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on July 10, 2004
The art of the confidence game, or con, for short...very few manage to bring it to the screen as well or a clever as David Mamet, and The Spanish Prisoner (1997) is, while not in my opinion his best, but better than most, and certainly is a good display of Mamet's writing and style for direction. Written and directed by Mamet (House of Games, Glengarry Glen Ross, Wag the Dog), the film stars Campbell Scott, Steve Martin, Ben Gazzara, and Rebecca Pidgeon (who's married to Mamet).

Scott plays Joseph Ross, an inventor who creates a top secret mathematical formula of sorts intended to allow for the manipulation of the stock market somehow, and has the potential to make a lot, a whole lot, of money for the company he works for...problem is Ross is beginning to have doubts about receiving his fair share, what he believes he's entitled to, from the company that plans to utilize the formula. As he tries to negotiate an equitable agreement with the company, he meets a well to do businessman by the name of Julian `Jimmy' Dell (Martin) to which they become friendly, with Jimmy even offering to assist Joseph by putting him in contact with a lawyer that deals with contract law and proprietary information. But nothing is what it seems in this film, as Joseph soon learns as he's accused of theft of the formula, and even murder, as evidence begins appearing that certainly points the finger at him, becoming the perfect patsy. Will he be able to fully understand the intricacies of the con and learn who's involved before he captured by the police and/or FBI? I know, but you'll just have to watch to find out...

I really enjoyed this film, and all its' intricate twists and turns. It's difficult to talk about without giving anything away, but the story is truly a wonderful mystery that will keep you guessing until the end, even if you manage to uncover some of the elements for yourself. The crafting of the con within the story is really good, even though we see so very little of the machinations and planning behind it, instead seeing only the end results, as Scott's character is drawn into a world of fabrication, deceit, and lies. My favorite role here was the character played by Steve Martin. I thought he did an excellent job presenting a charming and sophisticated character, playing the rare serious role. I do enjoy many of his comedic roles, but it's always a treat to see an actor successfully break out of his/her element and show they are more than what we see on the surface. Scott was good, although I felt his character was just a bit too gullible at times, especially given the nature of his work. I've never really cared for him much as an actor as he reminds me too much of that lame white guy from the 3rd season of MTV's The Real World (I think his name was Judd). He was such a smarmy, wishy washy annoyance always following the majority, trying to present an image of the understanding, evolved, sophisticated, yet oh-so-sensitive male in touch with his feminine side, ever careful never to appear politically incorrect for fear of being offensive to the viewers on the other end of the camera, spouting meaningless phrases that make you want to punch him in the face like "I feel your pain", or "Why can't we all just get along?" but I digress...

A couple of things about Mamet's movies, sort of his signatures to me, is the direction by Mamet giving the film the feel of not so much watching a film but of watching a play on film unfold outside of a stage and also the often times odd dialogue spoken throughout by a number of lead characters. I think the latter element is what may put some viewers off, as it can sound very unrealistic and sometime contrived. I mean have you ever heard anyone say, "Worry is like interest paid in advance on a debt that never comes due"? It sounds nice, but I know of no one in real life that talks like this, spouting strange and introspective statements off the cuff (you could catch a beating in my neighborhood for doing so). I suppose the character played by Rebecca Pidgeon had the most noticeably odd lines, especially seeming out of her character. Maybe these looked good on paper, but I feel it takes a really good actor to pull them off on screen, and make them sound natural. I like Rebecca Pidgeon, as she's very sexy in a demure way and, I believe, a capable actress, but I felt she wasn't able to pull off some of the lines she was given here, within the context of her character.

The picture presented here looks very clear and crisp, and the disc is two sided, with a wide screen version on one side, and full screen format on the other. I did feel the audio was a bit soft, but English subtitles are available. I did find the subtitles didn't always match exactly what was spoken, and I thought that a little weird. Not much here with regards to special features other than a theatrical trailer and brief production notes on the insert inside the DVD.

Overall, I think The Spanish Prisoner is a very good, low-key mystery thriller that will keep you on your toes until the end and does have replay value if only to better understand the layered complexities within the story (I've seen it twice), but I still feel a better Mamet film to watch is the first he wrote and directed in House of Games, with Lindsay Crouse and Joe Mantegna.

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on February 2, 1999
First, there is Mamet's dialogue: punchy, pungent, at once surreal and downright earthy, a pidgin English that starts out sounding weird and contrived in the actor's mouths and ends sounding as honest as breathing. Remember, this guy is also a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright.
Then there's Mamet's plotting: we know there are going to be "bad" people--masters of the Big Con--conniving to steal Campbell Scott's lucrartive "process" (one of the best MacGuffin's since Hitchcock), but trying to determine who's in on it and who's an innocent (?) bystander is one of the ongoing delightful puzzles of the movie. Mamet slowly reveals the true colors of his characters like a master at stud poker. Eventually poor Campbell realizes he's been robbed, framed and screwed eight ways til Sunday (in a brilliant interrogation scene where most of the pieces come together), and as viewers, we feel as tightly trapped as he does.
Finally there are the perfomaces: Scott's nicely understated playing of the niave but brainy techno-geek, Steve Martin's deft characterization of the moody, mysterious millionare, and Rebecca Pigeon's suspiciously winsome gal Friday. Many of Mamet's old "Chicago school" regulars show up, though poor Ricky Jay gets stuck mouthing a lot of platitudes--one of the few weakness of Mamet's script.
Yes, maybe this film isn't quite as brilliant as "House of Games," Mamet's previous exploration of the Big Con, but darn few movies are. The deus ex machina ending is less satisfying than "House"'s more character-driven conclusion, and I sure miss Joe Mantegna (no one spits out Mamet's dialog with quite his authority). Nonetheless, "Prisoner" stands up to multiple viewings without losing its appeal or mystery, and may in fact require more than one viewing in order to be truly appreciated for its labyrinthine plotting and underlying themes.
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Written and directed by David Mamet, this clever thriller of industrial espionage is full of surprising twists and turns which keep the viewer on the edge of the seat. Joe Ross (Campbell Scott), a young man working under a special contract, has developed "the process" which will allow a company to control the global market. Only Ross and the company president, Mr. Klein (Ben Gazzara), have keys to the safe where the notes on the process are kept, and high security has been maintained, but Ross is edgy. Klein has not paid him a bonus and is dragging his feet about rewarding him appropriately.

