The Spanish Prisoner review (1997, dir. David Mamet)

Steve Martin? In a serious role? It works. That all-too-coiffured white hair, which has never not been white, is really rather austere anyway.
David Mamet’s The Spanish Prisoner (1997) isn’t Hitchcockian, but I’ve mentioned Hitchcock now, and as you can see I haven’t edited it out. You can see where one might make such a comparison: it features an innocent man in over his head thanks to the machinations of people far more insidious than himself. There’s much in the way of confusion, obfuscation and dastardly plots lying in wait for him too as he uncovers the machinery behind the curtain.
You won’t find swishes of Hitchcock’s bravura visual style here, or his knack for keeping things moving at a steady but heart-tickling speed. Our territory here is most assuredly Mamet-ian. David Mamet prefers the theatre with all its rhythms and artificiality intact. The characters here speak exactly as real people don’t. And the plot moves steadily and deliberately.
This isn’t why you’re going to watch The Spanish Prisoner, though. You’re here for the twists, the turns, the twisty-turns and the smarty-pants dialogue. What you thought was going to happen happens, then it doesn’t, then it does again and then that sequence repeats but backwards. Not all of the revelations will be entirely unexpected, or even convincingly revealed, but the creaky bits are obviously homage to thrillers from another era, so you can forgive it that.
Joe (Campbell Scott) is the inventor of a process. Something very valuable which has to be hidden away. It doesn’t matter what it is and we never find out anyway. What’s important is that people want it and are prepared to go to mind-bending lengths to get it.
Scott turns in an everyman performance and that’s fine; it’s what’s needed. Rebecca Pidgeon is maddeningly perky and amateurish but it suits her character, and anyway, she’s married to the director, so that’s fine too. Ricky Jay is here because he’s a seasoned Mamet actor and Mamet has to have him in his films. It’s a law of nature. Ben Gazarra is typically charismatic and inscrutable. And Steve Martin is playing out of type, which is good because he’s really rather adept at throwing his acting chops around. I can’t understand why he doesn’t take more of these roles.
I can’t tell you more; I really can’t. I don’t want to spoil the surprises on offer. Pay rapt attention, though. Every object is imbued with implication, every glance can be interpreted two or more ways and every word drips with meaning. And all will be referred to later on in some form of satisfying pay-off. You’ll need to concentrate and at the end you can give yourself a hearty pat on the back for doing so.
The Spanish Prisoner is available on DVD, though out of print, so some copies can fetch a high price.


Red, White & Blue review (2010, dir. Simon Rumley)

Sitting in a darkened room with 15 people, my toes were so curled I could almost kick my kneecaps. Across the room I saw winces, hands across eyes and heads fully turned from the screen. “Oh my…” breathed the woman behind and I wondered who would pass out. They stoically clung on with me, though. We made it through.
The second half of Simon Rumley’s Red, White & Blue kicks your punished psyche into some pretty deep, dark holes. Thankfully your trust is earned with the fascinating drama of the first half. Erica (Amanda Fuller) vacuums by day and vamps by night. In a new bar every night she picks up men with ease, never sleeping with the same one twice. Anyone who gets too close is shunned.
Franki (Marc Senter) is in a band, possibly on the verge of success. They practise rock music in a garage until it’s time for Franki to donate blood to his sick mother. Some of the most heart-rending scenes are between Franki and his mother. That he loves her and wants to help her is never in question.
Nate (Noah Taylor) lives in the same boarding house as Erica. A confessed torturer of animals and CIA operative (or fantasist), Nate tries to break down Erica’s barriers by declaring everything to her. Their initially faltering relationship is frustrated by her indifference. When they do form a bond we witness a profound change in Erica. Cutting up the photo album of her sexual conquests, she finally comes to Nate’s room. They lie together and he makes a crazy suggestion…
Rumley uses a short sequence from one of my favourite films, Carnival of Souls, to signify a turning point. “I’ll never come back,” says Mary. After this moment, none of the characters is able to return to where they were. Then Franki receives terrible news. Something severe enough to change his life, and potentially those of family and friends.
Subsequently there is a rapid descent into one of the very lowest levels of hell, the slow-burn opening giving way to an incendiary denouement. Red, White & Blue is not torture porn. Nor is it gory, sensationalist or cheap. What begins to feel like Dead Man’s Shoes by Shane Meadows or even Death Wish by Michael Winner soon turns into a revenge drama of a different colour. With grim finality it goes beyond revenge into territory occupied by Takashi Miike’s Audition. Most violence is implied. Like the shower scene in Psycho, our eyes see far less than our brains think they saw. Electrifying cuts and distorted bursts of music heighten the anxiety.
Rumley’s film is most certainly a multi-headed beast, uneasily mixing human drama with staggeringly bold nastiness. The sound-design is especially impressive as are the editing and performances. Special mention goes to Sally Jackson as Franki’s mother for a tender, human portrayal of a very ill woman, as well as Amanda Fuller, who makes troubled Erica brave and then vulnerable but never insipid or weak.
Be warned: this film will shock. Yet it’s not your standard horror/revenge fare. Its messages are open to discussion (what is revealed by Nate pushing past the US flags outside Franki’s house? Are the CIA involved in torture? Why does the boy’s mother accept Erica?) but Red, White & Blue has a human heart and is just as beautiful, conflicted and unpredictable as any of us.