Spanish Prisoner, The

In theme, The Spanish Prisoner borrows from Mamet's radio drama, The Water Engine, a Depression-era fable about a naive inventor who designs an automobile water engine, only to have it stolen away from him by corrupt industrialists.

As expected, Mamet builds an intricately shaky elegant puzzle. The movie, whose title derives from the name of “the oldest confidence game on the books,” is set in a pre-determined world, full of fatalism and coincidences, in which each participant is suspect.

Over the years, Mamet's technical skills have improved: Spanish Prisoner is his most entertaining charade. He keeps the settings simple, breeding mistrust in every encounter. It's Jimmy's smooth, cool manner that reflects Mamet's notion of how the world works. As Joe gets more isolated, he sinks deeper and deeper into fear.

In Mamet's previous movies, the actors were misguided: In House of Games, Mamet cast first wife Lindsay Crouse in a dislikable role, and in Spanish Prisoner, he similarly cast his current wife, Rebecca Pidgeon, as a duplicious secretary who claims to be Joe's friend. Mamet demands that actors recite their dialogue with distancing emotional rhythms, which makes it sound stiff.

If The Spanish Prisoner is more involving than Mamet's other puzzles, it's because the central actors (Cambell Scott and Steve Martin) play their roles straight.