Rewind, Review, and Re-Rate: ‘The Spanish Prisoner’: Director David Mamet’s 1998 Genteel Crime Thriller

Michael Clark

With a style so unique it has its own name (“Mamet-Speak”), playwright-turned-screenwriter-turned-director David Mamet is best known for his barbed, machine gun dialogue, adorned with thickets of carefully positioned profanity.

Although many Mamet-written movies feature women characters, rarely are they the leads. His strength lies is in creating testosterone-drenched friction between men, best displayed in films such as “The Verdict,” “The Untouchables,” “Wag the Dog,” “Glengarry Glen Ross,” and “American Buffalo.”

Atypical Mamet

“The Spanish Prisoner” (TSP) found Mamet heading (if only temporarily) in a direction few could have foreseen. The pace was slower and more deliberate, the dialogue was softer and, most surprising, there’s not a single drop of foul language.

The two female performers with significant speaking roles remain largely on the sidelines but, like everything else in the movie, they are indispensable to the Big Picture.

A neo-noir thriller cut from a fine bolt of Hitchcockian gabardine laced with silken Chekhovian thread, “TSP” gets its title from a passage presented in the third act that Mamet calls “the oldest con in the book.”

Dating back to the 19th century, the “Spanish Prisoner” involves a mark who is approached by a grifter to put up a relatively small amount of money with the promise of a much bigger payoff down the road.

There is, of course, no such future windfall, but when pitched with finesse, the mark’s greed will get the best of them, and they fork over even more funds until they’re bled dry or finally realize they’ve been had.

While on a fictional island in the Caribbean during a working vacation, mathematician Joe Ross (Campbell Scott) and his attorney co-worker friend George Lang (Mamet mainstay Ricky Jay) meet with their boss Mr. Klein (Ben Gazzara) and some flush potential investors.

Joe has created a book-length formula dubbed “the Process” which will generate gargantuan profits, and he’s charged to sell the concept to the backers without revealing exactly how it works, and he succeeds. Mr. Klein couldn’t be happier but, in the aftermath, brushes off Joe’s repeated attempts to discuss his compensation and bonus.

Also present on the island is Susan Ricci (Mamet’s wife Rebecca Pidgeon), a recently hired secretary operating as Joe and George’s girl Friday and gopher. A perky chatterbox, Susan is a ball of nervous energy recalling Diane Keaton’s title character in “Annie Hall,” and she is clearly smitten with the flattered and bashful Joe who wisely keeps her at arm’s length.

Cambell Scott and Rebecca Pidgeon in "The Spanish Prisoner." (Sony Pictures)
Cambell Scott and Rebecca Pidgeon in "The Spanish Prisoner." (Sony Pictures)
After an awkward first meeting on the beach, Joe shares a few meals and chews the fat with Jimmy Dell (Steve Martin), a fellow New Yorker who Joe assumes is wealthy as he arrived on a private seaplane with a beautiful mystery woman half his age. Before leaving, Jimmy asks Joe to deliver a package to his sister in Midtown Manhattan which he agrees to without a second thought.

A la Hitchcock

What, you may ask, exactly is “the Process,” the name of Klein’s company, or the product or service they offer? None of the answers are ever provided, which is actually a good thing. It’s also never made clear why “the Process” must never fall into Japanese hands or why either Joe or Klein or both (in the interest of safety and security) haven’t copied it to a CD-ROM (arcane technology now but not in 1997).

With not one but two substantial MacGuffins firmly in play, Mamet goes full tilt Hitchcock with pans and fades at the start and end of each scene, spare sets, and a noticeable lack of demonstrable emotions from the characters.

Once all of the players return to New York, everyone, including Susan, dons poker faces. No one says what he or she is really thinking, and the audience knows only what Joe knows as it’s happening to him. We’re in the dark as much as he is and this, combined with the placid and genteel veneer, heightens the suspense to often nerve-wracking levels.

This was also the same general approach director Ridley Scott employed in the vastly overlooked and criminally underrated “Matchstick Men” from 2003.

Had this movie been made 60 or 70 years ago, James Stewart or Cary Grant would have been cast as Joe—a trusting, polite-to-a-fault gentleman who isn’t rich but could be soon. The son of George C. Scott and Colleen Dewhurst, Campbell Scott was the perfect choice for the lead role. He was given the unenviable task of playing a book-smart genius who is a tad too naïve, far too agreeable, and thoroughly incapable of reading anyone.

During his long career, Gazzara was frequently cast as a villain, so playing a heavy here wasn’t a big stretch for him. Here he does so as something of a cowardly weasel, and he nails it. Jay doesn’t make a big impression, mostly because his character isn’t afforded much to do, and as for Pidgeon … well, let’s just say being married to the filmmaker comes with its perks.

Martin’s Career Zenith

Apart from “Pennies From Heaven” (1981) and the ensemble piece “Grand Canyon” (1991), Martin had worked exclusively in comedy (some of it banal and broad) and he’s not the first name most people would associate to portray an imposing, calculating, semi-threatening power magnate yet he pulls it off with room to spare.
(L–R) Steve Martin, Ricky Jay, and Campbell Scott in "The Spanish Prisoner." (Sony Pictures)
(L–R) Steve Martin, Ricky Jay, and Campbell Scott in "The Spanish Prisoner." (Sony Pictures)

Nothing Martin has done before or since comes close to matching the level of intensity, economy, and restraint, as what he delivered in “TSP.”

One of the many joys of “TSP” is in rewatching it. I’ve viewed it probably a dozen times and, even knowing the ending going in, it’s a rare treat to notice something I’d previously missed, discounted, or overlooked. It is arguably Mamet’s best movie (as both writer and director) to date and, if you’re a fan of mysteries and haven’t seen it yet, put it at the top of your to-watch list.

‘The Spanish Prisoner’ Director: David Mamet Stars: Campbell Scott, Steve Martin, Rebecca Pidgeon, Ben Gazzara, Ricky Jay, Felicity Huffman Running Time: 1 hour, 52 minutes MPAA Rating: PG Release Date: April 3, 1998 Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Originally from Washington, D.C., Michael Clark has provided film content to over 30 print and online media outlets. He co-founded the Atlanta Film Critics Circle in 2017 and is a weekly contributor to the Shannon Burke Show on Since 1995, Mr. Clark has written over 4,000 movie reviews and film-related articles. He favors dark comedy, thrillers, and documentaries.