Good evening (oh, wait)…
Every prestigious filmmaker has had their imitators, and there’s probably more homage paid to Hitchcock than anyone. One instance of this is the 1997 David Mamet film, The Spanish Prisoner, a tale of twists, turns, betrayal, and secrets. Oh, and it features an unusually serious Steve Martin, but we’ll get to that.
How to sum up this movie? Put it this way: If a new acquaintance asks you to deliver a package for them, Just Say No.
The film opens in the St. Estephe airport, where Joe Ross (Campbell Scott) has flown in to pitch a super-secret process that will make investors a lot of money. He can’t say what it is because of security reasons, but he promises it’ll be lucrative. Really, really luctrative. So lucrative that the film doesn’t even show us the amount of money the company stands to make.
Constantly hanging around Joe is his new secretary, Susan (Rebecca Pidgeon), who’s more than a little starstruck. She’s constantly taking Joe’s picture or asking to take his picture. She’s eager to make a good impression, to say the least, and she’s just chirpy enough to border on Mad Pixie Girl.
During an impromptu photo shoot on the beach, a random beachcomber (Steve Martin) asks Joe if he can buy his disposable camera from him. Joe gives it to him instead. Later on, the guy finds Joe at the tennis court and introduces himself as Jimmy, and after some chitchat, offers to buy Joe a drink. The two of them end up talking all night out on a dock by a seaplane.
Jimmy’s awfully clingy for someone who just popped out of nowhere. He runs up to Joe and his group as they’re about to leave for the airport and asks Joe to take a package to his sister at the Wilshire Hotel in New York. Joe’s yes is only slightly hesitant.
On the flight back to New York, Susan chatters about how people can surprise us. That we never know if people are who they say they are. Anybody could be anybody, Susan says. Like the lady she met at the bar last night who said she was an FBI agent. Well, she really is an FBI agent. Susan flashes the card the lady gave her.
In spite of himself, Joe gets curious about the package and slips off to the restroom to unwrap it. It’s a copy of Budge on Tennis and seems pretty harmless, although the spine is broken. As soon as he’s back in New York Joe makes a beeline for the bookbinder’s who just happens to have a pristine copy of the Don Budge book on the shelves. Joe buys it and keeps the original, then he leaves the package with the doorman at the Wilshire.
Joe makes plans to meet Jimmy for dinner, only Jimmy doesn’t show. He finds Jimmy at a Bentley lot picking out a new car, and Jimmy freezes him out. So Joe waits around to talk to him, and it turns out that Jimmy is mad because Joe didn’t physically put the book into his sister’s hands. Joe tells Jimmy he made a mistake and reads him the riot act before he storms off.
Amazingly enough, Jimmy calls him later to apologize, and the two go to dinner at an exclusive restaurant that is members only on Saturday nights. Much to Joe’s surprise, Jimmy signs Joe up for a membership at the restaurant, complete with a certificate that reads Consul de Venezuela on it for some reason.
Jimmy has a way of elevating Joe without his consent and he makes it look easy. He also signs Joe up for a Swiss bank account without his by-your-leave. Joe is unnerved but tries to pass it off as no big deal. And when Joe tells him a little about the process he’s developed for his company, Jimmy has a little tip: Get a lawyer.
Almost as if on cue, Joe has trouble at work. His bosses accuse him of stealing from the company and compromising “the process,” whatever it is. Joe calls Jimmy and asks him to contact a lawyer for him. He also asks to see Susan’s scrapbook, where he pulls out the FBI agent’s card, and makes a call from the company dark room on the sly. After this, certain people close in on Joe to the point that he starts to doubt everything he knows.
And where does the “Spanish prisoner” part come into this? Well, the phrase comes from a centuries-old scam about a mark being tricked into helping someone important who’s supposedly in trouble. Yes, it’s the Nigerian prince scam. One of the earliest references we have to it is an 1898 article in the New York Times, which described the scam in familiar detail, only back then it was obviously carried out via letters instead of e-mail. Other than that, it’s unclear when the scam started or how it came to be.
The Spanish Prisoner is all about the bait-and-switch. Someone might not be who they say they are, or objects might not serve their expected purposes. A camera bag might have a gun instead of a camera, only we don’t know it until it goes through the security check at the airport. I can’t say too much without ruining anything, except that it’s not the type of movie that can be watched with one eye on the cell phone. This isn’t a bad thing, though, because the momentum builds up to a really satisfying conclusion.
Unfortunately The Spanish Prisoner got pretty passed over at the time of its release even though most of the critics loved it. It still isn’t talked about all that much, probably because it gets overshadowed by much more explosive films. 1997, of course, introduced us to Titanic, Gattaca, The Lost World, and Good Will Hunting, for starters.
I had never heard of the film until my husband and I were dating and we watched it on DVD. He’d seen The Spanish Prisoner in the theater and loved it. My response was initially kinda blah, but the second viewing was much more enjoyable, probably because I’ve seen a lot more Hitchcock films in the years since. Anyone who’s familiar with the Hitchcock brand of storytelling will feel very comfortable with The Spanish Prisoner.
If anything else can be said about The Spanish Prisoner is that it can be awfully sedate. It diverges from Hitch-esque storytelling in that i’s like Charade–nothing super-exciting happens. There are no car chases or scenes of Joe running at top speed. The music doesn’t pulse like a lot of similar movies at the time; the most we get is a vigorous clarinet solo. Any action has a staccato feel to it. Maybe a weapon gets pulled out of nowhere, wham, something happens, and the weapon is soon hidden again. It’s all pretty understated. However, there’s enough interest that it never gets boring.
For more Hitchcock-esque goodness, please see Chris at Blog of the Darned. Thanks for hosting this event, Chris–it was a great idea! Thanks for reading all, and hope to see you on Tuesday for a new Reading Rarity…
The Spanish Prisoner is available on Blu-ray from Amazon.