Cain's classic pulp The Postman Always Rings Twice —the definitive portrait of the footloose American go-getter as bum, sexual opportunist, conspirator and killer. According to Mamet's own account, he "saw the craft of directing as the joyful extension of screenwriting.
His directorial debut, House of Games , followed closely on the travesty of his play Sexual Perversity in Chicago being filmed not to his script as About Last Night In that same writer-director tradition, Mamet tends to be matter-of-fact to the point of dismissiveness about his own cinematic technique, disclaiming any pretensions to being an auteur.
The director's job, he maintains, "is the work of constructing the shot list from the screenplay. The work on the set is nothing. All you have to do on the set is stay awake, follow your plans, help the actors be simple, and keep your sense of humour. The film is directed in the making of the shot list. It is the plan that makes the movie.
In Mamet's films—many of those he has directed, and several that he has written—the action is often set up to deceive the audience, a visual sleight of hand paralleling the scam that's being worked on the characters. In House of Games and The Spanish Prisoner itself named after a classic con routine , the rug is repeatedly pulled out from under us; just as we think we know what is going on, Mamet reveals a further layer of deception. In Homicide we are led to believe that Joe Mantegna's cop is uncovering a vast anti-Semitic conspiracy, until a supposed Nazi slogan proves to be a brand of pigeon-feed and the whole miasma of suspicion dissolves into nothingness.
Or maybe not, since the film leaves it possible that this revelation is itself just another trick. Sometimes Mamet enjoys letting us in on the act, as in Things Change , or in his tour de force political satire Wag the Dog where—as if in ironic homage to Baudrillard—a whole war is faked up to hoax the public.
The Spanish Prisoner Movie Review () | Roger Ebert
Though even here, when we have watched the entire scam being devised, the denouement reveals other dimensions that we were not aware of. It's like a magic trick. You have to give people information, but in such a way that they don't realise it is information. Adapting his own stage work for the screen as in Oleanna , which he directed, or American Buffalo and Glengarry Glen Ross , which he didn't , Mamet simplifies it without losing its pungent flavour, cutting down on the repetitions and truculent non-sequiturs of the original.
The main message is being carried to the audience not by what people say or by how they say it, but by what the camera is doing. Despite his own outspoken distaste for Hollywood "Hell with valet parking" and the movie industry, Mamet seems increasingly at ease with filmmaking. In recent years he has shown himself ever more inclined to direct his own scripts—and to adapt and direct the work of other playwrights he admires, such as Terence Rattigan and Samuel Beckett.
In the register of Mamet's career his status as screenwriter and director may never rival his towering acclaim as a playwright, but it looks set to run it a very respectable second. Toggle navigation.
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David Mamet with Rebecca Pidgeon. Cabin: Reminiscence and Diversions , New York, On Acting , New York, Interview in Time Out London , 12 August Interview in Interview New York , April Other articles you might like:. Follow City-Data. Tweets by LechMazur. User Contributions:. I have to disagree about most of this.
First, what's wrong with a movie not written in common-spoken language? I saw - for example - The Watchmen this winter and I could almost guess what was coming out of their mouths before they said it. I usually make it a game to see if I can guess the next line - especially with overdone dreck that goes on for 3 hours. But back to The Spanish Prisoner: Do you really want to hear con men talk like people on the train discussing last week's Family Guy or the Yankees game? I don't. Classic film noir used their own language. Billy Wilder and Chandler and Cain created a speak that was totally unique.
I'm sure there's some reviews of Double Indemnity that complained that they didn't talk like people really talk. Shakespeare didn't write like people talk either I'm not saying that Mamet is in that class. I am saying there's something challenging and wonderful watching a story unfold with a language that's unique but at the same time understandable.
The Brick is another good example I was bowled over by the words not the plot. No, I love this movie. Being a fan of The Big Con I was in my glory. All of the cons are actually based on real-life cons making the film even more tasty. I wish Steve Martin did more films like this than his more mainstream stuff. The Spanish Prisoner: Speaking in riddles and circles My objections are not to stylized dialogue in general but to the specific qualities of Mamet's stylization.
Namely, the stilted rhythms of it, the way it's continually calling attention to the writer behind the scenes rather than reflecting on the characters, who are pretty thin and flat.
