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The CHIRP Blog

Kevin Fullam writesThe Fourth Wall: The Spanish Prisoner

Welcome to The Fourth Wall, CHIRP's e-conversation on cinema. This week's subject is the 1997 film The Spanish Prisoner.

This edition is written by CHIRP Radio volunteers Kevin Fullam and Clarence Ewing.

Kevin:

The Big Con. It's long been a favorite cinema staple of mine. You can't sleepwalk through Big Con films -- you gotta keep your eyes and ears peeled at all times, and definitely, absolutely trust no one. As an added bonus, the Everyman protagonists of these tales are usually in the dark as much as the audiences, making them the perfect proxy. We're attached at the hip and invested from the get-go.

In David Mamet's The Spanish Prisoner, Joe Ross (Campbell Scott, whose muted temperament is the perfect fit for this sort of role) has created a "Process." Manifested as a notebook of charts and formulas, it's a classic MacGuffin -- we have no idea what it exactly involves, except that it's worth astronomical sums of money to the company which employs him... or to anyone else who winds up getting a hold of it.

While on the island of St. Estèphe to discuss the Process with company investors, Ross rubs elbows with new secretary Susan Ricci (Rebecca Pidgeon, Mamet's real-life wife) and wealthy traveler Jimmy Dell (Steve Martin), the latter of whom eases himself into Joe's world by giving him a package to "deliver to his sister in New York." Worried it might be something illegal, Joe opens the package -- which is revealed to be an innocuous 1930s book about tennis.

Right around this time, relations between Joe and his employers turn frosty, and he starts to fret about not receiving fair compensation. Jimmy (having reconnected in the Big Apple) suggests enlisting outside legal counsel. Can he trust him? What about Susan? And later there's an FBI team (headed by Ed O' Neill) involved in the case as well. But are they actually federal agents? Just when exactly does the con stop... or is it still going when the credits start rolling?

Related thoughts/questions:

-- There's always a tightrope to walk in Big Con films. A storyteller has to keep the mark continually guessing and sufficiently disoriented, but one can't make the plot too Byzantine, or else the audience will lose interest and mentally check out. Could viewers put together the pieces of the puzzle during repeated viewings? (QUASI-SPOILER -- there's a scene just before Joe's meeting with the FBI that I probably re-watched half a dozen times, combing through each frame like I was perusing the Zapruder film. More on that later.]

-- So much attention has been placed on "Mamet Speak*" that his camerawork tends to get glossed over. Prior to rewatching The Spanish Prisoner, I read Mamet's On Directing Film, a 128-page book which largely consists of transcripts of two seminars with students at Columbia University. The conversations all revolve around how to impart information in as few shots as possible... without dialogue. And in a film revolving around misdirection, it's fascinating how spartan Mamet is here with his words.

[*Also a staple of Glengarry Glen Ross, one of my all-time favorite films. I'll take Mamet Speak over (Aaron) Sorkin Dialogue any day of the week.]

-- The late Ricky Jay is a Mamet regular, and appears here as the company's counsel. I didn't learn until years later that Jay was a world-class card magician way before he ever became a character actor! Mamet directed one of Jay's magic shows (Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants) -- if you watch, prepare to be dumbfounded.

-- Clarence, what did you think of the film? Where does it rank among Big Con movies in general? Are you a Mamet fan? And what did you think of the inclusion of Steve Martin here, playing against type? As someone who was never a fan of Martin's comedies, I loved him in this sort of role.

Clarence:

It just so happens that about the same time I was re-watching The Spanish Prisoner I got the chance to watch one of Steve Martin’s earlier films, Pennies from Heaven (1981), a strange neo-noir musical he made with Bernadette Peters a year after his breakout turn in the cult classic The Jerk. Martin was new to non-comedic roles, and it showed. Something about the way he performed just didn’t fit, like he was constantly on the verge of exploding into one of his spastic stage routines.

You can see the difference between his performance in that movie and The Spanish Prisoner. He’s much more self-assured and comfortable in his dramatic skin. And of course he had the benefit of Mamet’s writing. I enjoy how performers can really tear into it (Alec Baldwin’s “motivational” speech from Glengarry Glen Ross still rings in my ears.)

