The Spanish Prisoner (1997) Poster

User Reviews

Add a Review
262 Reviews
Sort by:
Strangely effective crime-thriller with a dash of B-film vibe
John Brooks23 January 2017
As I inspect the review department, I pick up a lot of "masterpiece" or "excellent subtle great...etc thriller" opinions, which is definitely very odd. And not just the common fans, even "pro" critics. I think movie-goers have put the emphasis on the crime-mystery plot and figured it was well put together and suspenseful til the very end ?

But rather than focus too much on what everybody else is saying, I'd say this. The film is very slow to finally get started and REALLY does feel like a B film even about 30min into it. I felt awkward/embarrassed towards the others having picked this one for the night. The delivery of the lines, the atmosphere, that slowness overall or even the filming/irregularity in sound from scene to scene felt very amateurish...

I indulged into it and waited for the plot to finally open up show its quality. If anything, this had an almost David Lynch element to it in how distinctly atypical it felt, lead actor Campbell Scott being such a cold distant, distinguished almost a bit eerie protagonist with a Kyle MacLachlan springing to mind, sort of on the border of being a 'bad actor' but not really at the same time.

So this is one of these super convoluted mystery-thrillers where the protagonist somehow finds himself into some deep crud and he can't be sure who to trust anymore and tensions switch sides every time ... it's well done in how it keeps the suspense going til the very end.

In the finer details, there are those facts of the film that seem too convenient but we understand need to happen to stick to the plot...

Eh. Not bad though. 6.5/10.
0 out of 0 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? | Report this
Very disappointing!
Tassos Tsotsoros6 August 2016
Warning: Spoilers
I love a bit of Steve Martin. So I was very enthusiastic while looking through his movies when I found this one. A nice high-rated crime/mystery/thriller from David Mamet with Steve Martin! Sounds great!

But, unfortunately, it was probably one of the least thrilling thrillers I've ever watched. Predictable, with plot holes, indifferent directing and naive scenario.

***Spoilers*** (Even though the whole movie was a big spoil)

Just to name a few cringe moments: - why is Susan throughout the movie actively trying to convince the "hero" that Jimmy Dell wasn't actually on that hydroplane? She's in on it... you'd think she'd want to keep quiet about it.

  • why did Susan help him escape the police from the NY airport and drove him to Boston, only to then slip him a gun so he'd be arrested by the police.

  • The airplane ticket she had was a return ticket from St. Estephe back to NY... in her name. And he would use that ticket to fly himself from Boston back to St. Estephe. Its an airplane ticket not a refund coupon for Walmart.

  • If everything was setup by his boss Mr. Klein why did he bail him out, not press charges and beg him to return the book? Ridiculous!!

  • The worst of all... why are con artists still around chasing Joe on the airport and boat scene? They have the book... they've setup everything to accuse Joe... it's over. They need nothing else from him. Just leave and you're home free. But they hang around for some reason and chase him. Even though they want nothing from him. Monumental idiotic!

And just think about it for a minute... The con artists didn't really need anything from Joe. They had the second key from Mr Klein, so they had the book at any time they wanted. They could setup everything to frame Joe without him even getting involved. What was all the other silly nonsense about? Creating a fake sister, a fake FBI agent, a fake apartment, club etc. All that to make him bring the book... which they had access to all along. Pathetic!

And just to mention few completely silly and embarrassing moments:

  • the woman shouting at the baby "You got your FINGERPINTS all over the BOOK" two or three times! Yes yes!! We got it!! We got it half an hour ago!!

  • Joe painfully asking Susan a few times why she was a criminal. "Why"? Wow... talk naive scenario.

