“A fellow said, ‘We must never forget that we are human. And as humans we must dream. And when we dream we dream of money.”
This line of dialogue is spoken early on in The Spanish Prisoner (1998) and establishes one of the most important themes of David Mamet’s film: greed. The allure of money is what motivates all of the characters in the film save one – its protagonist, Joe Ross (Campbell Scott). He is not only at the mercy of other people’s greed but also their deception, which is another significant theme of this film.
Joe Ross and his friend and business partner George Lang (Ricky Jay) have invented “The Process,” a complicated formula that controls the global financial market. While pitching it to their boss Mr. Klein (Ben Gazzara) at a resort somewhere in the Caribbean, Joe meets Jimmy Dell (Steve Martin), a wealthy, well-spoken man who offers $1,000 for Joe’s camera. The two men become friends and Joe is gradually drawn into a world filled with elaborate facades where no one can be trusted.
Campbell Scott is first-rate as the innocent man embroiled in a scheme where Joe is at the mercy of situations beyond his control. He is not dumb – just not savvy but he wises up soon enough. Joe is the classic patsy, set-up in an elaborate frame job that is so beautifully orchestrated that we wonder how he’ll get out of it. The actor handles Mamet’s wordy screenplay with ease and his calm, even voice is perfectly suited for the filmmaker’s dialogue.
Steve Martin not only slides effortlessly into this dramatic role, but is also adept at speaking Mamet’s dialogue. He has a tough role in that he plays a charismatic wealthy man who turns out to be a master at the long con, gaining Joe’s trust by giving enough believable personal details in an affable way to gain his (and our) trust. It isn’t until late in the film that we realize just how much we’ve been taken in by Jimmy. At one point, he tells Joe, “People aren’t that complicated, Joe. Good people, bad people. They generally look like what they are.” This is, of course, a lie as Jimmy is nothing like what he seems.
In a mannered performance, Rebecca Pidgeon plays a chatty femme fatale that uses her incessant chatter as a smoke screen. Not for one second do we believe she’s the eager beaver, low-level secretary she pretends to be and even tells Joe at one point, “Who is what they seem? Who in this world is what they seem?” Again, she is conning both Joe and us because her annoying perchance for verbal diarrhea throws us off guard – there’s no way she could be in on the con even when she makes a point of warning us.
Known for playing the obnoxious dad in the popular sitcom Married…with Children, Ed O’Neill is cast against type as a no-nonsense FBI agent along with a pre-Desperate Housewives Felicity Huffman. Long-time Mamet collaborator Ricky Jay is exceptional as Joe’s business partner, getting the bulk of the film’s memorable lines in the first third of the film. Ben Gazzara also has a memorable turn as Joe’s somewhat enigmatic boss whose behavior only adds to our hero’s paranoia.
Not surprisingly, The Spanish Prisoner is chock-a-block with classic Mamet-speak with such gems as George telling Joe, “Here’s what I think, you know – worry is like interest paid in advance on a debt that never comes due.” Another keeper is when Jimmy says to Joe, “A man said, it’s alright when your hobbies get in the way of your work but when they start to get in the way of each other…” And finally, this gem: “Beware of all enterprises, which require new clothes,” says George at one point. The film is an unusual thriller in the sense that everyone speaks eloquently and intelligently in the very distinctive cadence of Mamet’s style.
The Process is the film’s MacGuffin, a thing that everyone values highly but is never fully explained or revealed but is apparently capable of generating a large amount of money, which is also never revealed. The characters dance around what it is exactly and Mamet does this intentionally because it is ultimately unimportant. Its purpose is to get Joe embroiled in a complex web of lies and deceits from which he tries to extricate himself.
One of the first images in the film is of luggage going through an x-ray machine. Mamet is cleverly foreshadowing one of the film’s central themes, which is the nature of perception and how some things are hidden even when they seem to be visible. The first time we watch The Spanish Prisoner we are like Joe – unaware of just how much he’s being manipulated by others. It isn’t until the second time around that we look for the signs that this is all an elaborate ruse. Joe, a man of numbers and formulas, is oblivious to these manipulations because he is so focused on The Process. It isn’t until it is stolen that he gradually becomes more self-aware.
The idea for The Spanish Prisoner came from a time when David Mamet and his wife were on vacation in the Caribbean. It was raining the whole time and he was looking at a little lagoon from his porch and saw a large 140-foot yacht with a helicopter on top: “And I wondered what someone would be like who came off that yacht. Then I started wondering, what if someone came off the yacht and you weren’t sure if they came off the yacht.” He decided to make a light thriller in the style of Alfred Hitchcock or Stanley Donen. He had also wanted to work with actor Campbell Scott since he saw him in Longtime Companion (1989) and felt that he would be right for a “clean-cut, patrician, Leyendecker, Arrow-shirt” role.
The con employed in the film is an actual one called the Spanish Prisoner and still done today: “It’s a fairly long con and involves getting a substantial amount of money off a person and putting the person ‘on the send.’ Making a connection with the guy and sending him off to get some money and come back,” Mamet said in an interview.
The Spanish Prisoner received mostly positive reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave the film three-and-a-half out of four stars and wrote, “The Spanish Prisoner is delightful in the way a great card manipulator is delightful. It rolls its sleeves above its elbows to show it has no hidden cards, and then produces them out of thin air.” In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “The splendid inspiration of Alfred Hitchcock is much in evidence, with Mr. Scott as a latter-day James Stewart coping with the most subtly extraordinary of circumstances and later reeling from surprise after surprise. He and Mr. Martin especially display the debonair sang-froid that the material warrants.” The New York Observer’s Andrew Sarris wrote, “The ultimate seriousness of The Spanish Prisoner is validated by the rueful self-flagellation of the hero, and his recognition that the world itself is awash in chaos and corruption. Hence, there is no real Hitchcockian moral closure, no probing into the depths of the soul for the evil that lurks in us all.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “B+” rating and Lisa Schwarzbaum wrote, “In The Spanish Prisoner, a tight, mathematically pleasing exercise in con-manship, Mamet returns to the coolly observed turf he knows well, and pulls off another fine, bitter, intellectual heist.” However, the Washington Post’s Stephen Hunter wrote, “The Spanish Prisoner ends as abruptly as it began slowly. Its rhythms, therefore, feel violated, it just stops, rather too conveniently, with the intrusion of still another level of conspiratorial force far beyond what has gone before.”
Like the protagonist in another Mamet film, House of Games (1987), Joe must navigate a series of challenging con games. However, The Spanish Prisoner is much more complex in its plotting so that the scams perpetrated on Joe are layered in such a way that he is never sure who he can trust. As Joe is being conned by various people in the film so are we by Mamet as he playfully manipulates our expectations of the genre. As Mamet said in an interview, “Well, writing a movie like this is exactly the same as if I were developing a con, because I am developing a con. The filmmaker has to get something from the audience – their belief, their credulity – which they wouldn’t [give] if they were thinking about it.” We think we know which way the plot is going to go only for him to pull the narrative rug out from under us. Some may be put off by The Spanish Prisoner because it doesn’t try to endear us to any of the characters or be sentimental. It’s a logical, methodically plotted thriller, seemingly from another planet and this is due in large part to Mamet’s idiosyncratically written dialogue and stylized direction.
Covington, Richard. “The Salon Interview: David Mamet.” Salon. October 1997.
Pride, Ray. “Con Artist.” Filmmaker magazine. Spring 1998.