Ricky Jay is a fascinating person. He is one of those folks who is blessed with the ability to give a completely natural performance. He was one of my favorite characters in Heist (2001), another Mamet-directed film. His stage performances are just like his acting - relaxed, composed, totally comfortable in the fact he knows something you don’t. We don’t really have that kind of actor around anymore.

The Spanish Prisoner is definitely in the top ranks of my favorite con films, but I think my #1 favorite is The Usual Suspects (1995), where the con dynamic is inverted; instead of a team of people conning one mark, a single mastermind is pulling everybody’s strings. It’s one of those films where it’s best not to look at the details too closely, just enjoy the style over the substance.

I agree with you that it’s a fine line making a con film. The scheming and planning in The Sting (1972) was just too over the top for me, but the remake of Ocean’s Eleven (2001), with George Clooney and Brad Pitt, was a pretty good and breezy heist/con movie. That scheme was so over the top there was no way it couldn’t work.

The idea of a proprietary “process” seems more plausible today than it did back in the 1990s. It could be a formula to make money in the stock market or sports betting, or a new additive to make potato chips even more delicious. The entire reason Crypto currency exists is to provide aspiring con men with ready-made Internet tools…!

It seems like real-life cons are so common nowadays the genre has been taken over by cable TV. Have you seen either of the recent documentaries on the Fyre music festival? On the one hand, it’s funny how so many poseurs got taken, on the other hand, it’s not funny at all how workers were taken advantage of and how fans were put in genuine danger going to a festival that didn’t exist.

At least with movies like The Spanish Prisoner you know no one is really getting hurt. If I may put on my “Old Man Yells at Cloud” hat for a moment - Why don’t they make movies like that anymore? I know we’re still coming out of COVID, but I can’t think of an example of a recent film that is similarly pitched in terms of the writing and tone. Can you?

Lastly, swinging back to Steve Martin; Although he was never officially a cast member, he’s closely associated with Saturday Night Live’s initial success. It’s interesting how many of that show’s performers over the years have been featured in well-regarded movies that weren’t just long versions of SNL skits, like Bill Murray (Groundhog Day, Lost in Translation), Dan Akroyd (Driving Miss Daisy), John Belushi (Animal House, Continental Divide), Eddie Murphy (Beverly Hills Cop, Dreamgirls), Will Ferrell (Stranger than Fiction), and Adam Sandler (Punch-Drunk Love, Uncut Gems) to name a few. Do any other movies by SNL alums stand out for you?

Kevin:

Come to think of it, I haven't seen The Usual Suspects since catching it at the theater all those years ago. Related question -- does it hold up well upon repeated viewings, knowing the "twist" of the film? And we can expand this query to include other "twist" films that aren't necessarily cons. Vanilla Sky, Dark City, Fight Club, etc. I'll throw in a Kevin Spacey film that might be construed as a con? K-PAX, where Spacey plays a character who just might not be bullshitting us about his claims that he's an alien.

* Here's a theory -- could any film which features an undercover law-enforcement officer be construed as a con film? I'm looking squarely at you, The Departed (oy, the Double Con!). And I should also add that The Departed is based on the Hong Kong hit Infernal Affairs, which spawned a few sequels as well. 

[I wasn't a huge fan of Donnie Brasco, but the book by the real-life FBI agent (Joe Pistone) who was undercover in the Mafia for years? Top notch. Life ain't exactly easy for the Straight Man who's trying to put one over on hardened criminals, 24/7.]

* You mentioned how we don't have character actors like Ricky Jay around anymore... that might be a subject for a future discussion. And do we not see female character actors in similar numbers to their male counterparts? Hmm. Of course, this might also speak to the larger disparity in roles between genders.

* I hadn't heard of the Fyre Music Festival, but one person's con is another's prank hoax! Czech Dream was a documentary about an elaborate hoax perpetrated by the two directors, as they advertised a Walmart-like "hypermarket" that was nothing but a facade backed by scaffolding. (And not to get too meta here, but this sort of thing would be perfectly at home on a Hollywood studio lot...)

* It was a struggle for me to think of cons where the audience wasn't already in on the caper, a la Trading Places (which conveniently segues into the following item), but I'll give you one underlooked film from 2001 with some major indie-star power in both the acting and directing ranks: Richard Linklater's Tape. The film features only three actors (Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman, and Robert Sean Leonard) and just about takes place in real time, chronicling a reunion of sorts between former HS classmates. But there's a hidden agenda here, and a particular reason that the organizer has brought the other two into the fold.

