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The Spanish Prisoner

The Spanish Prisoner

1998. Directed by David Mamet. With Campbell Scott, Rebecca Pidgeon, Steve Martin, Ricky Jay


This is a flashy and clever movie, but what's it really up to? Hoax movies use their reversals and revelations to keep us off balance, so disoriented that it's only later that we go back and try to reconstruct who knew what when. This is the point at which such stories fall apart—at least as plausible ways for anyone to go about committing a robbery (House of Games), a hijacking (The Usual Suspects) or a murder (Vertigo). Those three movies stick in the mind because they are about something more than the perfect crime. They hint at how the human love for stories (or romance, or transcendence, call it what you like) leaves us vulnerable to fraud.

Look at The Spanish Prisoner. Once the fun wears off, it appears so full of improbabilities, coincidences, and outright narrative clunkers that it's hard to take seriously. The elaborate criminal plot here depends on a young, disaffected inventor having control of the only copy of his corporation's valuable Formula, and his being free (and stupid enough) to tote this document around with him. It also depends on his impulsively deciding to treat his secretary to a first-class plane trip home; his deciding to call in an FBI agent he met once (rather than, say, the police); his willingness to sign documents without reading them; on his just happening to recognize a car on a New York street and thus re-kindling a key relationship; his stumbling at just the right moment on the fact that the woman he has been pursuing doesn't exist, etc. Any con artist who left as much to chance as Jimmy Dell (Steve Martin) does in The Spanish Prisoner would be out of business quick. Movie scenarists are able to arrange for things to happen as required, but mere humans don't have this kind of control over time, space, and their victims' impulses. As Robin Wood writes about Vertigo,". . .the plot hinges on a wild improbability: not so much that a man who has seen the woman he loves fall from a height should not stay to make sure she's dead, as that the murderer should count on his not doing so."

Are we supposed to take The Spanish Prisoner seriously as a caper film? One tip-off that the joke's on us is that movie is misnamed; the game in the film is not a classic "Spanish Prisoner" con at all. Another is the way it disposes of the motivation behind the whole thing with a desultory last minute explanation— "Your boss was behind it all"—that sounds hasty and dumb. Now, I have in the past been baffled by the hackneyed pieces of plot development that Mamet sometimes relies on (the discovery of Ricky Jay's death is so predictable that you think it can't be serious). But let's give him the benefit of the doubt, and assume that he is not interested in making an "intellectual thriller" but actually afer something else.

That "something else" is an essay about acting, script-writing, movie-making, and the artistic process in general. The Spanish Prisoner reminds us, both diegetically and extra-diegetically, that people can pretend to be what they aren't, that our judgments about who's "sincere" and who's "lying" can't be credited, and that although creations such as fiction films can be rigged to look spontaneous, they are in fact totally controlled. I don't mean that this movie aims to teach us to be wary about trusting our fellow man. But it does alert us to be wary of "art."

What we see in The Spanish Prisoner (as in, I have argued, Vertigo) is not one character misleading another, but manipulation of all characters—and the audience above all—from above. In fiction, characters (and events, and physical objects) do what the director wants them to do. Everything happens as laid out in some master plan—and if it doesn't, you reshoot. This is the difference between art and life. Con games provide a great text for this lesson, because they work at the intersection of the two. The confidence artists are able to recruit real people to play a predetermined part in a script. (San Francisco recently suffered a rash of the "lost wallet" con, which the police described as "pure street theater"). But no working con artist would ever try something where so many pieces had to fall into place just so. As soon as things get elaborate, the ultimate confidence man stands revealed: we have been recruited for a role in a meta-script, where the filmmaker is pulling the con and we have joined the victims.

It is significant that The Spanish Prisoner turns on a snapshot that will supposedly prove that Jimmy Dell didn't really disembark from a luxury seaplane as Joe assumed, but merely seemed to. In placing so much weight upon photographic evidence, Mamet makes a key point about movies. You see a seaplane land. Minutes later, you notice a dinghy coming in from the direction of the plane. Once on shore, the man from the dinghy talks about his seaplane, gesturing back at it. Is it foolish to assume that the man came from the plane, not actually having seen him emerge from it? If so, we might as well stop watching movies, for everything in movies depends on inference and interpolation. We actually see very little. Every cut presents an opportunity for falsification. In fact, most of us know that what seems to be happening in a movie has not actually happened in just that way (thus the art of editing), but willingly accept that it has.

Willingness to go along with the story is what gets Joe into trouble. Foolishly, arrogantly, he falls in love with his own ability to "put the pieces together." He's really just being a good audience. We, the real audience, may scorn him at first for his gullibility, by the end we have to admit that we have been just as credulous.

Here's the trouble (and the challenge) of this kind of movie. Once we've been forced to accept the fact that we've been fooled—that characters we took at face value were really actors, that places we accepted as genuine were actually sets, that our reactions had been anticipated and manipulated, the movie has nowhere to go. We have essentially been instructed not to believe anything we see. All that's left is the opportunity to contemplate the human capacity for deviousness and the equally human susceptibility to it.

I left The Spanish Prisoner complaining about the abrupt ending, where the police arrive, explain everything, and restore a sense of order. "The 'FBI' turned out to be phonies," I said, "so who's to say the police are genuine? Maybe they're just actors too, and the police station is a set, and the con continues." My husband looked at me like I was crazy. "They are actors," he said. "It is a set." The con continues.



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copyright ©2005 Barbara Bernstein