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."