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The Spanish Prisoner

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Director  David Mamet
Initial DVD release  October 6, 1998
Country  United States
7.2/10 IMDb

Genre  Drama, Mystery, Thriller
Music director  Carter Burwell
Writer  David Mamet
Language  English
The Spanish Prisoner movie poster

Release date  September 8, 1997 (1997-09-08) (Toronto Film Festival) April 3, 1998 (1998-04-03) (U.S.) August 1998 (1998-08) (Edinburgh Film Festival)
Cast  Steve Martin (Jimmy Dell), Campbell Scott (Joe Ross), Ben Gazzara (Mr. Klein), Rebecca Pidgeon (Susan Ricci), Ricky Jay (George Lang), Felicity Huffman (Pat McCune)
Similar movies  Jupiter Ascending, Pitch Perfect 2, Frozen, The Wolf of Wall Street, Fifty Shades of Grey, The Matrix
Tagline  It's the oldest con in the book.

The spanish prisoner trailer

The Spanish Prisoner is a 1997 American neo-noir suspense film, written and directed by David Mamet and starring Campbell Scott, Steve Martin, Rebecca Pidgeon, Ben Gazzara, Felicity Huffman and Ricky Jay. The plot entails a story of corporate espionage conducted through an elaborate confidence game. In spite of the film's title, the actual plot includes only superficial similarities to the Spanish Prisoner scam.


The Spanish Prisoner movie scenes

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.

The Spanish Prisoner movie scenes

The spanish prisoner get it in writing


The Spanish Prisoner movie scenes

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).

The Spanish Prisoner wwwgstaticcomtvthumbmovieposters19881p19881

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 takes him to the airport in order for him to fly to the island. On the way to the airport, Susan convinces him to first drive to Boston (to elude a manhunt).

At the airport in Boston, 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 (improvised) 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.


  • Campbell Scott as Joe Ross
  • Steve Martin as Julian "Jimmy" Dell
  • Rebecca Pidgeon as Susan
  • Ben Gazzara as Mr. Klein
  • Ricky Jay as George Lang
  • Felicity Huffman as FBI Agent McCune
  • Ed O'Neill as FBI Team Leader
  • Takeo Matsushita as U.S. Marshal
  • Keiko Seiko as U.S. Marshal
  • Dialogue

    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".

    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".

    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".

    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".

    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.


    Roger Ebert awarded the film 3½ stars out of 4, calling it "delightful" and comparing it to works of Alfred Hitchcock. 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".

    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".

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

    Background information

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

    The title of the film is a direct reference to the confidence trick of the same name. The trick is discussed, but has no relation to the con games that actually occur within the film.


    The Spanish Prisoner Wikipedia
    The Spanish Prisoner IMDb The Spanish Prisoner