They could however fix this whole movie with adding just one punchline. And I offer this free of charge for the "director's cut" version of the movie. When the US Marshals van leaves and he's left all alone on the pier at the end of the movie he could just turn towards the camera and say "Gotcha Suckers!". Then all the Steve Martin fans would understand this movie is actually a parody from Bowfinger productions!
3 out of 3 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? | Report this
Spanish Freedom.
Python Hyena16 September 2015
Warning: Spoilers
The Spanish Prisoner (1997): Dir: David Mamet / Cast: Campbell Scott, Steve Martin, Felicity Huffman, Rebecca Pidgeon, Ben Gazzara: Compelling mystery with a title that is symbolic or a misdirection of terms. It stars Campbell Scott who encounters both Steve Martin and Felicity Huffman on the beach at separate times. Huffman takes his picture and Martin offers him a large sum of money for his camera. They get acquainted then Martin offers him a large sum of money to deliver a package to his sister. These characters come in and out of his life until he becomes a target of scandal and murder. One big flaw is that the actors seem to be speaking on cue so they talk at each other instead of with. Intriguing plot with uncertainty directed by David Mamet who preserves mood. Mamet previously made House of Games and Homicide, and is a capable filmmaker but his casting choices seem way off in this film. Scott is hardly sympathetic as the victim, and Martin, despite the fact that he is branching out from his usual comic self, plainly isn't convincing. Huffman and Rebecca Pidgeon are the true gems and keep viewers guessing and the plot tense and unpredictable. Its main theme seems to regard trust either for its hero or viewers facing reality and very real people. Despite its performances the mystery elements are on target. Score: 6 / 10
0 out of 0 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? | Report this
Perhaps David Mamet's best screenplay ever
Andrew Ray7 July 2015
The late 1990s were a great time for Hollywood motion pictures, but there were three Buried Treasures during this period which I'd like to highlight the next three months. Let's begin in 1997. This was the year "Titanic" scored that rarest of hat tricks – It was the year's box office champ, it was critically acclaimed, and it won the Best Picture Oscar. But Hollywood churned out some other great feature films that year too: Curtis Hanson's thriller, "LA Confidential," Ang Lee's "The Ice Storm," and Paul Thomas Anderson's breakout picture, "Boogie Nights." Veteran Actors Peter Fonda and Robert Duvall turned in their best performances ever in "Ulee's Gold" and "The Apostle," respectively. And Matt Damon and Ben Affleck shot to stardom in "Good Will Hunting." Lost in the shuffle was perhaps the best David Mamet screenplay ever filmed. Coming on the heels of his successful big screen adaptation of his play "Glengarry Glen Ross" in 1992, Mamet's 1994 offering "Oleanna" was a rare bomb – both critically and at the box office. He was due for a hit. And boy did he score – with critics and (by Mamet's metage) with filmgoers. Unfortunately, few people remember "The Spanish Prisoner," and it deserves a second look.

Campbell Scott (son of George C.) stars as Joe Ross, a corporate engineer who has developed a new industrial process. The plot revolves around an elaborate scam to steal the intellectual property behind this process. Initially, this may sound boring, but remember this is David Mamet. Not since Hitchcock's "North By Northwest" and Polanski's "Rosemary's Baby" has a writer/director so excelled at presenting average Americans immured in machinations over which they possess no control. "The Spanish Prisoner" falls under the same umbrella as Mamet's directorial debut, 1987's "House Of Games" – the story of an intricate con game to swindle money from a wealthy author. The parallels between "House Of Games" and "The Spanish Prisoner" are many, although I prefer the Campbell Scott vehicle, if for no other reason than the hustlers are after intellectual property rather than the more standard money or tangible goods.

Playing about as radically against type as possible, Steve Martin turns in one of the best performances of his career as a wealthy traveler who meets Ross on a corporate retreat in the Caribbean. Martin does an excellent job building trust yet still seeming as though he may be hiding something. He asks Ross to deliver a book to his sister when he returns to New York. Turns out, the sister doesn't really exist (a confidence game known as the Spanish Prisoner), Ross unknowingly opens a Swiss bank account, and unknowingly buys a one-way ticket out of the country. Thus begins a sophisticated swindle involving Ross' boss and an FBI agent who was present at the corporate retreat. But Ross is no dummy. He knows Martin's fingerprints are on the book he gave him, which initiates his reaction to the scam.

This is classic Mamet. A labyrinthine plot entrapping a common man into an axiomatic contrivance of grand proportion. The story unfolds layer by layer, in a deliberate yet headlong manner, as Mamet reveals only what we need to know, when we need to know it. And if you've never heard Mamet dialogue, you're in for a treat. His characters speak in choppy, staccato sentences, always reaching for just the right words – often saying more in their silence than in their verbiage.

There are no wasted scenes in "The Spanish Prisoner." Everything we see and hear will mean something eventually. It's a tight, alluring story, and a true joy to experience. "The Spanish Prisoner" is one of those films you'll want to re-watch immediately upon its conclusion.
1 out of 1 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? | Report this
David Mamet Does Hitchcock?
gavin694222 May 2015
An employee (Campbell Scott) of a corporation with a lucrative secret process is tempted to betray it. But there is more to it than that.

