Thursday, July 12, 2012

On the importance of jumping only to the right conclusions

A bit of a change in theme today - this is a film review, in association with The Wife's "The Best Hitchcock Films Hitchcock Never made" Blogathon, hosted by The Wife's blog, Tales of the Easily Distracted, and Classic Becky's Brain Food.  There's about fifty people writing about films that mimic, honor, flagrantly ransack and are just plain inspired by the work of The Master of Suspence.

Of all the things Hitchcock did well, the finest is how he could place average people in unique situations, and let their paranoia run amok.  Until the moment that his main character seized control of the situation and turned it on his pursuers, they'd be running blind, not knowing who to trust.  Sometimes the audience would have more information than the character did, which served only to increased their shared sense of worry - the character would be having a casual conversation, unaware there was a bomb in the room, set to go off in seconds..

In 1997, much-lauded playwright David Mamet wrote and directed The Spanish Prisoner, a drum tight con-job movie that keeps its main character, repressed genius Joe Ross (Campbell Scott) off-balance almost from the start, for all the wrong reasons.  He's guided happily down, off, and back on the proverbial primrose path throughout the film, and you with him.  Only until the climax of the film are you provided with the traditional bit of extra info that puts you in the lead of Joe, and only for a few minutes.

Joe works for Mr. Klein (Ben Gazzara, a good actor), CEO of a company of no solid description.  Joe has developed a "process" for the company - we never learn more about it, other that it is complicated, promises impossible profit, and must be guarded scrupulously.  In other words, a perfect Hitchcockian McGuffin, or "The thing that everybody wants but nobody knows what it is, and it doesn't matter".  Joe has been brought to a private island in the Caribbean to present the process to Klein's investors, with the assistance of his friend George Lang (magician Ricky Jay) and secretary/assistant Susan Ricci (singer Rebecca Pidgeon, now AKA Mrs David Mamet).  Joe and Susan do not know each other, but they hit it off as Joe allows himself to relax after giving his presentation.  Taking photos of each other on the beach, Joe is approached by a man named Jimmy Dell (Steve Martin in a dead serious and truly astounding role) who was accidentally captured in a photo, and offers Joe $1,000 for the camera.  Instead, Joe hands the camera to Jimmy, no strings attached, a move which moves, and somewhat embarrasses Jimmy.  He and Joe begin chatting - Jimmy is on the island with a princess of a country no longer on the map; Joe remains quiet about why he's there.  After a pleasant evening of drinks, Jimmy asks Joe to "perform a service" for him - he has a small package he'd like Joe to deliver to his sister in New York, and Joe agrees.

"They didn't get OFF the seaplane; they came from the
DIRECTION of the sea plane"
On the plane, Susan, a chatty little ball of enthusiasm, begins to blather on about how people are often not what they appear.  Case in point, Mr. Jimmy Dell.  Susan rambles on about how they don't know anything about the man, he could be anyone.  Joe smiles and nods through her meanderings; it's only when she begins to mention "Drug mules", people who get asked to carry packages for strangers that Joe's ears and nerves prick up.

He tears open the package in the lavatory, only to discover it contains a vintage book on tennis, along with a note to Jimmy's sister, suggesting she get to know the gentleman bearing the gift.  Unfortunately, in his zeal, Joe has damaged the cover.  When they land in New York, he purchases another copy of the book, swaps it in the packaging, and drops it off at the woman's apartment house, too embarrassed to deliver it in person.

Now at this point, Joe's suspicions about Jimmy subside, but the too-smart-for-the-movie audience will suspect that the McGuffin will turn out not to be the process, but the damaged book that Joe innocently exchanged with a copy.  I shall save you time - it's not. 

Joe and Jimmy meet up again in New York, and a friendship grows quickly.  Joe begins to open up about his job, and while not revealing the details of his process, lets slip that he's afraid that he may not be fairly remunerated for his hard work.  Jimmy offers to assist - he suggests they discuss things with a lawyer versed in contract and copyright law. 

But when Joe stops by the apartment house of Jimmy's sister, only to find out that he HAS no sister, Joe begins to realize that he may be blundering into something that could get into great trouble.  He contacts the FBI, and sure enough, they've been after the guy for years.  Joe agrees to help them sting Jimmy.

And believe it or not, THAT'S when things go pear-shaped.

