The Spanish Prisoner; Alfred Hitchcock

Final Paper Mamet and Hitchcock’s Suspenseful Similarities While comparing the film’s Strangers on a Train, directed by Alfred Hitchcock and The Spanish Prisoner directed by David Mamet, two suspenseful mysteries unfold. In this essay I will compare both directors use of themes, tones, and camera effects to convey the thrilling story of a confused and tortured protagonist. While they are different plotlines, both stories overlap in many ways. Perhaps Mamet may have even made an homage to Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train by mirroring various scenes and themes in The Spanish Prisoner.

Strangers on a Train is the story of two strangers that meet on a train, but it is hardly that simple. One a tennis star, Guy Haines, and the other, a wealthy psychopath Bruno Anthony. Bruno proposes a scheme to Guy to kill someone the other person wants to dispose of, a “criss-cross”. Unknowingly, Guy agrees to kill Bruno’s enemy and vice versa. Bruno kills Guy’s wife that he had been trying to divorce, and expects Guy to kill his father. They get mixed up in a cat a dog chase of murder and confusion, which ended with Bruno’s death and Guy marrying the women he loved, Anne Morton.

The Spanish Prisoner is titled from a con game that traps a mark into turning over thousands of dollars to scam artists. David Mamet character Joe Ross is a math genius that devised a “process” that will earn his company billions of dollars. The process is the maguffin (a typical trait of Hitchcock); we never find out what the process is, only that rival Japanese corporations will do anything to steal it. Joe Ross ends up happily ever after similarly to Guy Haines. Both stories reflect one another in multiple ways.

One is that Bruno the sympathetic villain in Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train that we love and hate is very similar to that of Julian ‘Jimmy’ Dell who elaborately tried to steal the process. We grow relationships with Jimmy Dell and with Bruno Anthony; they are both the catalyst of all bad that comes to the protagonist, yet each director makes them appealing and loveable. Both plotlines are obviously different, but Joe Ross is a similar reflection of Hitchcock’s creation of Guy Haines as well. Both men are mixed up in what they thought were brief encounters with ice or eccentric strangers. Yet both men get fooled along the way and get entangled in a web of lies, murder, and deceit. Mamet mirrors Hitchcock storyline in various ways throughout the films with character similarities again and again. On the plane ride back to the States, Susan asks Joe the film’s signature question: “Who in the world is what they seem? ” In this scene, instead of a train they are on an airplane, and instead of Bruno asking Guy a question, it is Susan to Joe. Inevitably they are the same.

Susan endows doubt and a motive to do something out of character, much like Bruno’s question to Anthony, “My theory is that everybody is a potential murderer. Didn’t you ever want to kill somebody? Say one of those useless fellows Miriam was running around with? ” Each character is stricken with a striking comment that unravels the rest of their fate. In the same scene in the airplane Joe responds to Susan by retreating to the plane’s bathroom to unwrap Dell’s gift, which turns out to be a first edition of Budge on Tennis. The tennis theme is another similarity echoed in Strangers on a Train.

Guy Haines is a pro tennis player and many of the scenes have imagery of tennis. Metaphorically it could represent the mental state of characters or plot, the back and forth of sense and logic. Later when Joe is trying to meet up with lawyers to discuss the process in Central Park, he goes onto a carousel. Mamet does no mistake by copying Hitchcock’s carousel tool as a dizzying climactic point. The spinning of the carousel signifies the mental state of both protagonists at the time. Each is on the verge of a breakdown, not knowing who to trust or what to do next.

Camera angles enhance the scene in Hitchcock’s version because he uses high angle shots and differential focus on the faces of the patrons riding the carousel while the background spins quickly it creates a highly suspenseful and memorable scene. Hitchcock also used that little carnie man who crawled under the moving carousel, I was in awe of the camera angles throughout this scene, it made me hold my breath. The scene from The Spanish Prisoner where Joe was in the carousel was not as thrilling, the tone was different, he just walked around it slowly.

The tones of the two scenes are like night and day. Hitchcock’s is loud and scary, while Mamet’s is eerily quiet and somber. Thematically they both explain the mental state of the protagonist, but Hitchcock’s tone is intense, fast paced, and surreal at times, while Mamet’s tone is cerebral and realistic. Not only are the characters, the themes, and elements comparatively similar, but also many of Hitchcock’s trademarks are found in both movies. One is the falsely accused man. This is present in Guy Haines, as well as in Joe Ross. Each protagonist is being chased for a crime they didn’t commit.

It is a classic trait of suspense thrillers and is defiantly a major part of each film. The second trait is the guilty woman. This is present in Susan in Spanish Prisoner, and in Miriam in Strangers on a Train. Both directors convey police as idiotic throughout the movie as well, which is another Hitchcock trait. The final element is the pathological deviant. This is present in Bruno Anthony and in Julian ‘Jimmy’ Dell. This is the figure that spun the web of lies and created a “trustworthy” bond while in reality being completely crazed for a purpose that is unattainable.

While both movies are similar in their theme, tone, characters, and director traits, they also vary in ways that make them unique. Both the stories are well conveyed due to the director’s clear point of view. One was referencing the other, both were gripping and suspenseful tales of an innocent man trying to fix a problem that they cant seem to solve. Mamet’s mirroring of Hitchcock was done well, but Hitchcock’s surrealistic shots and character like the carnie make it more interesting and compelling of a movie to me.