Roger Ebert wrote of David Mamet, "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." I am still unsure if I like Mamet, but I am leaning towards yes. This film starts a bit slow, but after the first fifteen minutes or so, the twists begin and it is hard to know who to trust. It gets faster and faster and keeps us constantly in doubt. One would have to watch it at least twice to catch all the nuances.
0 out of 0 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? | Report this
Web Of Deceit
Lechuguilla14 November 2014
As the story begins you get the feeling that, despite the triviality, something important is going on. But you don't know quite what it is. Early scenes, with a variety of characters, contain little bits of business that imply, suggest, hint, portend. Dialogue adds to this impression. "You never know who anybody is", says one character to another. Welcome to the world of corporate intrigue.

Our protagonist is Joe Ross (Campbell Scott), presumably a Boy Scout type straight arrow, innocent and charming. On behalf of the company he works for, he has created a formula called "the process", highly valued, that will make him and his company rich. Trouble is, others may want to steal his formula. The appeal of this film is the challenge of trying to figure out, among all the characters, who are the good guys and who are the villains.

Except for scenes early in the plot and at the end, most scenes take place indoors, using sets with persuasive production design. These interior scenes are lit darkly, consistent with a dark, sinister tone. There are lots of close-up shots, as the emphasis here is on characters. What secrets, if any, are they hiding? Background music is low-key with just a hint of Spanish origin. Casting is acceptable; overall acting is quite good.

My only complaint is that the story is a bit too contrived. I can't imagine that a villain, or villains, would go to such extreme lengths to accomplish their objective. A simpler plot might have been more realistic.

Even so, this is a very good movie. What makes "The Spanish Prisoner" so enjoyable is that it is all story ... no camera gimmicks, no annoying car chases or obnoxious TV news reporters, no filler. As a result, some viewers will find the film slow going, dull, and bland. It's a film for intelligent viewers who like puzzles and mysteries. And its theme of greed fits right in with contemporary American culture.
0 out of 0 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? | Report this
Very fake and somewhat stiff
SnoopyStyle2 September 2014
Joe Ross (Campbell Scott) is a brilliant designer who created The Process to control world market. He has come to this tropical island location with Susan Ricci (Rebecca Pidgeon) and George Lang (Ricky Jay) to sell it to his boss Mr. Klein (Ben Gazzara). He wants assurances of a big bonus. Then he's approached by Jimmy Dell (Steve Martin). There's also an FBI agent Pat McCune (Felicity Huffman).

This is a very over written script from director David Mamet. It's all about the process (forgive the phrase) and not about narrative. The big money making Process is never explained. It's about manners and style. The Mamet dialog is sometimes so amazing because it fits the movie. This movie is like some kind of stage play on a Caribbean resort. It's all so very fake and somewhat stiff. This is a smart movie written by a very smart man except it's a little too smart for its own good.
0 out of 0 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? | Report this
ultimately does not work
mitchmcc5 November 2013
WARNING: may contain spoilers!

I wanted to like this movie, and it had potential. I have no problem with a complicated plot, as long as it all hangs together and is believable. But this movie has too many unbelievable points, e.g., the Joe Ross character would never have brought the secret to the meeting and agreed to give it to the Jimmy Dell character. He had previously shown that he was both aware and serious about keeping it secret. And despite his beef with his company about getting his compensation in writing (deservedly), it never shows him being willing or interested in betraying the secret, only that he was exploring talking to a lawyer about getting his share of the money.

And like most plots, when too many people are involved in a conspiracy, it starts to get ridiculous. In this movie, there must have been a dozen at least!

One final point. When Jimmy Dell gave the guy the book and asked him to take it personally to his sister, what did he think would happen when he found out, as he later does, that it was an old woman? Wouldn't that have completely ruined their chances to get at him?

Since most of the reviews are glowing, I wanted to put out another viewpoint.
0 out of 0 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? | Report this
HIns of N.W.O. agenda (movie ahead of it's time)
wawwazat31 August 2013
This movie has hints of Secret Societies and agendas that could be real. The talk in the board room about making money off of Global Warming even though it is a bogus science, and that it would take the world 5 years to figure out the bogus science and that would give them time to make $30million? $30 billion?, $300 billion? We didn't get to see the amount on the blackboard. This movie was ahead of it's time. I saw many odd things like the poster in the office hallway that had a finger pointing and it said "Someone Talked". As if the Illuminati had a weak link and their agenda got out. Then the poster in Steve Martin's fake office that had 2 planes on it and said "New York". I'll have to watch it again, very good stuff. I think Mamet did 'Barfly', one of my favorite movie's, also 'Things Change'.
0 out of 0 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? | Report this
David Mamet imitates Hitchcock
Maziun23 August 2013
„The Spanish prisoner" is along with „House of games" Mamet's finest movie . There is quite a lot of Hitchcock style in it , but in the end the whole thing is pure Mamet. What makes is different than other thrillers is the theatrical approach to it . If you're expecting chases , action, violence or shock you won't find it here . The whole movie is quiet , moves slowly and actually feels like a real life . I would even dare to say that is an intellectual thriller.

