“Always do business as if the person you’re doing business with is trying to screw you, because he probably is. And if he’s not, you can be pleasantly surprised.”
David Mamet loves a con. David Mamet loves a heist. David Mamet loves characters to be screwed over, cheated, tricked and hornswoggled from every conceivable angle. He also loves to write some of the snappiest dialogue you’re ever likely to hear. So when you combine all those cons, heists and cheats with whip smart characters who can fire his dialogue back and forth believably, you’re in for something pretty great. Which is what you get from The Spanish Prisoner.
On a work trip to the Bahamas, Joe (Campbell Scott) is accompanied by unassuming secretary, Susan (Rebecca Pidgeon) who seems to have a little crush on him. Joe meets Jimmy (Steve Martin), a rich playboy who thinks Joe would be a great match for his sister. Back home in New York, Jimmy keeps trying to arrange a meeting between Joe and his sister, but it never eventuates. At work, Joe is on the verge of perfecting something only ever called ‘the process’. It will make his employers a fortune. So much money in fact, the only copy of the formula for the process is under lock and key, so competitors can’t steal it.
Soon, it becomes apparent that Jimmy may not be all that he seems, and that it may not have been a chance meeting that introduced them to each other in the Bahamas. The more Joe figures out, the more he realises he doesn’t know. Eventually, it seems like no one in his life is who he thought they were, and that the process is in danger of being stolen.
I like the ambiguity of ‘the process’. So many movies forget that their McGuffins are just that, McGuffins. They try to add this gravitas to their object of desire, to convince the audience that it’s worth the characters’ efforts and our attention. But really, that’s just a waste of time. The Spanish Prisoner throws its audiences in the deep end, tells us little to nothing about its object desire and trusts us to keep up. Because really, this movie isn’t about the process, it’s about the lengths these characters will go to in order to get it or protect it. Even then, those actions are just there so there’s some structure to hang the double and triple crosses on. The process doesn’t matter, getting to the bottom of these characters does.
I’ll admit, there were more than a few times when I struggled to keep up with The Spanish Prisoner. There are some many reveals, and fake reveals about so many characters that I didn’t always know who was a good guy, a bad guy or a bit of both. But I think that may have been intentional on Mamet’s part. I feel like his story is purposely over stuffed with characters, twists and fake outs to keep the viewer as discombobulated as the character of Joe. We see this story unfold through Joe’s eyes and learn things as he learns them. Which makes it all the more effective.