Twist for twist, David Mamet’s 1987 House of Games was one of the movies’ most satisfying we’ve-been-had productions. The labyrinthine beaut, which also marked the writer’s debut as a movie director, reveled in the double-crosses men do to each other just because they can; the audience thrill lay in observing the scam, and being scammed nevertheless. In The Spanish Prisoner (Sony Pictures Classics), a tight, mathematically pleasing exercise in con-manship, Mamet returns to the coolly observed turf he knows well, and pulls off another fine, bitter, intellectual heist.
The title, as one character explains, refers to an old con game, in which one man promises another a share of his wealth and the hand of his beautiful sister if only the mark will help pay for the safe passage of the money and the girl — both stuck, alas, in a foreign country. Here, the mark appears to be Joe Ross (Big Night‘s Campbell Scott, wearing just the right expression of naivete), who’s worried that he’s not being rightfully rewarded by his boss (Ben Gazzara) for a valuable invention known only as The Process. The chief con artist appears to be shady, rich businessman Jimmy Dell (a dark Steve Martin, born to play a Mamet man), who, after a chance meeting with Joe on a sterilely beautiful Caribbean island, promises to help him — and, by the way, set Joe up with his beautiful sister in New York.
But it’s everyone else around these two one needs to wonder about: Joe’s office buddy (Mamet regular Ricky Jay); his boss; the wide-eyed secretary who has a big, golly-gee crush on Joe (Mamet’s wife, Rebecca Pidgeon, speaking her husband’s lines with disconcertingly fine diction and zero emotion); even an FBI agent (Felicity Huffman, another longtime Mametian). As the plot twists and twists again, Mamet taunts the audience for daring to trust anyone, then teases us with the notion, expressed by Jimmy, that ”people aren’t that complicated…good people, bad people, they generally look like what they are.”
The contradiction doesn’t amount to much — unlike in the filmmaker’s Glengarry Glen Ross, say, or American Buffalo, or even Things Change, there’s not enough emotional payoff for us to care about the souls of these sly foxes. But the pleasures in being gulled by a master are, once again, considerable. B+