“The Spanish Prisoner” is the name of one of the oldest cons in the book. The con man tells the mark that his assets and his beautiful sister are stuck in Spain and he only needs a little seed money to get them out. In a surprising cameo, Ed O’Neill (from TV’s “Married with Children”) explains the con to Joseph Ross (Campbell Scott), who himself is caught in such an elaborate con game that he doesn’t know whom to trust.
Joe has developed a proprietary process that will earn his company a ton of money. Feeling that he deserves a big bonus for inventing this moneymaker, he keeps hounding his bosses for the specifics: how much money, in what form, and when will he get it. Before he can get any answers about his bonus, the company lawyers ask him to sign a document restating his affirmation that ‘his’ process belongs to the company. That’s when Joe seeks help from his new friend Jimmy (Steve Martin), a rich antique car dealer.
Jimmy warns Joe not to sign any document until a lawyer, a disinterested third party, has a look at it. His company could be trying to steal the process out from under his nose. On the other hand, Jimmy is a suspicious character, in spite of his easy friendship with Joe. They first met in the Virgin Islands, where the first thing Jimmy ever said was “I’ll give you a thousand dollars for that camera,” after Joe took a snap with Jimmy in the background. Later, Jimmy asked Joe to take a plainly-wrapped package back to the states for him. Joe obliviously takes the package through the airport scanners in one of the film’s many tense, Hitchcockian scenes.
The Spanish Prisoner has a wonderfully twisted plot. Right until the end there is just enough doubt about any given character that you can never be sure you’ve figured it out. I suspect that the final resolution might be forced onto the rest of the twists, but even now, I am not certain. One thing is for certain, and that is that the twists are what makes this movie so enjoyable.
I would be interested to see the movie a second time, now that I know the outcome, to see if all the twists, motives, and actions are explainable in the big picture. Thinking about it afterwards is one of the great side benefits of seeing this movie. Asking why a certain character behaved in a certain way, or who knew what when usually turns up interesting but rational answers.
Mamet’s stagey dialogue is distracting at first. People don’t talk naturalistically, rather, they step on each others’ lines like in a screwball comedy from the 1930s. The tone is not comic, though, the characters’ manner is stiff and stern. Joseph is a humorless prig, his secretary (well acted by Rebecca Pidgeon, Mamet’s wife) is awkwardly forthright, and Jimmy is haughty and unbending. But all this eventually gels into a coherent style of moviemaking that offsets the clockwork precision of the con quite well.
Unfortunately, I can’t say much more without revealing too many twists. Suffice it to say that this is a very satisfying movie mystery; coherently written and directed, stylistically acted, and wonderfully paced.