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.