Published April 1, 1998
The Spanish Prisoner, written and directed by David Mamet, gives expression to a refined kind of paranoia born of what we might call sophistication-anxiety. This results in the common assumption among contemporary writers, artists and (especially) filmmakers — see, for example, the recent movies Wild Things and L.A. Confidential — that everything must be different from what it seems. As one of the particularly inscrutable characters in this film puts it, “You never know who anybody is.” Except, presumably, when you do. To make such an assumption is to be hip and knowing and wise, a presumptive sophisticate — just like Jack Stanton in Primary Colors who justifies his own bad behavior with reference to his certainty that Abraham Lincoln was as much a “whore” as he is. So intimidating is this asseveration to young Henry, the film’s hero, so afraid is he of being thought naïve or stupid, that he is ready to accept it without evidence. We should not be such gulls.
In Mamet’s film, the pigeon who must learn the world’s ways is Joe Ross (Campbell Scott), who has invented a wondrous process worth an unspecified amount to the company he works for. We are told nothing about the process except that it involves a lot of highly complicated equations and that the Japanese want it. We are not even told how much the company stands to gain from it: Joe writes the figure on the chalk board at the directors’ meeting, but we don’t see the figure he writes. The audience is meant to feel a little paranoid too, right from the beginning.
One of the things that contributes to this feeling is Mamet’s opaque and mannered dialogue, which becomes extremely annoying after a while:
“It’s something big?”
“It could be something big.”
That kind of thing is certainly paranoia-inducing to me, as is much of the rest of this writerly dialogue meant to transform clichés and banalities into hip, knowing, ironic, etc. arabesques of words: “Funny old world,” says Joe.
“Funny old world? Dog my cats,” Susan (Rebecca Pidgeon) answers nonsensically.
“Dog my cats indeed,” answers Joe, even more nonsensically.
This Susan is a particular aficionado of gnomic replies. When Joe asks her how things are in the inner office, she replies: “My troika is pursued by wolves.” Equally cryptic are a succession of dud pseudo-proverbs mouthed by Ricky Jay as George Lang, Joe’s close friend and a company lawyer. “Worry is like interest paid in advance on a debt that never comes due,” he says; or “We must never forget that we’re humans. Because we’re humans, we dream. And when we dream, we dream of money.” Huh? Best of all is: “Somebody said: ‘Nobody going on a business trip would be missed if he didn’t arrive.” Yeah, somebody really dumb.
The proverbs, like the repetitions, are meant to stifle communication and contribute to the sense of secrets everywhere. Everything and everybody that Joe encounters is part of a vast conspiracy to steal his own secret, the valuable formula, and frame Joe for its theft as well as for a couple of murders. But mysteries were meant, on stage and screen at least, to be solved, not to remain as tantalizingly obscure as Joe’s formula — or the dialogue. When it is not solved, or is solved with many loose ends of the mystery remaining, it is merely the author being coy with us and pretending that something for which a perfectly good solution must exist is really somehow a symbol of the inscrutability of the universe.
Now I am as ready to admit the universe’s inscrutability as the next fellow, but there is no reason whatsoever for supposing that a criminal conspiracy hatched by an improbably clever and almost magically powerful Steve Martin is equally inscrutable. It is just not true that “We have no idea who anyone is.” On the contrary, we have a pretty good idea of who almost everyone is, and to take the occasional mistake or surprise as establishing a general rule of inscrutability — “Who is what they seem?” — is deliberately to close our eyes to most human realities. C.S. Lewis says somewhere that the habit of “seeing through” things ultimately results in seeing nothing, since a totally transparent world must be invisible. David Mamet is really the prisoner of this film’s title — the prisoner of the adolescent illusion that he sees through everything.