The Spanish Prisoner

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For the confidence trick, see Spanish Prisoner.
The Spanish Prisoner
Spanish prisoner.jpg
Directed by David Mamet
Produced by Jean Doumanian
Written by David Mamet
Starring Campbell Scott
Steve Martin
Rebecca Pidgeon
Ricky Jay
Ben Gazzara
Felicity Huffman
Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics
Release dates
Running time 110 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $10 million
Box office $9,584,314

The Spanish Prisoner is a 1997 American suspense film, written and directed by David Mamet and starring Campbell Scott, Steve Martin, Rebecca Pidgeon, Ben Gazzara, Felicity Huffman and Ricky Jay. The film tells the story of an elaborate confidence game; the Spanish Prisoner scam is mentioned, though the actual plot has little if any resemblance to it.

In 1999 the film was nominated by the Mystery Writers of America for the Edgar Award for Best Motion Picture Screenplay but lost out to Steven Soderbergh's Out of Sight.[1]


Corporate engineer Joe Ross (Campbell Scott) has invented a very lucrative, very secret industrial process. While on a corporate retreat at the resort island of St. Estèphe, he meets a wealthy stranger, Jimmy Dell (Steve Martin), and attracts the interest of one of the company's new secretaries, Susan Ricci (Rebecca Pidgeon).

Jimmy wants to introduce Joe socially to his sister in New York and asks him to deliver a package to her. Afraid it might contain illegal drugs Joe opens it on the plane, finding only a book on tennis; in the process he accidentally rips the cover. Once home, Joe buys another copy of the book, to give to Jimmy's sister, and keeps the torn one at his office.

Jimmy suggests that Joe's company and his boss, Mr. Klein (Ben Gazzara), might not give Joe fair compensation for his work. The flirtatious Susan also makes vague suggestions that one never knows whom to trust.

Jimmy asks if Joe has a Swiss bank account, and finding the answer is no, opens one for him with a token balance. Taking him to dinner at a club requiring membership, Jimmy has Joe sign a certificate to join. He advises Joe to consult counsel and offers his own, telling Joe to bring the only copy of the process to their meeting.

Joe learns that the sister is a ruse and that Jimmy is actually a confidence man, attempting to steal his valuable work. Joe contacts an FBI agent named Pat McCune he met on the island, whose business card Susan kept. He is enlisted in a sting operation. To his horror, Joe learns that McCune is actually part of Jimmy's con game. His process is stolen and he has been thoroughly swindled.

Joe attempts to explain what happened to his employer and the police, but his story sounds far-fetched. The con has made it appear that he has sold his process to the Japanese. The Swiss bank account that Jimmy opened for him makes it look as though he is hiding assets, and the certificate he signed to join the club turns out to be a request for political asylum in Venezuela, which has no extradition treaty with the United States.

The police show Joe that Jimmy's apartment is a mere facade and that the club's members-only room was nothing but a restaurant that was closed while they were there. Joe is also framed for the murder of his co-developer of the process, George Lang (Ricky Jay).

On the run from the law, Joe reconnects with Susan, who believes his story and continues to express a romantic interest in him. Joe remembers that the hotel where the island retreat took place maintains a video surveillance, which could prove that Jimmy Dell was there. Susan loyally accompanies Joe in his quest, but she, too, turns out to be involved in this elaborate con.

At an airport, Susan gives him a camera bag, which actually contains a gun, and an airplane ticket supposedly to the island retreat, but actually to Venezuela. Before passing through security, Joe realizes that Jimmy left his fingerprints on the original (ripped) tennis book he was to deliver to Jimmy's alleged sister. He leaves the airport with Susan, still not realizing that she is working against him. They board a ferry to return home.

Jimmy comes to kill Joe on the ferry, seemingly alone except for Susan and a couple of Japanese tourists. The final step of this con is going to be Joe's death, made to appear as a suicide. Jimmy suddenly is hit with a tranquilizer dart shot by one of the "tourists." They are, in fact, US Marshals who have been monitoring Jimmy's con since the beginning. They reveal that Joe's boss, Mr. Klein, was behind the entire con because he wanted to keep all the profits for himself. Jimmy and Susan are taken off to jail.



The film has been generally well received by critics and fans alike. The aggregate review website Rotten Tomatoes recorded an 89%[2] fresh rating for the film as of February 5, 2008 while, as of the same date, another aggregate review website, Metacritic, recorded a score of 70%,[3] classified as Generally favorable reviews by the website's rating system. Film critic Roger Ebert awarded the film 3½ stars out of 4 calling it "delightful" and comparing it to works of Alfred Hitchcock.[4] James Berardinelli of, who gave the film 3 out of 4 stars, also compared Mamet's script to Hitchcock's works claiming that it "supplies us with a seemingly-endless series of twists and turns, only a fraction of which are predictable" as well as praising the actors by saying that "nearly every major performance is impeccable".[5]

Reviewer Paul Tatara, on the other hand, criticized the film for using well-worn plot mechanisms, "stiff characterizations and ridiculous line readings".[6]

Background information[edit]

A short story by Arthur Train, also entitled "The Spanish Prisoner," was published by The Cosmopolitan Magazine in March 1910.[7]

The title of the film is a direct reference to the confidence trick of the same name, and in fact, the trick serves as part of the plot of the film.[8]


  1. ^ "1999 Edgar Award Nominees". Retrieved 2008-02-05. 
  2. ^ The Spanish Prisoner at Rotten Tomatoes. Accessed February 5, 2008.
  3. ^ The Spanish Prisoner at Metacritic. Accessed February 5, 2008.
  4. ^ Ebert, Roger. "The Spanish Prisoner", Chicago Sun-Times, April 24, 1998. Accessed February 5, 2008.
  5. ^ Berardinelli, James. "The Spanish Prisoner",, 1998. Accessed July 1, 2010.
  6. ^ "Review: Stilted script traps actors in 'Spanish Prisoner'", CNN, 1998-04-05
  7. ^ Train, Arthur. "The Spanish Prisoner." The Cosmopolitan Magazine New York, NY, vol. 43, March 1910, pp. 465–474.
  8. ^ "The Spanish Prisoner". Archived v.31 #137. MrBrownMovies. 10 April 1998. Retrieved 11 July 2009. 

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