"TSP" requires patience from it's audience. If you have it you will be rewarded . It's impressive how subtlety Mamet changes our perception of characters through the movie . When the twists will come around you will be only able to smile with appreciation – they are so clever.

Campbell Scott is great as Joe Ross – the main hero . He reminded me of a serious Harold Ramis . There are many different aspects of he's character that he is able to show the audience. I was pleasantly surprised by Steve Martin (yes , THIS Steve Martin) as Jimmy Dell. His cold demeanor really fits his character. Ben Gazzara gives a nice supporting role as Klein. There are also Mamet's god old buddy's – Ricky Jay as advocate and friend of main hero George Lang and Ed O'Neil (famous Al Bundy ) as FBI agent. The only weak point in the acting team is Rebecca Pidgeon (Mamet's wife ) as Susan Ricci . Her character is barely written and her acting is very one note. It's the weakest performance of the movie.

The whole thing was not only written , but also directed by Mamet . He's a solid director , but his movie lacks emotions . It seems like it never bothers to be exciting . It's kinda refreshing after all those Hollywood thrillers. Yet , I believe that the ending begs for some REAL TENSION . It comes out as rather anti-climatic final also because it feels like a deus ex machina type of ending .

"The Spanish prisoner" is a cake that lacks the cherry on the top (or I should say at the end) , but it's still a great cake. I give it 8/10.
0 out of 0 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? | Report this
Not so brilliant, not so clever
imdb-456 July 2013
This movie features some of the most stilted dialogue and scenes I've seen. I'm not sure if it's intentional. For a first viewing years ago, I thought it was pretty interesting. Watching it again I realized why I never considered this a classic.

To begin, it's so manipulative to be unnatural. I had a difficult time believing that the remarkable coincidences lined up like dominoes set up by design. The "revalidation" agreement was preposterous, set up so that the intrigue could continue, just like the bizarre set up with Jimmy Dell's sister kept continuing so that only the dumbest person in the world would not suspect that something was awry. And we are to believe that the main character is brilliant?

And then there are huge holes in the dialogue, sloppy writing where characters don't finish off what you know they are supposed to say as a matter of logic and common conversation. If you pay attention you'll realize that this lazy, sloppy dialogue only happens in movie land. The ending of the movie is so awkwardly handled that it's hard to believe that anyone would actually believe that this is a clever movie. It's a twist within a twist within a twist that only keeps you invested out of curiosity to see where this lame effort goes. Not terrible, just not very good.
0 out of 0 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? | Report this
Suspend Belief
csro5413 January 2013
Easily one of the worst movies I have ever seen. In order to complete this thing, the makers/writer had to create the stupidest main character ever. He continually puts himself into situations, and performs acts, that require the suspension of belief and the necessity of the audience to reject common sense or any intelligence at all. It is not an intricate plot, or suspenseful if, in order to create that atmosphere, the main character is a dolt. But that is what happens in this movie. Nothing makes sense. The fact that the actors didn't roll their eyes every time the plot was ridiculous (which was every five minutes) is a credit to their acting abilities. The fact that they took part in this movie is not. The title of the movie should have been "You've Got To Be Kidding" or maybe "Stupid, stupid, stupid". Pick another movie - it almost has to be better than this one.
6 out of 8 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? | Report this
Steve Martin in a different kind of role.
PWNYCNY28 November 2011
Sometimes actors get type casted. One of those actors is Steve Martin. Known for his starring roles in comedies, in this movie he plays a completely different kind of part and plays it well, which is surprising as the movie is a crime drama. The movie itself is great. It has a clever plot, interesting characters, an engaging style, and strong finale. The bad guys are wonderful and their hapless victim, worthy of empathy. The movie is about greed, and false appearances. The bad guys seem good and the good guy is, well, we don't know; the audience is kept guessing. The entire cast is excellent. After watching this movie, one can leave feeling that they have been entertained and also shown what can happen when you let your guard down and trust others just because of the way they look. Yes, appearances can be deceiving and this movie shows how.
0 out of 0 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? | Report this
The acting is simply sophomoric
j-natalia6213 September 2011
I was tempted to run screaming from the room after viewing the first twenty or so minutes of The Spanish Prisoner due to its less than desirable bunch of actors. However, I was intrigued in spite of myself and ended up finishing the film. A man is hired by his boss to work on a top- secret project and espionage ensues. The writing was phenomenal, in my opinion. I would have preferred to read this as a novel as the plot is only slightly predictable and there are so many twists that no one could figure it out entirely. The acting is simply sophomoric. I think David Mamet should fire the person who did the casting. However, the writing was good enough to balance out the atrocity of the acting, hence my rating of 5.
0 out of 0 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? | Report this
Harry8 June 2011
"The Spanish Prisoner" has been compared by other reviewers to Hitchcock's work and to "The Usual Suspects" - both comparisons are way too generous at best and misleading and irrational at worst. These reviewers must have seen a different movie - that seems to be the only reasonable explanation. This simply is one of the worst flicks I ever dragged myself through. The acting is truly terrible throughout - there's better acting to be seen in TV commercials. Most of the dialog is ridiculously stupid. The plot has more holes than a Swiss cheese. Steve Martin as the bad guy is about as scary as a bunny rabbit. Rebecca Pidgeon as the femme fatale. Really? As another reviewer remarked, she probably only got the job because she's sleeping with the director, i.e. she's Mamet's wife.

