The Spanish Prisoner


Back in 1967, Jean-Luc Godard made a film called "La Chinoise," about a group of young French students in Paris who called themselves Maoists. They spent their time talking --interminably -- about some political action they were supposed to take, and whether they should actually do it or not, and we in the audience just sat there in total boredom, with our heads lolling from side to side, until suddenly Godard shifted into gear and starts things off with the action, which turns out to be an assassination of a politician, which then turns out to be of the wrong man, and then -- well, you get the idea. But as his film rolls into high gear he just leaves us in the dust.

Well, David Mametís new film, "The Spanish Prisoner," gave me some of the same feelings. A young man -- played by Campbell Scott -- at an unnamed company invents some process that will bring great riches to everybody there, except maybe himself, because the head of the company -- Ben Gazzara -- keeps telling him not to worry, that heíll be taken care of, but without actually making any specific agreements. So whatís a guy to do, but look out for himself? The question is, how should he do it?

He confides in a nice man, Steve Martin, whoís so rich he doesnít want any of Scottís invention, but just wants to help him get his rightful share. And thereís the office assistant, played by Rebecca Pidgeon, who likes Scott and is willing to do anything for him.

So far weíre squirming in our seats, waiting for something to happen. It may be an office intrigue film, but itís loaded down with Mametís odd and quirky lines of dialogue that frankly are becoming more of an eccentric twitch or tic than a meaningful part of his work. At any rate, our hero, or letís call him our protagonist because Mamet hasnít given him enough of a real personality for us to relate to, our protagonist must take action.

And now hereís where Mamet, like Godard in "La Chinoise," shifts into gear. Martin, the kind rich man, sets up a meeting with his own attorney, who will help Scott draft a proper agreement. And quicker than you can say Alfred Hitchcock-style treachery, some very scary things begin to happen, even involving the FBI. Suddenly our man is on the run from, well, letís just leave it there.

The film is called "The Spanish Prisoner" because there's a reference to an old con in it, known as the Spanish Prisoner con, in fact similar to the one in real life thatís making the rounds today from Nigeria, in which to get hold of a massive treasure the connee must front the cash to get the treasure out of the country where bad people are keeping it. Which in itself would be a good story, and I certainly like the title, but I frankly donít get that this film is about that particular con.

Oh, well. I should also report that while I squirmed through the first half and enjoyed the second, my wife enjoyed the first half and squirmed through the second. Thereís your consumer warning label, but I must say that half a film is better than none.

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