Come on...that's gold!

You're right about Pidgeon who is the caveat that comes with every Mamet picture. I think The Spanish Prisoner, for as convoluted as it is, is one of his most enjoyable con films; but House of Games and Heist are better representations of how good he can be at the neo-noir genre and when he gets actors who can say his dialogue withouth sounfing so stiff (DeVito in Heist is the perfect example of an actor who can do Mamet).

I think that Mamet excels when he steps outside of these con films. Bill mentioned Homicide, a criminally underrated film with great performances by William H. Macy and Mamet stalwart Joe Mantegna. Spartan and Red Belt are two other examples of when he focuses less on deceiving the audience and more on the action that Mamet can be a damn fine director who isn't always obsessed with his dialogue.

And I was going to mention the Joe thing, but it looks Bill beat me to it.

In response to Jason and Ed's comments about Glengary Glenn Ross: count me among those who think the dialogue is brilliant. It's a test of ones patience, that's for sure, but just like any good pop song, repetition is key, and so it is with Mamet's words, too. But I'm with you guys on how something like "getting" Mamet's dialogue or not is a wholly subjective thing and I can understand why people don't like it. I have read some people who think it's an imperial fact that Mamet is brilliant writing, and even though I agree with them, I can certainly see why those who don't like it...don't like it; and Ed, you essay here is a perfect defense of that opinion.

Now I think I hear the English ringing the bell...time to fuckin' raise a fuckin' barn (sorry that was my lame call bck to Greg's Amish comment...what would the Amish be like through Mamet's eyes?).

Dave (Goodfelladh) said...

I too found the dialogue in Glengarry Glen Ross to be brilliant.. in this film, not nearly as much. But I thought everything flowed really well with Glengarry.

Sam Juliano said...

I won't say much here, as the comment thread nearly matches the actual review in its excellence. I much preferred GLENGARRRY and HOUSE OF GAMES. I'll leave it at that.

bill r. said...

Kevin - I think Homicide is Mamet's masterpiece. And on the Criterion forums, I've heard talk of a release...

Kevin J. Olson said...

Bill:

That would be wonderful. The House of Games Criterion is one of the best purchases I've made. I need to re-visit Homicide, aside from the performances I seem to remember some really bizarre language in the film (and by language I mean profanity, especially that of the racial kind...or am I getting my movies mixed up?). It's been about ten years since I've seen it...time to add it to the queue.

Kevin J. Olson said...

Hmm. Doesn't appear to be on DVD yet, so the Criterion would be the official release here in the States. I guess I'll need to pull out the VHS...and my friends laughed at me for keeping my antiquated forms of entertainment. Ha! to them.

bill r. said...

No, you're probably thinking of Homicide. It's been a little while since I've seen it, too, but racial language/profanity features pretty heavily throughout.

And I don't think you can add it to the queue...I don't think there's been a DVD yet.

Ed Howard said...

As I told Bill by e-mail, I did try to watch Homicide on his recommendation, but discovered that the only copies available anywhere -- even online -- are pan-and-scanned to full-frame, which as far as I'm concerned is no way to see a movie, especially not if I want to give Mamet another fair shot. I hope Criterion does release it so I can check it out.

Eric said...

This is one of Mamet's best. The dialogue is brilliant, and know some people that really do speak that way...I'm not kidding either. Absolutely brilliant.

Steve-O said...

yeah... I have to disagree about most of this. First, what's wrong with a movie not written in common-spoken language? I saw - for example - The Watchmen this winter and I could almost guess what was coming out of their mouths before they said it. I usually make it a game to see if I can guess the next line - especially with overdone dreck that goes on for 3 hours.

But back to The Spanish Prisoner: Do you really want to hear con men talk like people on the train discussing last week's Family Guy or the Yankees game? I don't. Classic film noir used their own language. Billy Wilder and Chandler (and Cain) created a speak that was totally unique. I'm sure there's some reviews of Double Indemnity that complained that they didn't talk like people really talk. Shakespeare didn't write like people talk either... I'm not saying that Mamet is in that class. I am saying there's something challenging and wonderful watching a story unfold with a language that's unique but at the same time understandable. The Brick is another good example... I was bowled over by the words not the plot.