Too bad there's no zero star option on IMDb because even one star is a rather generous evaluation.
3 out of 6 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? | Report this
Mamet does some showing off, but really, he deserves to.
David Mamet can write. There's no two ways about it. He can write with such a beautiful and graceful cadence that any conversation, no matter how dreary or dull, can sound like a poetic work of art. In The Spanish Prisoner he shows off quite a bit, but hey, doesn't he have the right to do so? The Spanish Prisoner is about a naive inventor named Joseph Ross who has come up with a formula called "The Process" that is the key to global success for the company that employs him. But holding a secret this significant and this important has its drawbacks, and Ross quickly discovers that as an elaborate scheme unfolds before him in order to get ahold of "The Process." This scheme is full of twists, turns, and countless surprises, making for a film that is a lot of fun to watch play out, but be prepared to follow the many trails as the film spins out of control towards the end.

Now, I said David Mamet is a great writer, and The Spanish Prisoner is an excellently written film, it's just... different. The writing style has a more poetic cadence to it rather than the raw and realistic style of some of his other scripts like Glenngary Glen Ross, or House of Games. The style of the dialouge and its delivery takes some getting used to and there always seem to be those moments where I thought to myself, I bet that line looked a lot better on paper. Regardless, the script is full of sharp wit and crisp cadence, and the depth of the story as a whole is very impressive.

In many ways I do feel like this would have been a lot better as a book or even a stage play, as some of the film aspects didn't translate perfectly. There's nothing truly bad about this film and it really is a great film that is a joy to watch, there are just those odd moments. Those moments, for the most part, just come and go and you forget about them after a while, as you become more enticed by the bigger picture unfolding masterfully before your eyes. One thing I consistently couldn't forgive, though, was Rebecca Pidgeon. I feel like she's most of the reason I felt the delivery of certain lines that otherwise would have been ingenious, were delivered a little rocky. She is simply just not good in this film, which is unfortunate considering her character is very important to the film. In fact, every character is important in this film because it is all such an elaborate maze constructed so well by Mamet.

The rest of the cast does a great job. Campbell Scott plays the protagonist and does a decent job overall. He has a lot of those so-so lines that don't quite make me cringe, but instead force me to just shrug them off and move on. The most notable performance would have to be Steve Martin playing a straight man role. To see the white haired buffoon who I loved so much in The Jerk go an entire film without delivering anything close to a joke or visual gag was very odd, but also impressive. Martin does an excellent job as the elusive con man, Jimmy Dell, and he has some of the best conversations of the whole film.