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Mamet's stylization doesn't seem to me to serve any greater purpose, and on top of that it's frequently not even clever -- it's often clunky and awkward and just bad. In my opinion, of course. Obviously many people love Mamet's dialogue; more power to them. I did think Martin was generally very good in this, and it did make me think that he could expand beyond his mainstream comedies if he wanted to or if he got offered more meaty roles where he could stretch himself. It's a good performance, perfectly getting across the smug, smarmy character of this con man.
I saw this movie again just recently and still got a kick out of it. Not enough credit is given to Campbell Scott, whose performance walks just the right line -- a well-meaning dupe who grows a spine. He also does well with Mamet's dialogue which, even when clunky, still makes me laugh. Normally she's hard to get a bead on but I thought she was terrific in "State and Main," a rare foray into comedy that Mamet should attempt more often.
His more recent shell-games have teetered on self-parody and suggest he's growing bored with the genre, but "The Spanish Prisoner" was made at a time when he was having fun and improving his visual storytelling, something many playwrights turned filmmakers never quite master. Pidgeon is an odd actress, and the case could be made that she's bad here -- yet bad in a fascinating way.
Normally she's hard to get a bead on but I thought she was terrific in "State and Main" I held back on admitting to an affinity for Pidgeon because I thought people would pile on, because that's so like you guys, but sometimes Pidgeon does have a certain Not here, maybe, but definitely in State and Main and, if memory serves, at least in Winslow Boy as well. Hello, Ed: You have struck upon the thing about Mamet the odd rhythms and writerly dialogue that make him a bit much at times. When it doesn't work, it really doesn't work.
Have you seen The Heist? It is at it's best in Glengarry Glen Ross , but it seems to take a magical assortment of actors to make his odd speech patterns and stylized verbiage not sound like over uber writing. That is to say, either she improvised it or Mamet just heard it a lot because he was married to her.
My memory is the former. I've never seen the film, but something has always struck me as deliberately anti-realistic with respect to Mamet's dialogue. Yes, there are rings of the way people talk but it's morphed into this kind of rhytmic beat of characters exchanging there most pure thoughts and desires. I dig it, in short.
Aside from the multitude of plot holes, I found the movie enjoyable, and for some unknown reason Rebecca Pidgeon is hot. Post a Comment. Thursday, June 4, The Spanish Prisoner.
Spanish Prisoner, The (United States, 1997)
The Spanish Prisoner , directed and written and overwritten by David Mamet, is a convoluted twist on the thriller genre, a daytime neo-noir in which an ordinary working Joe Campbell Scott, whose character really is named Joe, in case we miss the point; he's ordinary! It's a tricky plot, and Mamet never lets his audience forget just how tricky it is, just as he never lets anyone forget that he's a writer , or maybe preferably a Writer.
And boy can he write. One does not get the sense that he has ever actually heard the way real people talk, or that he has any feel for or interest in writing in such a way that actors can actually deliver his lines without coming across as stilted and inhuman. There's stylized dialogue that works His Girl Friday , still the model for artificial but infectious patter , and then there's stylized dialogue that merely calls attention to its own stylization without compensating for it by being, you know, clever or fun or intelligent. Maybe you can guess which category this falls into: "Money, it depresses everyone but what did it ever do for one?
That clunker comes courtesy of the suave con man Jimmy Dell Steve Martin , the ringleader of a very involved plot intended to wrangle poor Joe into giving up the big secret he's just invented for his company. It's obvious from the start that Dell is up to no good, and Mamet skillfully establishes this fact without a word or an overt revelation. The film's first half moves with a kind of clockwork inevitability, setting up the delicate structures that will soon come crashing in around Joe.
Mamet gives each seemingly innocuous incident, each object, each moment, a portentous quality. His camera moves subtly call attention to key details, underlining them, as though to say, "remember this, it'll be important later. It's not clear exactly what's going on, but it's certainly clear that something is up, and that all is not as it seems. This is masterful filmmaking, perfectly calibrated, and Mamet's visual acuity becomes even more apparent in the second half when his camera moves begin to mirror those in the first half, this time exposing new aspects of the situation.
