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by Jim Wunderle

"The Spanish Prisoner"

Directed by:David Mamet

Starring: Campbell Scott, Steve Martin, Rebecca Pidgeon

Rated: PG

Playwright/screenwriter/director David Mamet is one of the most respected authors connected with the film industry, and rightly so. His work be it on the heavy or light side has always been intelligent, full of interesting characters and original, not to mention entertaining.

He began his career as a playwright and broke into films in 1981 with his screenplay for the remake of the classic film noir, "The Postman Always Rings Twice."

A few more noteworthy screenplays followed ("The Verdict," "The Untouchables") before Mamet turned his sights to directing in 1987. His debut was "House of Games," an intricate story along the order of Hitchcock that draws the audience into its con game and plays us like a cheap violin.

Since then, Mamet has delivered a few more fine screenplays, most notably "Glengarry Glen Ross," the riveting, if somewhat bleak, drama based on his Pulitzer Prize-winning play.

Mamet has also directed some interesting films, including a personal favorite of mine, "Things Change." Here we see a sweeter side of Mamet, and it's one of those movies that nearly everyone who enjoys a good story will like. (When dear old mum and I agree on a film, you can bet it has a rather broad appeal.)

With his latest effort as both writer and director, Mamet returns to the themes he explored in "House of Games," with equally brilliant results. "The Spanish Prisoner" is full of twists, turns, surprises and swindles, and I can't think of a better film I've seen this year.

It's early yet, but predictions are in order: Oscar nominations for Mamet's flawless screenplay and Campbell Scott's fine performance in the lead role. The rest of the cast, including Steve Martin, who reminds us again that he can do drama, is great, as well, and they've been given some choice characters and finely tuned dialogue with which to work.

The title of the film may be somewhat misleading, which is perfectly apropos for the tale. It refers to an age-old, elaborate con game wherein the victim is duped out of his money while trying to help a beautiful damsel in distress. The con at work here is even more elaborate, and as such, it wouldn't be fair to discuss the plot in too much detail. Here's what I can tell you, though.

Joe Ross (Campbell Scott) works for a company referred to as "The Company," and he's just invented a process, called "The Process" (Mamet can pull things like this off). This process promises to rake in billions of dollars for Joe's employers. As the process is nearing completion, Joe begins to worry that the company may not be thinking about rewarding him for his efforts. After all, he is a hired employee, and legally the process belongs to the company.

On a business/pleasure trip to the Caribbean, Joe meets the mysterious millionaire Jimmy Dell, who takes a liking to him and suggests they get together when back in New York.

Once back in the city, Jimmy takes Joe under his wing. When Jimmy finds that Joe is concerned about the relationship between Joe, his invention and his company, Jimmy suggests that his lawyer might be able to help.

It's along about here that Joe sees things beginning to unravel and that Jimmy might not be everything he's claimed. When Joe smells a con game afoot, he feels betrayed and goes to the FBI. Needless to say, in a Mamet-esque universe, things are never quite as simple as calling in the feds.

No more should be said about the plot. A lot of the film's power comes from the unfolding of its various layers.

I will say this about the general state of films and how this one relates: In a time when "action" movies are judged by the number of bullets fired and bombs exploded, I have seldom spent more time on the edge of my seat than I did during "The Spanish Prisoner." This from a film with only one shot fired and it's not even a real bullet.

Filmmakers can learn a lot from Mamet. Tension, action and drama come from the writing, not the special-effects department.

(Jim Wunderle works at Associated Video Producers and is a Springfield free-lance writer and musician.)

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