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, an Olympic-class tennis player, in New York and asks him to deliver a package to her. Susan, who sits near Joe on the airplane back to New York, converses with him about how "you never know who anybody is," talks about unwitting drug mules, and repeats, "Who in this world is what they seem to be? Who?" Realizing that he doesn't really know Jimmy, and afraid the package might contain something illegal, Joe opens it on the plane, finding only a book on tennis (the 1939 edition of "Budge 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 keeps making suggestions that one never knows whom to trust.

Jimmy invites Joe to dinner with Jimmy's sister, and they meet at Dell's place. While at his computer and chatting about business, Jimmy asks if Joe has a Swiss bank account, and finding the answer is no, opens one for him with a token balance (15 Swiss Francs), pretending that it is all an easy lark. Taking him to dinner at a club requiring membership, Jimmy has Joe sign a certificate to join. Over dinner, he advises Joe to consult legal counsel about his position in the company regarding the Process; and Jimmy offers his own lawyer, telling Joe to bring the only copy of the Process to their meeting.

Joe learns that the sister does not actually exist and that Jimmy is really a con artist, who is attempting to steal his valuable work. Joe contacts Pat McCune (Felicity Huffman), a woman he met on the island whom Susan told him was an FBI agent, and whose business card Susan kept. He is enlisted in a sting operation. When Jimmy Dell never shows up for the planned meeting, 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 façade 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 says she 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.



David Mamet, a playwright and the writer-director of the film, is famous for his dialogues, which are characterized by incomplete sentences, foul language, stutters, and interruptions; it is known as "Mamet-speak".[2][3][4][5][6]

Here, Roger Ebert observes, "His characters often speak as if they're wary of the world, afraid of being misquoted, reluctant to say what's on their minds: As a protective shield, they fall into precise legalisms, invoking old sayings as if they're magic charms. Often they punctuate their dialogue with four-letter words, but in The Spanish Prisoner there is not a single obscenity, and we picture Mamet with a proud grin on his face, collecting his very first PG rating."[7]

Andrew Sarris, meanwhile, wrote, "I liked The Spanish Prisoner because its very lightness in Mr. Mamet's mind as a minor genre entertainment enabled him to escape the pomposity and pretentiousness of recent Mamet movies and plays in which his cryptic phrases and ponderous pauses were supposed to suggest all sorts of psychic panic and moral havoc in a malignant society. By disdaining to look and sound like anything overly serious, Mr. Mamet's Pinteresque speech rhythms succeed as nothing since Glengarry Glen Ross (1984 on stage, 1992 on screen) in capturing something pervasively paranoid in contemporary life. ... To enjoy the twists and turns in Mr. Mamet's puzzle-like plot, one must remain detached from the nominal protagonist. This is accomplished by having the character share the faux-naïf speech rhythms and materialistic values of his employers and his business associates. ... Joe doesn't trust his boss, Klein (Ben Gazzara), who keeps reiterating that Joe has nothing to worry about, which in malicious Mamet-speak, means that Joe has a lot to worry about."[8]

Chris Grunden of Film Journal International adds, "David Mamet's new film features the writer-director's trademark staccato dialogue, but, as in his earlier House of Games, the film's stylized language (which can become wearying in some Mamet scripts) is matched with a confidence-scam plot that's almost dizzyingly complex, and is completely absorbing from start to finish."[9]

An example of "Mamet-speak", with its staccato, punchy, incomplete sentences and interruptions, occurs at the beginning of the film, when Joe Ross and George Lang are delivering a presentation to Mr. Klein and some interested businessmen.

George: The Process. And by means of the Process, to control the global market.
Businessman 1: And this Process is complete?
George: It's near completion.
Businessman: "Near completion."
George: Very near. This team which Mr. Ross — the Team. The Team. And I think, if I may, uh, Mr. Klein, it would not be amiss to state that both the work and the inspiration for the process was —
Klein: Thank you, George. I know you'll understand when I say that's neither here nor there. These gentlemen have come down to hear the good news.
Joe: The good news is control of the market.
[The Businessmen interrupt him.]
Joe: Obviously, we don't want to get too specific, for security reasons. So, my task today is to tell you those things which I can in laymen's language. I think I can break it down sufficiently to give you a pretty firm idea of —
Klein: The Process, yes.
Businessman 2: How long can we hold on to it before the competition steals it?
Klein: Well, we defend it. Of course. Tooth and nail. This is a proprietary process.
[The Businessmen engage in cross-talk.]
Joe: Without the data, without our actual data, without the formula, the Japanese, or anyone else, for that matter, would have nothing. Should you give us the go-ahead, their actual — [He hesitates and looks at George.]
George: The legal issues are these. We have both the de facto and the de jure copyright of that process. It was developed by —
Joe: Even if they should engage in piracy, their search and development time —
George: — their catch-up time —
Joe: — would put them back — George?
George: Three?
Joe: Three to five years.[10]