* I haven't seen all that many films from the SNL set, but I'd add Rushmore (Bill Murray, in one of the few Wes Anderson films I've liked -- also a killer soundtrack as well), Wild Things (Murray again, as a sleazy lawyer who nearly steals the film), and The Skeleton Twins (Bill Hader, Kristen Wiig). And can I give a shout-out to Maya Rudolph, who was in the initial lineup of The Rentals? The Rentals are a Matt Sharp (ex-Weezer) project featuring Moog keyboards and a rotating cast of band members, and Maya both played and sang on their debut record, Return of the Rentals. So much great fuzzy pop on that one. 

* Getting back to the earlier TSP spoiler I alluded to -- midway through the film, Joe heads to a meeting with an FBI agent (Ed O'Neill) who explains the con and wires Joe up in advance of an expected threat/bribe attempt by Jimmy (Steve Martin). Joe has the book containing the "Process" with him. It gets briefly placed onto a ledge within view of the camera, and then returned to him at the end of the meeting. Later, on his way to his rendezvous with Jimmy (who never shows up), Joe is bumped by a skater for a split-second -- er, harmless, right? But Joe flips through the book a while later... and all the pages are blank. He's been taken. That FBI contact phone number he was given? A dead-end as well.

I've watched both the FBI and skater scenes many times, and it seems impossible that a switch of the books could've taken place. Then again, I've seen exhibitions at the Chicago Magic Lounge here in town that seemed equally mystifying. Any thoughts here?

Also, what did you think of the conclusion of the film? My hunch is that the con is still going. There were no real "US Marshals," 'twas simply another ruse to get Joe thinking that all the loose ends had been tied up. Susan (Rebecca Pidgeon) didn't seem all that upset to be apprehended -- for all we know, she'd be allowed to skip town as soon as the operation was out of Joe's earshot. I can't find any concrete evidence to support my hunch, but here's an excerpt of Roger Ebert's review:

There is, I think, a hole in the end of the story big enough to drive a ferryboat through, but then again there's another way of looking at the whole thing that would account for that, if the con were exactly the reverse of what we're left believing. Not that it matters. The end of a magic trick is never the most interesting part; the setup is more fun, because we can test ourselves against the magician, who will certainly fool us. We like to be fooled. It's like being tickled. We say "Stop! Stop!'' and don't mean it.

Clarence:

I think overall the “con movie” can be a pretty broad category. There has to be some kind of Big Lie at the center, whether the audience knows about it right away or it’s held as a last-act reveal. There has to be someone who is after something (money, fame, prestige, whatever) and is willing to deceive someone else to get it. [A movie like All About Eve fits nicely.] And there has to be some kind of relationship built between the parties involved (“con” being short for “confidence”) that adds a personal and emotional dimension to what goes on.

Using those loose definitions, I think most, if not all, the movies you mentioned fit the bill. The Usual Suspects still holds up for me. The collective acting, directing, and writing all contribute to making it a memorable modern film noir where it's not the destination but the journey that intrigues. Now that I think about it, The Usual Suspects and The Spanish Prisoner are quite similar in that regard.

I liked Donnie Brasco a lot - Who says the people being conned have to be the good guys? It’s one of Johnny Depp’s best movies, but that’s another discussion. I liked The Departed, but wasn’t gung-ho about it, even though it could stand as a kind of con movie. There were too many mega-stars in the cast, and it doesn’t feel like a Scorsese movie, which makes sense since it’s based on someone else’s work.

I think your observation about female actors is right. I can’t think of a female equivalent to Ricky Jay. At least in American cinema, women are either the headliner or playing bit parts. Now that superhero movies have entered their second decade of big-screen domination, there are even fewer of those mid-level roles available.

Of the SNL alums, I’ve always liked Kristen Wiig’s performances. She’s a very good actor with a lot of charisma. She could have a film career similar to Bill Murray’s, although it doesn’t look like she’s shown too much interest in dramas.

But back to the film in question…! I think the way the film ended is possible. Acts of misdirection are very much possible when the target has been running all over the place in a distracted state, thinking about the implications of the Process falling into the wrong hands. You’re right, though, that they never show the actual recovery of said Process, so who knows what happened to it?

Thing is, I’m with Ebert in how those kinds of details don't take away from this movie’s quality. Being fooled is fun…but only from a distance!

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