The Spanish Prisoner really is a great film. It's a poetic work of art from Mr. Mamet, albeit a little pretentious. But it's nothing that really gets in the way. The only thing that really does deter from this films excellence would have to be Rebecca Pidgeon in her bland and forced acting, making some of the lines in this film not as great as they were when Mamet wrote them out on paper. Solving the twisted mystery of this film is so much fun, and everything is pulled off very well. It is definitely one of Mamet's better films and it is an excellent display of the talent he has as a screenwriter.
0 out of 0 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? | Report this
Rebecca Pidgeon's casting is a twist I could do with out..
maybe73020 November 2010
All the positive reviews on here had me looking forward to seeing the twists and turns of The Spanish Prisoner. But instead I watched a movie where the only one who doesn't know what going to happen is the unlikeable main character. The plot isn't predictable from the outset but you'll see the twists coming 5 to 10 minutes before they get there. At times its interesting to see the smaller details of the set-up being put into motion but for me, that's not enough. None of these characters are likable. The dialogue is stale and reads like a play straining to be overly clever. The acting of Rebecca Pidgeon, who plays more or less the love interest, is wretched. Like Ed Woods movie wretched. And there are some questions/plot gaps regarding the level of involvement of the FBI (a minor complaint). Oh and this film ends with one of the weakest final lines I've ever heard.
0 out of 0 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? | Report this
The example of story-telling
the_one-756-9143815 November 2010
There are many kinds of cinemas. This one is one of the top examples of story telling. You won't notice any camera work, any music (was there any?) etc. You are just absorbed by how well the story is told. Trust me, within 5 minutes (though you won't get to understand what's exactly happening there in such short time) you'll be absorbed. Even Steve Martin is watchable.

Also perhaps the only movie (at least for grown-ups) with no swearing. At all. Except for a short scene showing a stabbed body, this is a film for everybody (if the youths can get it). In this regard, the exact opposite of "Glengarry Glen Ross".

I find it very strange that the less people have to say, the more they shout and swear. As if even their ordinary words require some kind of 'strengthening' to be taken seriously. You can't just say something is good, because, you see, nobody would take that. However, when saying "something is f... good", you suddenly receive all the attention you've wanted, and they even believe you. Going further down that road, I suppose one day we have to kill our loved ones, to convince them that, indeed, we love them. Exaggerating? Really? Remember LOST TV series and its throughout gratuitous violence, like the scene when Locke, burdened with the memory of something bad in his life, being hit with the car by Desmond, so that he would let go? Figure that out: I care so much for my friend that when I see him troubled by something I hit him with my car (violently, by the way) so that he would let go and start smiling again.

Back to the movie at hand, I'll have to warn you that after seeing this one, you won't anymore enjoy your daily movie rubbish. That happens, you know, when you have the courage to open up your eyes.

In the same evening, I also saw 'Harrison Bergeron' (1995), another story-teller, and now I'm having trouble finding MOVIES (you know, the ones that you can watch beyond their first 10 minutes).

So, if you're comfortably numb (as Pink Floyd put it a few decades back), stay away from movies like this one.
1 out of 2 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? | Report this
Might've been good in Hitchcock's hands (or pretty much anyone else's)...
Shane Paterson28 June 2010
It seems that Mamet is one of the Wunderkinder to many, who can do no wrong on stage or screen. Bleh. I've seen a few of the films he's written and, yeah, they tend to be very good. I barely remember "Heist"but vaguely recall that it seemed to go nowhere pretty quickly; I'm sure I enjoyed it to at least some extent merely as a result of the presence of Gene Hackman, one of those actors who elevates anything he's in solely by virtue of his presence. Unfortunately, Mr Hackman wasn't in "The Spanish Prisoner," though I think the main problem here is that a real director wasn't directing the thing.

Early on in the piece I was trying to reconcile what I've always heard Mamet was noted for -- realistic dialog -- with the garbage I was hearing the actors on screen parrot. 'Parrot' being, given Mamet's way of working with actors (well, 'dictating to' is probably more correct), definitely the word. Part of the problem was quoting ancient Phoenician poets or whatever the hell much of the early dialog consisted of, a trait absent in 99% of the world's relatively sane population and less convincing when the direction comes from a man who seems (understandable, from a writer's perspective, as it may be) a total control freak when it comes to actors delivering his dialog. The fact that Ricky Jay (who, though a cool dude, is a very obviously limited and self-conscious 'actor') delivers some of these lines probably has less to do with their failure than Mamet's helming the affair.