The film has been generally well received by critics and fans alike. The aggregate review website Rotten Tomatoes recorded an 89%[11] 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%,[12] 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.[13]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".[14]

Chris Grunden of Film Journal International (comparing some points of the movie to Strangers on a Train and The Man Who Knew Too Much) wrote, "Somewhere Alfred Hitchcock is smiling, for The Spanish Prisoner is the most deliciously labyrinthine homage to the master of suspense in recent years... Campbell Scott elicits just the right amount of youthful vanity, which gradually crumbles as he gets increasingly entrapped in the scheme to play him for a fool. Martin's supremely cool, calculatingly menacing turn as the enigmatic Jimmy Dell neatly contrasts Scott's golden-boy image. The strong supporting cast features fine work... Barbara Tulliver's editing is crisp - the pacing never flags for a moment - and Carter Burwell's score is fabulously moody and evocative."[9]

Reviewer Paul Tatara, on the other hand, criticized the film for using well-worn plot mechanisms, "stiff characterizations and ridiculous line readings".[15]

Background information[edit]

A short story by Arthur Train, also entitled "The Spanish Prisoner," was published by The Cosmopolitan Magazine in March 1910.[16]

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.[17]


  1. ^ "1999 Edgar Award Nominees". Retrieved 2008-02-05. 
  2. ^ Rubinstein, Mark (November 18, 2013). "Writer-to-Writer: A Conversation With David Mamet". The Huffington Post. Retrieved December 22, 2014. Your dialogue has been called street-smart and edgy. It's even called Mamet speak. 
  3. ^ Toth, Paul A. (September 11, 2001). "David Mamet". Salon. Retrieved December 22, 2014. Mamet's machine-gun dialogue, both an Airplane!-style joke on noir and a pitch-perfect copy of every overconfident asshole you ever met, is so beautiful yet utilitarian it's like holding a well-made steak knife when there's nothing to cook. You just admire it. His dialogue is so singular that it's called Mamet-speak... 
  4. ^ Seattle Repertory Theatre (2013). "Mamet Speak: Profane Poetry". Seattle Repertory Theatre. Retrieved December 22, 2014. Mamet's plays usually contain terse dialogue that is chock-full of profanity. At first it might seem as if anyone could master Mamet speak just by spewing curse words, but Zachary Simonson, who plays Bobby, pointed out that the language in American Buffalo is actually very precise and measured. "There's a term called 'profane poetry' which very well describes what's going on," he said. He explained that many lines are written in iambic pentameter, the same verse meter that Shakespeare used. These carefully crafted lines lend a rhythm to the dialogue that implies a variety of emotions as it fluctuates throughout the play. 
  5. ^ D'Angelo, Mike (September 17, 2013). "The meticulously constructed film work of David Mamet". The Dissolve. Archived from the original on March 29, 2015. Retrieved December 22, 2014. To put it into Mamet-speak... 
  6. ^ Italie, Hillel (August 17, 2010). "Mamet-speak: Eggs, Coffee, The Talking Walrus". Retrieved December 22, 2014. 
  7. ^ Ebert, Roger (April 24, 1998). "Reviews: The Spanish Prisoner". Retrieved December 22, 2014. 
  8. ^ Sarris, Andrew (April 6, 1998). "Mamet's Hero-Victim: A Prisoner of Words". The New York Observer. Retrieved December 22, 2014. 
  9. ^ a b Grunden, Chris (1997). "Spanish Prisoner, The". Film Journal International. Retrieved December 22, 2014. 
  10. ^ Mamet, David (1997). Chapter 3: The Process. The Spanish Prisoner (Jasmine Productions Inc. / Sweetland Films, et al.). 
  11. ^ The Spanish Prisoner at Rotten Tomatoes. Accessed February 5, 2008.
  12. ^ The Spanish Prisoner at Metacritic. Accessed February 5, 2008.
  13. ^ Ebert, Roger. "The Spanish Prisoner", Chicago Sun-Times, April 24, 1998. Accessed February 5, 2008.
  14. ^ Berardinelli, James. "The Spanish Prisoner",, 1998. Accessed July 1, 2010.
  15. ^ "Review: Stilted script traps actors in Spanish Prisoner", CNN, 1998-04-05
  16. ^ Train, Arthur. The Spanish Prisoner. The Cosmopolitan Magazine (New York, NY): vol. 43, March 1910, pp. 465–474.
  17. ^ "The Spanish Prisoner". Archived v.31 #137. MrBrownMovies. 10 April 1998. Retrieved 11 July 2009. 

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