Mamet's The Spanish Prisoner movie

Saw it when it first came out, liked it and then forgot about it. I just got, through Prime, a free week to Showtime, primarily so I could watch Boogie Nights again*. Great flick.

Saw that The Spanish Prisoner was available. The film has a couple of silly plot tropes, like there being only one handwritten copy of The Formula, worth an unknown number of dollars for the company, which we don’t know because in one of the first scenes, where he writes the dollar amount on a blackboard but we can’t see the amount.

Mamet knows those are tropes, he is more about dialogue and feeling, don’t get my started on Glengarry Glen Ross. But anyway watching a second time I really loved the film, with all of it’s plot twists.

*a seperate thread for Boogie Nights quotes?

It’s okay IMHO. But Mamet’s usual penchant for stilted, stiff acting and the presence of the shining exemplar of that philosophy, his wife Rebecca Pidgeon, is a bit of a drag.

I haven’t seen it in a while, but I recall NOT liking it as much the 2nd time. I remember some plot holes or things that didn’t make sense.

Spoiler question

Were the US Marshals at the end real, or another layer to the con?

Thank you for saying, that, having just watched it again, I don’t know what the fuck happened in the final scenes. I enjoyed watching it the 2nd time, thought maybe I was just a dumbass for not figuring it out.

I think it’s a terrific film, and Mamet’s stylized dialogue works well here. I remember Roger Ebert saying that everyone in the film is hiding something and speaking guardedly, and the stilted dialogue emphasizes that.

There are also some great lines that sound like Mamet offering life lessons, like this exchange between Steve Martin and Campbell Scott:

Jimmy Dell: I think you’ll find that if what you’ve done for them is as valuable as you say it is, if they are indebted to you morally but not legally, my experience is they will give you nothing, and they will begin to act cruelly toward you.

Joe Ross: Why?

Jimmy Dell: To suppress their guilt.

I haven’t seen the film in years, but one detail that always nagged at me was the theft of the Process. In one scene, the Ed O’Neill character takes the red book containing the only copy of the Process from Joe, and places it on a windowsill. Moments later, he returns the book to Joe. When I was watching this, I immediately thought “That’s not the same book.” But I can’t recall if the book was continuously visible throughout the scene.

Now I really want to re-watch that movie!

Do it, and if you can explain how the whole plot makes sense, including how Mamet’s real life wife figures in to the final scene, you are a better man than I am, Gunga Din

IMHO, they’re real. But I understand why some people think otherwise. Somehow a tidy ending feels “off” after two hours of deception and misdirection.

I think that if Mamet wanted us to suspect that the marshals aren’t legit, he would have put some kind of subtle hint into the final scene. As far as I know, he didn’t.

On the one hand I thought the tidiness of the ending WAS the hint. I guess I went down the Mamet-hole watching it. Trust no one!

On the other hand, I just read about the moivie and the “Japanese” Feds were in the background for the whole movie. They were even remarked upon by Jimmy, how no one notices Japanese tourists. I missed that! (still doesn’t mean they were real, but it’s a good bit of evidence that says they were.)

I first saw it many years ago based on Ebert’s recommendation and LOVED it. I also recently caught it again and, while I still very much enjoyed it, a seed of disappointment found its way into my noggin.

I think it’s not quite as clever as I first thought it was.

Steve Martin and Campbell Scott are wonderful in it, as is the always enjoyable Ricky Jay.

Watching Rebecca Pidgeon’s performance, though, was like having a pebble in each shoe.


Well, dog my cats!

I only found her mostly annoying in TSP. Her role in one of the Jesse Stone movies made that movie almost unwatchable.

I liked TSP, but I like Mamet’s next movie, The Winslow Boy, more. It was also a better vehicle for Pigeon, as she plays a stiff upper class Brit.

I agree; for me the stilted dialogue worked. It showcased the way no character felt comfortable or trusting with any other.