I mean, I've spent my fair share of time in some quite diverse subcultures and seen a fair bit of the world, spending a great many years in academia and the like as well as, in common with probably most Americans, in the middle of crowds of people who appear to be Method actors auditioning for "Idiocracy 2," and neither intelligentsia nor your basic Joe Halfwits talk anything like Mamet's model in this film. Oh, so the dialog's STYLIZED? Well, whoop-de-doo; if it's stylized, maybe he didn't stylize it ENOUGH because, really, it's not that interesting. And its delivery in this film is pretty uniformly stilted, wooden, and unconvincing. That's both the fault of the words themselves and of their delivery, but in this case I think we can deflect the blame for that away from the actors (well, most of them) and toward the Director who rules delivery of his sacred dialog with an iron fist. The whole also feels very _stagey_, as in old Dave forgetting or not knowing that film is inherently a different kind of medium than stage performance.

I have the feeling that many who've reviewed this film are praising Mamet because it's the done thing to do. That the emperor's clothes are, at best, somewhat threadbare is of no apparent concern. The plot's interesting enough, though largely predictable fairly early on (and I am one who tends to let myself get immersed in a good movie, who's not ashamed that he didn't see the twists coming in films like "The Usual Suspects" and "The Sixth Sense") and suffering from a tendency toward hammering us over the head with clues, whether real or false. Overall, I think, if this film's any indication then Mamet's work is at its best when directed by someone else. Obviously I have little on which to base this (like I said, I barely remember "Heist" and this one's cured me of any tendency to want to rush out to watch any further Mamet-directed films) but from watching other films for which he only has writer's credit I get the impression that his dialog and plots are far more effective in the hands of directors (and editors) who feel free to play a little more fast and loose with those structures and with actors who're working without metronomes.

Sure, some actors may be thrilled to speak Mamet's words but I know a lot of actors would probably hate working with someone who demanded such absolute control over what was coming out of an actor's mouth. There's inherently a conflict between those who make the film and those who write it, but this film's one indication of how much weaker a film can be when the writer's vision is all that matters. Forcing stutters, incomplete sentences and repetition is NOT the magic key to writing realistic dialog and, anyway, a competent actor (or a halfway-competent actor under competent direction) should be able to improvise such realistic dialog delivery around the lines on the screenplay that, yeah, more often than not probably ARE too clean and neat to reflect real dialog. Mamet's a good writer, sometimes, but the fact that he's recognized that real speech includes stops and starts and tangents doesn't mean he's qualified to make a film that's any more realistic than average and when he does give such a try and fails it's a cop-out to claim that the reason it's not realistic is because it's "stylized," or "hyper-realistic," or that perhaps we just don't understand and couldn't begin to fathom the genius of the man.

I've seen worse -- the recent "The Marine" still stands proudly high as one of the worst films I've seen, largely because I probably ruled out a lot more worthy candidates before I actually tried to watch them -- but this film's a bit of a dud, largely because it's mostly just a non-event and even the climaxes are anticlimactic. The pity is that it's one that probably could have been three or four times as interesting, suspenseful, and engaging if directed by any of the directors who've made successes out of other Mamet scripts. At the very least, it'd have been nice if the movie was as interesting as the blurb on its DVD case...

Did you...? Ahhh... Yes, I...yes, I said that. I did. But...well...never mind. Fishes fly hale, more's the pity.
1 out of 2 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? | Report this
Hitchcockian Suspense from David Mamet
evanston_dad22 June 2010
What a fun movie!

"The Spanish Prisoner" is a clever and suspenseful little mystery/thriller that stars Campbell Scott, a terrific actor who's always flown just under the radar, as an everyday Joe who finds himself at the center of a puzzling -- and increasingly so as the movie progresses -- intrigue being engineered by someone else.

David Mamet proves himself to be as good a director as he is a writer, evoking comparisons to Hitchcock and Patricia Highsmith.

Steve Martin appears in an unusual (for him) role, and Mamet's real-life wife (at least at the time), Rebecca Pidgeon, plays a double-crossing femme fatale.

Grade: A
0 out of 0 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? | Report this
Red Book Switch at 1:02:30 & 1:02:38 & 1:02:50 on DVD
jasondavismit5 April 2010
Warning: Spoilers
Someone doubted that the red book switch ("the process") could work. I think it could. Well, in the least, Mamet put it in the film: compare 1:02:30 & 1:02:38 (at least that's the timing on my DVD): the walkie-talkie on top of the red book moves! This is the signal that the guy behind the hero on his left has switched it.

Then go forward to 1:02:49-1:02:50 where you can barely see this guy pull it from behind his back! The switch works.