There's a camera move — a pan across the screen of an airport baggage X-ray machine — that's repeated several times, each time treated with the importance of a big moment, a climactic reveal, and then each time allowed to pass without fuss. It becomes routine, so by the time Mamet repeats the shot towards the end of the film, at a pivotal moment, it becomes startling again, devastating even. Mamet knows how to use repetition and patterns, how to tweak audience expectations.
In the film's second half, as Joe revisits familiar places, subtle shifts in framing reveal previously unseen facets. When he finally looks deeper, the audience gets a peek as well. As admirable as Mamet's filmmaking is, there's also something disturbingly schematic about all this, something mechanical that goes beyond his tortured dialogue to the structure of the film itself.
It's a convoluted web of cons and deceit and games, with elaborate fake organizations and false identities, and multiple layers of reality being peeled away as the protagonist struggles through his predicament. But beneath all the games, all the lies and treacheries, what's there? It's perhaps making the same point that Mamet made in Glengarry Glen Ross , that a life dedicated to business and money is an empty, pointless life, but it's still hard to escape the conclusion that this is also an empty, pointless movie at its core, a con as shallow as Jimmy's labyrinthine tricks.
There are plenty of movies like this, of course, entertainments whose whole point is to twist the audience up into knots. And at that, it's a pretty good example of the genre — certainly much better than Tony Gilroy's recent Duplicity , which seems to have stolen whole sections of this film's plot and ethos but wasn't nearly as interesting even before I realized that Mamet did it first.
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Taken as a twisty thriller, The Spanish Prisoner is certainly enjoyable enough, and it's interesting that Mamet makes little attempt to hide his villains. Instead, he places everyone under suspicion almost immediately, then delays the moment when he outs the crooks, leaving the audience with the impression that some of these people will turn out to be corrupt, while others are red herrings. Not so; everyone's corrupt, everyone's a crook, and there are no red herrings here. It's a clever variation on thriller conventions, since Mamet manages to craft a twist from the revelation that there is no twist, that everything you've suspected all along is true.
He encourages, and then confirms, the audience's natural paranoia. He can do all this because his craft is carefully honed and precise. He has a subtle way of handling the scenes of corporate espionage and treachery, using a light touch to imply rather than state things outright.
At one point, Joe's secretary Susan Mamet's wife Rebecca Pidgeon is turned away from Joe, talking to someone else, while he places his mysterious notes into a safe behind her. Mamet stages the scene with Susan in the foreground, seemingly talking to someone offscreen, but obviously paying some attention to what's going on behind her; you can see the mental gears turning.
It's a great scene, and probably Pidgeon's best moment of acting here, because once she opens her mouth it takes an enormous effort of will power not to punch one's hand through the TV screen.
The meticulously constructed film work of David Mamet
There's no way to be diplomatic about this: she's bad, so bad that she manages to make everyone else delivering Mamet's clunky dialogue look amazing. No one here can quite get a handle on the stilted rhythms — Steve Martin, in a fine performance, comes closest, though even he can't get across Mamet's worst stinkers, like the line I quoted above — but Pidgeon is painfully bad, a bundle of quirky mannerisms and weird vocal inflections.
She is perfectly suited to Mamet's dialogue, which is not necessarily a compliment. She seems to have actually come from this weird Mamet planet where everyone speaks English like they're sounding out the words phonetically because their first language is Martian. She does get one of the film's better moments, though, a love scene where she tells Joe, with laconic understatement, "I'm fond of you," then cheerfully chirps "crikey! Of course, that this rich moment winds up being part of an empty deceit is only more evidence of the film's failure to invest its serpentine plot with anything deeper.
Nevertheless, Mamet crafts moments like this frequently enough that it's apparent he's a talented auteur, that he has sensitivity and humor and panache, both visual and verbal. The Spanish Prisoner is not a bad movie by any means, despite all its problems, but it makes it absolutely clear that the biggest limitation and obstacle in Mamet's filmmaking is Mamet himself. The film's best moments and its worst ones are those sequences where Mamet is most apparent, where his intervention is unmistakable, either behind the camera or in the stylized dialogue.
It's tempting to wish for him to step away a bit, to let things play out naturally, to tone down his worst verbal indulgences. But the paradox of this film is that its greatest attributes arise from and are tangled with its excesses and failings.