Mamet’s Hero-Victim: A Prisoner of Words

David Mamet’s The Spanish Prisoner has been described by the writer-director himself as “a light thriller-almost a romantic thriller. And

David Mamet’s The Spanish Prisoner has been described by the writer-director himself as “a light thriller-almost a romantic thriller. And a little Hitchcockian.” The operative words are “almost” and “little.” Indeed, I don’t think there’s a romantic bone in Mr. Mamet’s body, and he bears very, very little resemblance either thematically or stylistically to Master Alfred. Hitchcock always played with his cards face up, preferring suspense to surprise. By contrast, Mr. Mamet performs tricks with variations of male stud poker.

Yet, I liked The Spanish Prisoner because its very lightness in Mr. Mamet’s mind as a minor genre entertainment enabled him to escape the pomposity and pretentiousness of recent Mamet movies and plays in which his cryptic phrases and ponderous pauses were supposed to suggest all sorts of psychic panic and moral havoc in a malignant society.

By disdaining to look and sound like anything overly serious, Mr. Mamet’s Pinteresque speech rhythms succeed as nothing since Glengarry Glen Ross (1984 on stage, 1992 on screen) in capturing something pervasively paranoid in contemporary life. Actually, The Spanish Prisoner shares with Glengarry Glen Ross a vision of life as a cosmic con game in which the victimizers feed the fantasies of the victims.

Campbell Scott’s Joe Ross is the hero-victim of the piece, and it is altogether fitting that Mr. Scott lacks the charm and charisma of the great Hitchcockian hero-victims played over three decades by Robert Donat, Laurence Olivier, Cary Grant and James Stewart. The cold, bleak world in which Joe Ross is forced to flee for his life would be unbearable for any screen icon with an iota of audience sympathy. To enjoy the twists and turns in Mr. Mamet’s puzzle-like plot, one must remain detached from the nominal protagonist. This is accomplished by having the character share the faux-naïf speech rhythms and materialistic values of his employers and his business associates. Joe wants to be rewarded and appreciated for his McGuffin-like invention that will revolutionize the high-tech field in which many countries are competing feverishly. Joe doesn’t trust his boss, Klein (Ben Gazzara), who keeps reiterating that Joe has nothing to worry about, which in malicious Mamet-speak, means that Joe has a lot to worry about.

The early action takes place in a pleasant Caribbean resort at which Joe socializes nervously with his boss, his associate George Lang (Ricky Jay) and a sassy

secretary, Susan Ricci (Rebecca Pidgeon), with a sarcastic repertoire of responses

attesting to her humility and to her

subservience to her many bosses. Through a series of contrivances, Joe meets an

unsettlingly friendly international jet-

setter named Jimmy Dell (Steve Martin) and a mysterious female F.B.I. agent named McCune (Felicity Huffman).

Before long, Joe is back in New York and seeking the assistance of both, only to discover that his troubles are just beginning and that there is hardly anyone in the world he can trust.

There is a murder for which he is, of course, the logical suspect, and so the familiar Hitchcockian merry-go-round begins both literally and figuratively with Joe chased by the police even as he is manipulated by people he mistakenly thinks he can trust. Mr. Mamet’s direction is not nearly as lucid as Hitchcock’s, though it utilizes familiar Manhattan locations to make the hero’s plight more aimlessly absurdist than anything Hitchcock ever did in a Manhattan setting.

The ending may be denounced by Mr. Mamet’s postmodernist admirers as a sellout to Hollywood feel-good conventions, but though the forces of law and order prevail in an improbable and silly rabbit-out-of-a-hat manner, The Spanish Prisoner is never campy like Herbert Ross’ The Last of Sheila (1973) and Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Sleuth (1972). The ultimate seriousness of The Spanish Prisoner is validated by the rueful self-flagellation of the hero, and his recognition that the world itself is awash in chaos and corruption. Hence, there is no real Hitchcockian moral closure, no probing into the depths of the soul for the evil that lurks in us all.