This movie pays re-watching for how Mamet layered con-work into the subtext.

Let me offer another mystery: why does Ricky complain that he has "the flu"? Cheers, J
0 out of 0 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? | Report this
So many plot holes
viking9716 January 2010
Warning: Spoilers
This movie is a joke with way too many plot holes. 1)When she takes his picture in front of the seaplane, he then takes her camera and takes her picture. She then leaves without asking for her camera back which is when Jimmy asks for it and he gives it to him. Yet somehow she is able to develop pictures from this camera which she never got back. I know they were working together and she could have got the camera back from Jimmy, but he would know. Lame. 2)Why does he feel compelled to follow a strange man into some building only to find Jimmy buying a sports car? No one would do that and there is no reason for him to do so. Pathetic. 3)When he signs the club membership certificate, although they try to block what it says it clearly reads Club Membership, and not the Columbia Venezuela thing it says when they show it later. Come on Mamet! 4) Numerous phrases that come out of people's mouths that no one in those situations would ever say. Example: This ticket is for Venezuela, why would you want to go there? Huh? Who would say that. Stupid. You know what I could go on, but why bother? I expect more from Mamet. This movie treats the viewer like an idiot. Skip this junk!
1 out of 2 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? | Report this
Dated for its time....
rws_photography29 December 2009
This movie was made in 1997 and for its time it worked. I remember seeing it at the theater and being completely satisfied with the plot and various twists and turns.

After seeing it for the second time today, I have to admit there are a number of quirky out-of-date elements that take away from the pace and validity of the plot. First, I did not remember the outcome or most of the plot. That's why I decided to watch it again. Second, I think the dialogue and the plot are outdated now. I have to believe this is a mystery/drama that has outlived our evolution as movie-goers. It is a good example of how our expectations and general knowledge/stimulus has evolved over time - this example being 12 years old. I found the dialogue to be slow and stilted at first and in fact thought the actors were uncomfortable with themselves; almost "reading" their lines in the first 2/3rds of the movie. The plot now has plenty of holes - why would a smart man fall for the way the "Spanish Prisoner" grift was performed? Clearly we have increased our sophistication with regard to plot and acting since 1997.

The end is still well done and I believe the last 3rd of the movie is worth the time spent. I rate it a 6 out of ten for entertainment, but the entertainment also includes the awareness of how the movie doesn't work that well for 2009.
0 out of 3 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? | Report this
The Certificate Joe signed didn't say "Request for Asylum to Venezuela"!!!
hourglass4429 December 2009
This movie had potential, but needlessly squandered it with gratuitous plot-twists and HUGE, GAPING plot holes. This movie, I must say, along with "The Game" strains credulity beyond even an enthusiastic movie-goers' patience.

For me, the single biggest flaw for which no explanation can be given is when Steve Martin's character has Joe sign a certificate in a supposed "member's only" club to allow Joe entry for lunch. As Joe signs his name, the title at the top of the certificate is initially obscured by the host's fingers. HOWEVER, as the host pulls the certificate away, it clearly reads "CLUB MEMBERSHIP" in English.

Later, when the authorities are questioning Joe about this certificate, they show him the same certificate and ask him if that's his signature on it. Joe says "yes." The officer pulls his fingers away to reveal the title of the very same certificate that Joe signed in the club, but this time it says (in Spanish) "Request for Asylum to Venezuela." There is no explaining away this flaw. This is just lazy movie-making. There are several other bizarre gaffes like this that destroy the movie's credibility as a legitimate thriller.
1 out of 3 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? | Report this
Mamet should not use his reputation to hide his shortcomings.
bwaterbury26 December 2009
Mamet is a genius, and the script is actually pretty decent, but not great. The acting is the real problem, and that is partly for the fact that some reasonably good actors are apparently uninspired (perhaps due to direction), and others are just poorly cast. With Mamet's reputation, he could have gotten some really top flight actors. Especially weak are Steve Martin and Rebecca Pigeon. She is particularly wooden and atrocious!! But, even given these things, the plot has some rather gaping holes. All in all, I believe that a 2 rating is generous. Yes, it had some nice surprises, but not nearly enough to offset the monstrous flaws. Alfred Hitchcock would be rolling in his grave to know that many reviewers compared this to one of his.
1 out of 3 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? | Report this
An error has occured. Please try again.

See also

Awards | FAQ | User Ratings | External Reviews | Metacritic Reviews