Spanish Prisoner, The

In The Spanish Prisoner, a seductive movie that revisits the turf of House of Games and Homicide, David Mamet creates another controlled situation, though the movie is closer to psychological realism than either the schematic House of Games or preachy Homicide. “Who in this world is what they seem,” secretary Susan Ricci (Rebecca Pidgeon) says. “You never know who anybody is.” True, the characters change identities often, reinforcing a smooth buildup of paranoia, the feeling that nothing is what it appears to be and no one can be trusted.

The protagonist, Joe Ross (Campbell Scott), is a brilliant, self-made scientist-inventor who places high value on integrity and respect. Though uneasy among the rich and famous, he is eager to join their raks. Mamet never reveals Joe's invention–it's called “the process,” an item it will earn billions for his parent company. Asked by his boss, Klein (Ben Gazzara), to make a presentation to the investors at a Caribbean island resort, he feels that his invention is exploited without proper compensation. A mysterious businessman, Jimmy Dell (Steve Martin), shows up at the resort and addresses Joe in a way that tests his values, and upon returning to New York, they strike up a friendship.

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