The last misdirection, or deus ex machina?
May 30, 2007 11:37 PM   Subscribe

Regarding the ending to David Mamet's The Spanish Prisoner (note: spoilers contained within).

I have watched this film several times and I am curious whether the ending is another piece of trickery.

Specifically, are the US marshals depicted at the conclusion of Joe's encounter with Susan and Jimmy Dell genuinely there to help Joe, or are they another set of con artists, either using Joe to ply The Process from Jimmy, or working another con with Jimmy by providing false comfort to Joe?

What bothers me are three issues:

• Joe calls the NYC police when finding out he has been deceived and the Process is stolen; the same detective who works with Joe is somehow magically at the dock in Boston at the end, which means the detective did nothing while Joe barely escapes police roadblocks

• The two US marshalls, if genuinely investigating Joe's case, somehow know to follow him in his escape from NYC to Boston

• In addition, they would have had also known about George Lang being murdered, and they, too, allowed Joe to be framed for the murder and did nothing to stop the police roadblocks

That Joe is "saved" in the nick of time seems implausible, given the timing, unless his saviors are either rivals or associates of Jimmy Dell, closely following them both.

Is the ending the result of plot holes or is it the last trick up Mamet's sleeve, before the closing credits? Has Mamet said anything concrete about the film's ending?
posted by Blazecock Pileon to Media & Arts (10 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I've never seen anything concrete from Mamet. I remember seeing Roger Ebert discussing it with someone, though, where he opined that there was, in fact, another level of con, beneath the con that was explained to us.

Hang on -- here's his original review. At the end, he expresses the same feelings you do.

Personally, I used to think that Mamet would have plugged all the holes and I just wasn't seeing how, but after seeing Spartan and Heist, I'm not really entirely confident of that anymore.
posted by Karlos the Jackal at 12:49 AM on May 31, 2007

Best answer: Some theories.
posted by kirkaracha at 7:51 AM on May 31, 2007

Karlos, I'm curious which issues you had with Spartan. Emails in profile if it's too off topic for here.
posted by dobbs at 7:53 AM on May 31, 2007

Best answer: I think The Spanish Prisoner is one of the greatest movies I've ever seen. I've yet to meet anyone who has the same conclusion as another. I've watched it more than a dozen times and I'm sure I'll watch it a dozen more. Here's my conclusion - Spoiler Alert -

The whole thing is a training exercise. Joe is a new agent and all of these people are part of the FBI's training process. I believe that Joe also understands that this is a "game" but he plays it in ernest because if he figures it out he gets to become a full-fledged agent. This is the reason they are all being so cryptic and over the top all the time - because they are bored with their job. "I live above the Sunshine Bakery".

I think the point of the movie is that every job no matter how exciting it seems to someone else can get mundane if you do it too long.
posted by any major dude at 7:56 AM on May 31, 2007 [3 favorites]

That's a damn good theory, dude.
posted by Optamystic at 8:00 AM on May 31, 2007

Oh, that's an awesome theory. Now I need to watch that movie again.
posted by mkultra at 8:55 AM on May 31, 2007

Response by poster: Kirkaracha, nice links, thanks. I guess the real fun of the ambiguous parts of the film is in how richly convoluted and multilayered everyone's explanations get for explaining any hidden con games.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 9:10 AM on May 31, 2007

Best answer: This is the reason they are all being so cryptic and over the top all the time

I thought the reason they were being cryptic and over the top all the time was that it was a David Mamet movie.
posted by dobbs at 9:12 AM on May 31, 2007 [5 favorites]

dobbs -- I'll be brief and tie it back to Prisoner at the end!

I thought Spartan had some really good bits, but it's part of my overall disenchantment with Mamet-directed films. In House of Games and Homicide and (the Mamet-written-but-not-directed) Glengarry Glen Ross, all the pieces fit together and it was very satisfying. His later films left me feeling much less satisfied in this regard.

I haven't seen Spartan since it came out, but I remember one part in particular that hinges on Val Kilmer switching clothes with someone else in much less time than it would have actually taken. I could be wrong, and I might see something I missed if I watched it again. But that, and the astounding convenience of the Swedish TV crew, and some other coincidences about which I don't remember details, left me with the impression that Mamet was just being lazy.

Back to Prisoner: I cannot figure out how the book is switched. I've watched that segment and I just don't see it. It either happens off camera -- during a time cut -- or we're seeing it "through the eyes" of Campbell Scott (that is, he thinks he never takes his eyes off of the book, so that's what we're shown). Either way is frustrating to me, and feels like a lazy cheat -- as does the third possibility, which is "it just happens. It doesn't matter how."

So I think my feelings about Blazecock's original question echo my feelings about that book; either there are Very Important Things happening off camera which Mamet chooses not to show us, or the whole thing is filtered through an unreliable narrator, or the details simply aren't important: these things just happen.

Spartan and Heist make me tend toward the third answer.

I dunno if that's at all coherent. Sorry!
posted by Karlos the Jackal at 4:58 PM on May 31, 2007

(my copy of the movie is on loan, so I'm doing this from memory)
Here's the thing -- the Federal Marshalls were waiting for Steve Martin's character to incriminate himself before they could move in. He doesn't do so until they are on the boat, and never would have without the persistance of Joe. Once he incriminates himself, he could be arrested, but since he tries to kill Joe they kill him.

Do they allow Joe to be framed for murder -- yes, yes they do. They don't care about Joe except as a way to get Jimmi. Or, as they sharpshooter said when Joe asked what would have happened if she'd failed to save his life, "It would have been back to the range for me!"

(the complaint about the switch seems a little more valid).

Karlos, your problem with Spartan: you may be confusing it, in which he puts a jacket on a scarecrow (not too difficult) with The Salton Sea, in which Val Kilmer does switch outfits with someone else rather inexplicably.

(The Swedish teevee, it would have been nice if Mamet had introduced them earlier)
posted by Bookhouse at 11:13 PM on October 5, 2007

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