The Spanish Prisoner

Apr 22, 1998 at 12:00 am

In The Spanish Prisoner, playwright-filmmaker David Mamet returns to one of his favorite subjects: the way people lie to each other.

The title refers to an old con game, one that's made for a born patsy like Joe Ross (Campbell Scott). Joe works for a shadowy but very powerful corporation, and has invented something Mamet teasingly refers to as "the process." But even as Joe's being feted by the head honcho, Mr. Klein (Ben Gazzara), at an exclusive Caribbean resort, he's beginning to have doubts about his employer's intentions. "The process" has enormous profit potential and Joe wonders if he'll get his fair share.

His colleague and friend George (Ricky Jay) is only vaguely reassuring, and the pleasure aspect of this trip is marred by the presence of Susan (Rebecca Pidgeon), a chirpy and ingratiating secretary whose overeager manner suggests a massive crush on Joe.

An intriguing distraction comes in the form of the wealthy and worldly Jimmy Dell (Steve Martin), who takes an interest in Joe's plight and even promises to introduce him to his beautiful tennis player sister once they return to the city. This fast friendship sets Joe on a slippery slope that rapidly turns into a free fall.

The Spanish Prisoner is an immensely entertaining contrivance, an elaborate maze where well-lit passageways turn out to be blind alleys and anyone who offers to give directions is not to be trusted. But this is also Mamet lite: The unfolding of the clever, red herring-stuffed plot takes precedence over everything, and the characters are defined solely by their roles within the con game.

Campbell Scott exudes an appealing blankness, and magician Ricky Jay has his wry delivery down to a science. Steve Martin's performance is particularly lean and mean, but Rebecca Pidgeon (Mamet's wife) is the real revelation here, slyly and effortlessly metamorphosing from annoying mosquito into a black widow.

While not as psychologically complex as his first (and still best) film, House of Games (1987), The Spanish Prisoner shows that, as a filmmaker, David Mamet sure knows how to build a better mousetrap.

Serena Donadoni writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected].