The Spanish Prisoner Movie Review

Movie Review by Anthony Leong © Copyright 1998


It's an interesting setup, Mr. Ross. It is the oldest confidence game on the books. The Spanish Prisoner... Fellow says him and his sister, wealthy refugees, left a fortune in the Home Country, he got out, girl and the money stuck in Spain. Here is her most beautiful portrait. And he needs money to get her and the fortune out. Man who supplies the money gets the fortune and the girl. Oldest con in the world.

Campbell Scott

Playwright and screenwriter David Mamet ("The Edge") has had a long and celebrated career, leaving his mark in the film world with a number of compelling scripts, from "The Postman Always Rings Twice" in 1981 to this year's "Wag the Dog". The quintessential Mamet script is marked by its unique style of conversation, with staccato discourses and multiple levels of interpretation, a quality that has won his work a number of accolades and a loyal following. "The Spanish Prisoner", a feature film Mamet wrote and directed in 1997, is similar in intent and execution to his earlier directorial effort "The House of Games", a film residing comfortably in the suspense thriller genre.

Who in the world is what they seem...?
People aren't that complicated, Joe. Good people, bad people, they generally look like what they are.
Then why are so many people having difficulty?
That's what baffles me.

Scott and Steve Martin

The convoluted plot is rendered in a form true to the Hitchcockian style, both in a narrative sense and in style. The mild-mannered yet hapless protagonist amidst the mounting intrigue is Joe Ross (Campbell Scott of "Singles"), who has invented 'The Process' for his boss Mr. Klein (Ben Gazzara). The mysterious process serves as the film's McGuffin, a plot device that the characters care very much about (and are even willing to kill for), but is never fully explained, similar to the contents of the briefcase in "Ronin", another screenplay that Mamet had a hand in. Regardless of the mechanics of 'The Process', it is believed that this algorithm will allow the company that Joe works for to gain control of the stock market, which will ensure plenty of money to go around. However, despite the effort that Joe has put into refining 'The Process', Mr. Klein has remained tight-lipped on the terms of his compensation, a situation that makes him feel uneasy.

Always do business as if the person you're doing business with is trying to screw you, because he probably is. And if he's not, you can be pleasantly surprised.

Enter Jimmy Dell (Steve Martin, in a surprisingly serious role), a mysterious and seemingly wealthy man that Joe comes to know while on a corporate retreat in the Caribbean. The two men become fast acquaintances, with Jimmy offering up plenty of advice and anecdotes on succeeding in the business world. At retreat's end, Jimmy asks Joe for a favor-- to deliver a gift to his sister in New York. However, this simple errand soon sends the naive and impressionable Joe into an unfamiliar world of deception and duplicity, where everyone wants to get their hands on 'The Process' and it is difficult to discern between friend and foe. Between the police, FBI, and Mr. Klein's lawyers, Joe's only solace seems to be the fetching and affable Susan (Rebecca Pidgeon, Mamet's real-life wife), a company secretary with amorous intentions. By the film's climax, audiences will find their pre-suppositions challenged, their suspicions rewarded, their powers of observation called into question, and their expectations overturned.

Worry is like interest paid in advance on a debt that never comes due.

Scott and Rebecca Pidgeon

Despite the numerous plot twists and labyrinthine intrigue, some of which are never adequately resolved, "The Spanish Prisoner" remains an engaging film because of its central character. Joe Ross is our sympathetic tour guide on this descent into madness, and we could not be in better company, unraveling the story's many mysteries at his side. While he embodies many desirable personality traits, such as honesty and reverence, these are the very same attributes that are preyed upon when he falls into the very elaborate trap that has been set for him.

Nobody going on a business trip would have been missed if he never arrived.

And as with any Mamet film, the dialogue must be paid very strict attention, both in content and delivery, as the significance of those uttered words is revealed later on. Furthermore, upon a second viewing, having seen how the elaborate con game plays itself out, it is interesting to see the visual and narrative cues that Mamet provides early on in the film and how well the consistency of the story's internal logic holds up. Finally, the film's production design also seems to pay homage to the works of Hitchcock, with settings and props that seem more at home in the black-and-white films of the Fifties than the Internet-wired world of the Nineties.

We must never forget that we are human, and as humans we dream, and when we dream, we dream of money.

Despite the somewhat misleading title, "The Spanish Prisoner" is an entertaining suspense-thriller that will keep you guessing until the very end. However, even at the film's end, you might want to watch it a second time in order to see the subtle clues that Mamet drops along the way.

You never know who anybody is, except me. I am who I am.

Images courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics. All rights reserved.


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