I have rewatched that scene (to see if Mamet was playing fair). No, the notebook is NOT continuously visible. But at the same time, its placement on the ledge means that Scott’s character absolutely would see someone doing a switch. So the final impression (for me, anyway) is that the switch wasn’t really possible.

As for the Marshals at the end being legitimate: I agree with those who’ve said there’s nothing in the movie that even remotely hints that they are not. Scott’s boss Ben Gazzara was the Marshal’s true target, with Steve Martin and Rebecca Pigeon being merely Gazzara’s hirelings. Left somewhat mysterious was what crime Gazzara is supposed to have committed, other than trying to cheat his own employee (not illegal) and hiring probable-known-criminals like Martin and Pigeon.

I like the movie for the way it subverts several clichés, such as the Scrappy Secretary Who Helps the Hero Out of Love. (And I thought Pigeon’s performance makes sense. A second viewing reveals her massive hostility toward Scott’s character, where we read ‘attraction’ on a first viewing.)

Thanks for clearing that up!

I remember having an unsettling feeling that something wasn’t right in that scene, but maybe that’s just Mamet messing with us. I discussed this with a friend back when the film came out, and she asked me, “When did you realize that something hinky was going on?” I mentioned that scene with the notebook, and she said, “Yeah, me too.” But it does seem like switching the book would have been logistically impossible at that point.

It does raise questions. Mamet surely noticed that the clear implication of the scene as filmed was that the notebook was not switched.

Was it just that Mamet was so focused on fooling the audience–letting us believe for as long as possible that the Ed O’Neill and Felicity Huffman team really were FBI–that he didn’t care that a re-watch would raise questions about whether he’d played fair with the filming of the switch?

(I wonder if anyone ever asked Mamet about it in an interview.)

I love David Mamet. He is the absolute king of plots revolving around a million-dollar plot designed to steal a hundred bucks. David Ives’ Speed the Play said it best.

Incidentally, I have a copy of Mamet’s screenplay, and it gives no hint about where the switch occurs. In the script, Kelly (the Ed O’Neill character) simply takes the red notebook from Joe, glances through it (Mamet mentions that the pages are filled with “mathematical notation”), and hands it back to Joe. There’s no mention of the book being placed on a sill for a few moments, or of it being out of Joe’s sight before he opens it in the next scene and sees that all the pages are blank.

If this had been a BANACEK episode, the solution would be that it didn’t get switched then, because it was never really there; instead, the only other guy with a key to that safe had already replaced the book with a disappearing-ink mockup Joe (a) took out of the office, and (b) briefly looked away from, after handing it to a man who flipped through it and then did just hand it back.

Interesting! The switch is so crucial to the plot, and yet Mamet doesn’t hint at when it could have happened…wow.

It seems possible that he found the entire McGuffin question to be of much less importance than the points he was trying to make. Which is fair, but it’s also true that audiences do like these things to make sense.

I just rewatched it, and I think there’s a weird moment when, impliedly, it could’ve happened: Ed O’Neill says the important thing is to refuse when he asks for the book — explaining that he’ll then surely offer a bribe or make a threat or something, and that’s what they’ll nail him for, because, otherwise, what can he actually get charged with at this point? So far, he’s lied without being under oath and he’s told our hero to get some legal advice, and, uh, that’s pretty much it, isn’t it? Have to get him on tape saying incriminating stuff, or they’ll have nothing on him, right?

That’s when Scott (a) says, as if it’s only just now dawning on him, that they’ve been after the guy for a long time; and he (b) pointedly looks away from the book on the ledge — because he’s now looking over at Felicity Huffman, and saying “that’s why you were down at the island!” And the shot, which I take to still be showing us his POV, lingers on Huffman for a little while.

On the one hand, I’ve seen MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE episodes make a switch in that short a time; on the other, the fact that the script apparently makes no reference to anything of the sort seems to suggest that, no, this isn’t that kind of movie…