The Spanish Prisoner
Screenplay : David Mamet
MPAA Rating : PG
Year of Release : 1998
Stars : Campbell Scott (Joe Ross), Rebecca Pidgeon (Susan Ricci), Steve Martin (Jimmy Dell), Ben Gazzara (Klein), Ricky Jay (George Lang), Felicity Huffman (Pat McCune)
There is a line in David Mamet's stunning con game-thriller "The Spanish Prisoner" that is repeated several times during the film, and for good reason. It is spoken by a young secretary named Susan (Rebecca Pidgeon), who seems utterly harmless and completely trusting. Yet, she insists over and over, "You never really know who anybody is."
This is the heart of the film, and the strength of the con that is played. "The Spanish Prisoner" is the term used to described a "confidence game," where one person plays on another's vanity and greed in order to con him out of something precious. In "The Spanish Prisoner," the victim is a burgeoning young inventor named Joe Ross (Campbell Scott), and the con men are far too lengthy to list, and some of them aren't revealed until the last few minutes.
Joe is a designer at an unnamed company run by Mr. Klein (Ben Gazzara). He is a virtuous, hard-working, decent man, which of course, makes him a perfect target for being taken advantage of. He has just recently invented a complex formula known only as "The Process." It fills an entire book with cryptic-looking language and symbols, and whatever it is, it is guaranteed to make the company's stockholders a lot of money.
When the film opens, Joe, Klein, Susan, and a company attorney named George Lang (Ricky Jay) are on a business/pleasure trip in the Caribbean to finalize the details about The Process before it is revealed at the stockholders' meeting. Klein is constantly worried about the security surrounding the magic formula; industrial espionage is everywhere, and he is afraid that someone will steal it. He even says a few things to suggest that he suspects Joe might try to steal it, especially because Joe is concerned that he will not be properly compensated for his work that will make others so rich.
Enter Jimmy Dell, a suave, mysterious millionaire played by Steve Martin in a rare and effective dramatic performance. Joe first meets Jimmy when he snaps a pic of Susan on the beach with Jimmy in the background. Jimmy immediately comes over and offers Joe $1,000 for the camera, which makes him a somewhat suspicious character right off the bat. Why would he be so desperate to keep photographs of himself out of other people's hands?
We later find out that there is a seemingly acceptable reason for his behavior, and Joe and Jimmy get to be friends. Jimmy asks Joe to drop off a present for his sister in New York. They have dinner together at an exclusive club, where Jimmy makes Joe a member simply because that night happens to be members-only night, and it's the only way to get him in. Everything seems to be going exceptionally well, so well that Joe begins letting down his guard by discussing his awkward situation at the company.
At this point, about forty minutes into the film, things in Joe's life suddenly come unhinged, and everything that transpired in the first half of the film turns against him. People he had trusted aren't who he thought they were, and some of them simply disappear. The formula for The Process is stolen, Joe is blamed for it, the IRS suspects him of having large, undeclared amounts of money, and it appears that he is a murderer.
"The Spanish Prisoner" is very much a Hitchockian film. It has all the classic elements: an innocent man wrongly accused, people pretending to be who they are not, a heart-thumping climax that takes place in a public arena, and even Hitchcock's favorite device, the MacGuffin, that little plot point that seems really important, but is used only to divert our attention away from what's really going on right under our noses.
If he weren't a playwright and film director, Mamet would probably make a good con artist. Magic tricks and con games are obsessions of his, and he has dealt with them artistically in other films such as "House of Games" (1987) and "Things Change" (1988). By now, he has the genre down to a science -- he builds "The Spanish Prisoner" from the inside out, and then slowly peels away layers, exposing what's underneath.
What makes "The Spanish Prisoner" so good is that Mamet has the ability to trick you into thinking you know what's going to happen. And, even if your suspicions turn out to be right, he still reveals them in such interesting and original ways that it doesn't matter. It still feels exciting because the film has that aura of being just plausible enough to believe in, but not so much that it feels anything close to ordinary.
"The Spanish Prisoner" expertly plays on modern paranoia that we can't trust anybody. Even without elaborate con games, it's hard to know who people are and what they really want. Joe is in that most vulnerable of positions -- he's a nice person, but he's possibly about to come into a lot of money, so he must scrutinize everybody's motives for wanting to be his friend, which is against his character. In Mamet's world, being "too nice," as one character describes Joe, is an infallible weakness.
Mamet is certainly one of the best American writers working today, and "The Spanish Prisoner," is one of his smartest, most satisfying films, as both a writer and director. He gives us lots of close-ups of small movements, many of which seem unimportant at first, but later take on great significance. He also gets good performances from his actors, including Campbell Scott ("Singles") who usually makes for a generic lead.
Here, he plays the victim perfectly by eliciting sympathy from the audience (he appears in every scene, so we must follow the winding path of the story over his shoulder), but also throwing in the surprise that he isn't vengeful in the typical manner. Even when he has the chance to get back at those who have wronged him, his actions are surprising, but believable within the confines of his character.
"The Spanish Prisoner" is a Mamet film through and through. Although he dispenses with his usual vulgarity, Mamet still brings freshness and life to his character's dialogue in a way few writers can. Everything that is said is important, because in a film like this, you never know when someone's line has a second meaning that won't be revealed until later.
©1998 James Kendrick