The Spanish Prisoner may seem anemically theatrical to some, glib and facile to others. Yet, though I was never moved by anything that transpired in the film, and never particularly shocked, I was profoundly amused by the self-confidence projected by Steve Martin and Ben Gazzara, particularly, in situations where everything seemed to count and nothing seemed to matter. Finally, there are one or two genuinely clever tricks in the movie that only a cad of a reviewer would dare to disclose in advance.

Crime and Punishment

Raoul Ruiz’s Genealogies of a Crime is another trick film, a bit like The Spanish Prisoner , but with even less emotional affect. Once you accept the circular irony of the story, you are able to enjoy the mise en scène without any concern for the psychological development of the characters. Everything ends almost exactly where it began, with Catherine Deneuve playing two characters, one a murdered psychoanalyst and the other a defense attorney who murders her young male client, the man who murdered the psychoanalyst.

According to the director, the story was suggested to him by an account he read of a 1920’s murder in Vienna. The victim was a psychoanalyst named Hermine van Hug, who believed that she could detect criminal tendencies in a child at a very early age-5 or 6, even. She believed she had detected such tendencies in a nephew she was treating, but yet she continued to treat him. In her diaries, published posthumously, she describes dreams in which her nephew strangles her and, in the end, this is exactly what he did. Mr. Ruiz imagined in making Genealogies of a Crime that the ill-fated analyst had bewitched her nephew into fulfilling the very prophecy she had prescribed for him.

It is, of course, a hideous coincidence that this movie is being released in New York when the media are all abuzz about the massacre in Arkansas attributed to two children, 11 and 13, with a van full of automatic weapons. Amid all the weeping and wailing, the possibility of childhood evil comes to the fore once again as it has in so many Bad Seed and Exorcist ripoffs on the screen.

Mr. Ruiz has denied in interviews that he is blaming psychoanalysts for their reinforcing the very tendencies they are professing to cure. Yet, in his description of the Parisian psychoanalytical scene, Mr. Ruiz has fashioned a gallery of deluded quacks and dangerous game-players. Michel Piccoli plays Georges, the most irresponsibly culpable of these misguided messiahs of the mind. Mr. Ruiz tells his convoluted story in a series of double flashbacks so that everything that happens in the movie is in the past tense, waiting in vain to be explained to the audience. One can appreciate and enjoy the picture for the stylistic expertise and conviction with which it is executed without ever getting close to understanding the behavior of its predestined characters. Having just shown Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour (1968) to my class at Columbia, I am amazed at how kind time has been to both Ms. Deneuve and Mr. Piccoli.


Have Nothing on Capra

In the continuing, less-than-titanic controversy over the merits and demerits of Primary Colors , Hendrik Hertzberg in the March 23 New Yorker has contributed a bizarre revisionist spin on film history by trashing Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) for its “sentimentality, ignorance, corniness, showy patriotism, cynicism disguised as naïve idealism, a hatred of politics masked by ostentatious reverence for the constitutional forms that politics alone can bring to life, populist demagoguery, and stupidity.” By contrast, Mr. Hertzberg tells us, though the “film version of Primary Colors may or may not be destined for commercial success, … it is definitely a welcome act of political and cinematic hygiene.”

Mr. Hertzberg goes on to suggest that the Claude Rains character is the real hero of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington , and Stewart’s character is its real villain. Even so, one may argue that Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is not about politics at all, but about Frank Capra’s Christ complex, which crucifies Jefferson Smith on the cross of crushed idealism, naïve and stupid as it may be.

But what makes Primary Colors so much more sophisticated 60 years later? All we get from the triumvirate of Mike Nichols, Elaine May and Joe Klein is one sex scandal canceling out another. Where are the Archer Daniels Midland Company and all the other fat cats of campaign abuses? Where are the cutting-edge issues of abortion, gun control, gay rights, welfare? Nowhere, just as in nearly every other political movie ever made in Hollywood. And a conveniently African-American moral raisonneur is just as corny today as Capra’s and Smith’s obeisance to the Lincoln Memorial was in 1939. Mamet’s Hero-Victim: A Prisoner of Words