No, I love this movie. Being a fan of The Big Con I was in my glory. All of the cons are actually based on real-life cons making the film even more tasty. I wish Steve Martin did more films like this than his more mainstream stuff.

The Spanish Prisoner: Speaking in riddles and circles... just like the plot of the movie.

Ed Howard said...

Steve, I hope I made it clear that I *do* like many movies with stylized dialogue -- Tarantino and His Girl Friday have been specifically mentioned, and there are many, many more. My objections are not to stylized dialogue in general but to the specific qualities of Mamet's stylization. Namely, the stilted rhythms of it, the way it's continually calling attention to the writer behind the scenes rather than reflecting on the characters, who are pretty thin and flat. Mamet's stylization doesn't seem to me to serve any greater purpose, and on top of that it's frequently not even clever -- it's often clunky and awkward and just bad. In my opinion, of course. Obviously many people love Mamet's dialogue; more power to them.

I did think Martin was generally very good in this, and it did make me think that he could expand beyond his mainstream comedies if he wanted to (or if he got offered more meaty roles where he could stretch himself). It's a good performance, perfectly getting across the smug, smarmy character of this con man.

Craig said...

I saw this movie again just recently and still got a kick out of it. Not enough credit is given to Campbell Scott, whose performance walks just the right line -- a well-meaning dupe who grows a spine. He also does well with Mamet's dialogue which, even when clunky, still makes me laugh. ("Dog my cats, indeed.")

Pidgeon is an odd actress, and the case could be made that she's bad here -- yet bad in a fascinating way. Normally she's hard to get a bead on but I thought she was terrific in "State and Main," a rare foray into comedy that Mamet should attempt more often. His more recent shell-games have teetered on self-parody and suggest he's growing bored with the genre, but "The Spanish Prisoner" was made at a time when he was having fun and improving his visual storytelling, something many playwrights turned filmmakers never quite master.

Craig said...

>>"Money, it depresses everyone but what did it ever do for one?"<<

Mamet fared better with a somewhat inverted line in "Heist," uttered by Danny DeVito, who's always had a way with avarice: "Everybody needs money -- that's why they call it money!" Which, incidentally, spawned a hilariously long-running dialogue on Roger Ebert's
"Answer Man" column, where scores of readers asked Ebert to explain why the line was funny.

bill r. said...

Pidgeon is an odd actress, and the case could be made that she's bad here -- yet bad in a fascinating way. Normally she's hard to get a bead on but I thought she was terrific in "State and Main"...

Agreed. I held back on admitting to an affinity for Pidgeon because I thought people would pile on, because that's so like you guys, but sometimes Pidgeon does have a certain...something. Not here, maybe, but definitely in State and Main and, if memory serves, at least in Winslow Boy as well.

Radiation Cinema! said...

Hello, Ed: You have struck upon the thing about Mamet (the odd rhythms and writerly dialogue) that make him a bit much at times. When it doesn't work, it really doesn't work. Have you seen The Heist? Ouch. It is at it's best in Glengarry Glen Ross, but it seems to take a magical assortment of actors to make his odd speech patterns and stylized verbiage not sound like over uber writing. I’ve never been able to figure out why I like him so much. I think it must be the soft spot I have for Don Ameche and Joe Montegna in Things Change. -- Mykal

Reid said...

I was the publicist on "The Spanish Prisoner" (as well as "State and Main" and "The Winslow Boy") and I'm pretty sure that Rebecca's "Crikey" was her line. That is to say, either she improvised it or Mamet just heard it a lot because he was married to her. My memory is the former. --Reid Rosefelt

Ryan Kelly said...

I've never seen the film, but something has always struck me as deliberately anti-realistic with respect to Mamet's dialogue. Yes, there are rings of the way people talk--- but it's morphed into this kind of rhytmic beat of characters exchanging there most pure thoughts and desires. I dig it, in short.

Anonymous said...

Aside from the multitude of plot holes, I found the movie enjoyable, and for some unknown reason Rebecca Pidgeon is hot.