The twist at the halfway point of the movie is sublime in its elegance; the twist near the end is perfectly shocking, especially if you remain naive and don't try to "guess the ending".  I SO want to discuss them in great detail, but since it's a film not many have seen, I'm loath to spoil it for you. 

 As I mentioned before, Hitchcock would often let the audience in on information that the hero does not have - by doing so, he lets you know that a situation is far more dangerous than the hero is aware, so instead of wondering what will happen next, you know damn WELL what will happen next, and are screaming at the screen for him to get outta Dodge. They don't do that at all in this film, save for at the very end, when you realize exactly how long Joe's been getting played. He catches up quickly however, though unlike the usual Hitchcockian hero, he never quite gets the chance to turn the tables to his advantage.  The last moment where we're supposed to hear the whole plot from the villain's lips is a hilarious to a similar expository scene in North by Northwest - in both cases, it points to the fact that the details are, in reality, immaterial.  It doesn't matter that the diamonds are in the badman's left or right shoe, only that he's going to be caught, eventually.

There's one thing I must address, even though it may serve to spoil a surprise to a degree. The eponymous con of the title is never actually pulled in the film. "The Spanish Prisoner" is a classic con, currently being used by endless Nigerian bankers. In it, a person claims to be a refugee dignitary of a foreign country, who was unable to escape with his riches. If you (the mark) can assist him with only a small advance of funds, he will gladly share the riches with you when they are liberated. Sometimes they even have a lovely sister who will be pleased to marry you. With all the window dressing pulled away, Joe falls for a simple slight-of-hand swap known as The Murphy, which I think you'll agree, is not as good a title. Ironically, The Spanish Prisoner is the main con used in one of Steve Martin's OTHER films, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.  Michael Caine is the main con artist in that film, making a good living off of playing an exiled prince, bumming chips off of naive housewives in Monte Carlo.  Steve Martin's the apprentice in that one, and they both end up combating a third con-man, known only as "The Jackal".  But that, as they say, is another story.

Like so many films with a con-job at its core, it's a film that must be watched twice.  Enjoy the first run through with innocent eyes - don't start looking for the tells.  On the second run through, you'll see how expertly not only Joe is set up, but the audience.  The first shot in the film is called back for the final twist, and an offhand comment by Susan while in the tropics serves to put you at ease about something that, again, when you re-watch it, you'll be amazed you missed.  I almost want to write a second essay expressly to be read after watching the film, so as to freely discuss the twists and surprises.

The script, as should be obvious by now, is expert.  The directing is very indicative of Mamet - When we first meet many of the characters, they speak in a very clipped, almost formal tone, in rather short sentences.  They open up and relax a bit as they grow more friendly with each other, but it's an interesting thing to see the change.  Ricky Jay's role is short, but memorable - he passes through the film like a three-piece suited Confucius, dropping pearls of wisdom like "Beware of any enterprise which requires the purchase of new clothes".  As mentioned before, Steve Martin is stellar as Jimmy Dell - a perfectly straight performance, without so much as a double-take.  He was so good, I'd sorely love to see him in another film with no laughs.

Sgt. Bilko doesn't count.


  1. Vinnie, I love you AND your SPANISH PRISONER blog post! It's as suspenseful as it is gleefully tricky, and it's swell to see Steve Martin in one of his rare straight movie roles. It's so quotable, too; in addition to the " clothes" quote, one of my favorite lines here is "Worry is like interest paid in advance on a debt that never comes due." You did a steller jab -- but you knew that! :-)

  2. This is a really well-written post and now I won't be satisfied until I've seen this movie. Thanks for recommending...and thanks for not giving away the ending!

  3. I'd never heard of this movie, Vinnie. In fact at first I mistook the title for that of another movie completely different. I was unaware that Campbell Scott had ever starred in a movie, especially a movie of this type.

    My recent memory of Steve Martin (whom I adore in his earlier films such as ROXANNE, etc.) is his awful appearance in that Meryl Streep movie in which he looks as if a mad doctor had given him a face-lift and left it half finished. OMG!

    Anyway, I'm not big on this sort of movie but you've made me wonder what on earth? So I'm adding it to my queue, if it's on Netflix. :)

  4. I think this was the first movie where I noticed how good Steve Martin could be as a dramatic actor. Mamet movies are hit or miss for me; this was a definite hit.