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Mamet's 'Prisoner' is sleight of film

Some directors and writers won't talk about their work. You suggest a theory and they elevate an eyebrow and nod and drum their fingers and imply that no such thing as a thought ever crossed their minds about the work in question.

David Mamet is not such a person. He and Sidney Lumet are the only two active directors who have written books about the craft of making movies. With them, there's a lot of theory. They like to talk about how the thing goes together.

You can see that in Mamet's other obsessions, which include magic and con games. Every card trick is a three-act drama in miniature; the cards are introduced and explained, the problem is outlined, the audience's sympathy is engaged, the outcome seems assured, and then something amazing happens: Hamlet is poisoned, or the ace turns up inside the balloon you've been holding the whole time.

When you take the buried structure of a card trick and expand it into a screenplay, here's what you keep: You manipulate the audience so that they are NOT trying to figure out what's happening, but they're trying to figure out the secret purpose for what's happening. In dumb movies, the director tries to fool the audience with the event itself. In smart movies, like Mamet's, he tries to fool them into believing they've seen through it. By the same token, in clever card tricks, at the moment of deception there is another piece of business, suspicious-looking but irrelevant: A-ha! they think, looking at the scarf, it's hidden in the folds! Meanwhile, the magician is surreptitiously blowing up the balloon.

Mamet's new film, "The Spanish Prisoner" is about just such a con game. Even to tell you that may be cheating. I walked in not knowing it was a con game, but suspecting it was, because a lot of Mamet's movies ("House of Games," "Things Change," "The Edge") are about deception, and because the cast included Ricky Jay, the bearded wizard who always seems at Mamet's side when elaborate deception is involved.

So it's a con game. It stars Campbell Scott as a man who has invented "The Process," and it's going to make millions for a company headed by Ben Gazzara. They're in the Caribbean to iron out the details. Ricky Jay is a company attorney, Rebecca Pidgeon (Mamet's wife) is a secretary with a crush on Scott, and Steve Martin is a mysterious stranger who arrives on the island by a seaplane. Or does he? See, that's how it works: We're figuring that he probably wasn't in that seaplane at all, but only seemed to be, and actually it doesn't make the slightest difference if he bicycled to the island.

"Shakespeare said nothing's either good or bad, but thinking makes it so," Mamet told me. This was last September, right after the movie's world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival. He has written two other movies set to open first ("The Edge" and "Wag the Dog"), and then this film, which he wrote and directed, would open in the spring.

"People will be watching TV and a picture comes on of a brooding guy, maybe he's got a beard. And the anchor says, the young child was abducted by the gunman and held at gunpoint for three hours. And you're looking at the bearded guy and thinking, why would they even let this guy near a child? And then the news continues, Then this heroic young clergyman walked in. And now you're looking at the guy and thinking, well, obviously, he's a hero.

"What we're told about something so absolutely influences what we 'know' about it. And that's what a confidence game is about, and also what a lot of drama is about. We're told something about the hero--or more importantly, we allow ourselves to understand something."

In "The Spanish Prisoner," which contains no prisoners and no Spanish, we're allowed to think whatever we want,. From time to time Mamet us to think we see the card going up his sleeve. To see through the deception and spot the trick which nevertheless conceals the real deception inside.

Mamet is so fascinated by this process that he wrote and directed the celebrated off-Broadway show by Ricky Jay, who is considered the greatest card manipulator in the world. The show also played Chicago and went on a national tour, and I remember watching it one night next to a professional magician who said quietly, "I know what he's doing and how he's doing it, but I can't see him do it."

"You've known Ricky Jay a long time," I said.

"Yeah," Mamet said.

"I was startled to find out I've known him longer than you have. We went to college together."

"You did? At Cornell?"

Now there was a little pause.

"At Illinois," I said. "Now that's interesting, that you said Cornell." Did Ricky Jay even go to Illinois or Cornell? With Ricky Jay you can't be sure.

"I think he went to Cornell hotel school," Mamet said.

"When he told me we met at Illinois," I said, "I told him I didn't remember his name. And he said, 'My name wasn't Ricky Jay then. And I didn't look like this'."


"So let me tell you how it works," Mamet said. "We were on the movie of 'Things Change' and a guy comes up to me and says, 'Dave, Dave.' I said 'Hi.' He says, 'Don't you recognize me?' I say, 'I beg your pardon.' He says, 'It's Pat. Pat Kelly.' I say 'Oh, hi.' He says, 'Pat Kelly from Chicago.' I say, 'Where do I know you from?' He starts telling me about the times he worked with me at the St. Nicholas Theatre and I absolutely don't remember this guy and he's an actor. And he says, 'You got anything on the movie for me?' I say, 'Well, probably...sure; I'm sure I can find something for you to do in the movie....I'll give you a part in the movie, you know, but just off the record, I've never met you, have I?' 'Come on, Dave," he says, "of course you remember me'."

"I've always loved that process," Mamet said. "To make someone go along with an idea, or even make them think it's their idea. I think it really hardened when I was living in Chicago and selling Walton carpets over the telephone. W-A-L-T-O-N is what you dial, remember that? And then I was selling real estate up at Lincoln and Peterson and I got fascinated by the skill that it took to convince someone to do something which was absolutely against their interest and absurd into the bargain. The moral implications aside, it was an act of such personal courage to be able to force, to convince, to cajole another to do your bidding, and in such a way that they weren't aware of it. It wasn't their own idea. I thought that it was astounding. That it was the essence of drama."

Mamet treated the real estate days in "Glengarry, Glen Ross," his Pulitzer Prize-winning play about salesman seducing clients into buying property they didn't need, didn't want, and couldn't afford. And "The Spanish Prisoner," beneath all the levels of differences, does the same thing.

What's being sold is hope. Or sex. Or greed. Depends on how you look at it. The weakness of the protagonist becomes the strength of his enemies.

"This has to work like a Swiss watch," Mamet told me, "because it's a confidence game, not on the characters, but on the audience. You put in one piece of information too many, they're gonna get bored. You put in one piece of information too little, they aren't gonna have enough to intuit ahead of you. What you want is constantly try to make them guess wrong. Just like in magic."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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