If The Spanish Prisoner sounds like an Errol Flynn swashbuckler, writer-director David Mamet must want it to. We haven't even entered the movie theater yet, and the con's already on. The Spanish Prisoner is, in fact, a neo-Hitchcockian thriller about a man who knows too much--an inventor named Joe (Campbell Scott) who's come up with the formulas for something called "the process," which will bring the company he works for immense profits. Joe would naturally like to be in on those profits, but easier said than done. First, he must figure out whom he can trust. His boss? The secretary who has a crush on him? The mysterious businessman he just met in the Caribbean? These three less-than-savory characters are played, respectively, by Ben Gazzara, Rebecca Pidgeon and Steve Martin in that Mametian combination of naturalism and unnaturalism--a kind of theater-of-the-absurd deadpan. All the better to focus our attention on the shell game that we, the audience, have been lured into playing. For we are Joe, Joe is us. And if the absurdists taught us that life is just another word for God's nefarious sleight of hand, Mamet likes to set himself up as God--a poker-faced card player holding four aces. I haven't always enjoyed Mamet's movies (as opposed to his plays) in the past: They're too hermetically sealed, the work of a control freak. But The Spanish Prisoner is different. It breathes, it moves, it lives.
But I wouldn't say it thrives. For that, Mamet would have had to loosen his grip on the puppet strings even more than he has. Hitchcock was a control freak, too, of course; everything in his movies was thoroughly worked out before he started filming. But the strings are invisible in Hitchcock, whereas Mamet would prefer we watch the strings instead of the puppets. And why not, when it's Campbell Scott dangling from those strings instead of, say, Cary Grant? For whatever reason, we're not as emotionally involved in Joe's fate as we might have been, and yet the movie--an elaborate cat-and-mouse game in which we're part of the cheese--has its own lulling charm. Hitchcock? No. But a great episode of "Mission: Impossible."