Devious manipulators conspire to make Ross even more uncertain about Klein's loyalty, hoping they can steal the formula and sell it to European or Japanese competitors. Front and center in the plot is Jimmy Dell (smarmily played by Steve Martin), who masquerades as a very wealthy high flyer, appealing to Ross's desire to get what he deserves and fears he won't get from Mr. Klein. Appealing to Ross's natural paranoia, Dell soon has him doing exactly what he wants, as Ross tries to "protect" himself from Klein.

This intricately plotted conspiracy keeps the viewer on the edge of the chair, trying to figure out what is going on. As Ross begins to discover Dell's lies, the film offers one surprise after another, and these surprises keep coming right up to the blockbuster ending. Viewers will be fascinated to look back to see how the conspiracy and the plotting have set them up for the surprises. The music introducing the film is appropriately romantic, mysterious, and ominous, and repeats throughout for emphasis. The cinematography (Gabriel Beristain), even for somewhat trite scenes, is effective and adds to the suspense.

Unfortunately, the dialogue is filled with clichés and clunky remarks, a surprise considering Mamet's stage background. Unrealistic and ponderous comments abound, always followed by a trenchant pause. Dell, remarking to Ross about his sister, says, "All we ever had was each other (pause)." A policeman tells Ross, "You'll be back (pause)." Another says, "Always do business as if the person you're doing business with is [betraying] you (pause)." The acting is generally good, and Ed O'Neil has a nice cameo as an FBI investigator. Rebecca Pidgeon, Mamet's wife, plays Susan Ricci, a role which is not clearly developed or integrated and for which she seems a bit too mature. Despite the clumsy dialogue, this is an exciting film, great fun to watch for its unexpected twists and turns. Mary Whipple
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on May 25, 2006
This has been my favorite film for quite a while and I've seen it many times. Some of the criticisms one will read about this film are exactly the reasons why I love it so much. The odd manner of language used is a charm to me. Pidgeon is wonderful in her role and performs it perfectly. Martin is scary in this unusual role for him and Scott plays an excellent naive boy scout type. This film is definitely not for fact, most may find it annoying or hard to watch. I find it delightful and challenging. I give this intelligent PG movie accolades for not succumbing to the sleaze and vulgarity that a lot of films portray. A work of art. Five stars.
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on September 29, 2006
Loved this movie. It had great mystery and tongue and cheek humor at the same time. I really don't want to give anything away because I knew nothing about this film when I saw it, which was great because there were so many twists that kept me completely interested throughout. The main character, Joe, can't trust anyone and you'll see why. Enjoy.
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There's a little of the famous repetitive, stylized Mamet dialogue, especially in the beginning of this intriguing, tongue-in-cheek thriller, but mostly what director Mamet does is play it (almost) straight. The premise is a con, called "the Spanish Prisoner" con. Steve Martin is the chief con artist, Jimmy Dell, while Campbell Scott is the victim, Joe Ross, whose proprietary business formula--displayed prominently throughout the movie as a red bound notebook--is the booty.
Most of us are familiar with this con from our e-mail where it typically takes the form of an African or the Middle Eastern princess seeking help from us to escape from a corrupt society or an oppressive husband. We are advised that she has many millions of dollars but can't get them out of the country without our help in the form of a few thousand bucks for various fees, etc. If we send the money we are assured that we will get a significant percentage of the millions.
Here the come-on includes a dark-haired beauty we see only in passing and in photos. Playing her foil is Rebecca Pidgeon (Mamet's talented wife) as Susan Ricci, a somewhat ditzy secretary for Joe's company. At the beginning everything is opaque and intriguing. It's not clear who is who, and who can be trusted and who can't. Indeed if this movie had a theme it would be "you can't trust anybody." The real worry, however, seems to be whether Joe will get paid for his work. Mr. Klein (Ben Gazzara) keeps putting him off. And so it appears that we may be viewing another business and relationships satire for which Mamet is justly famous (e.g., Glengarry Glen Ross 1992), but after a bit we begin to see the sinister plot unfold.
The acting is good and Mamet sets up his plot twists with precision--although the resolutions of some of the twists are a bit strained; in fact, probability and logic, in keeping with the time-honored tenets of the genre, are sometimes just plain ignored. But what carries this unusual thriller is an underlying tone of irony. Steve Martin is perfectly cast because underneath his sly exterior there seems lurking a guy about to bust out laughing; and indeed the entire edifice is a crafty but covert spoof of Hollywood thrillers. It's almost as though Mamet set out to write and direct a standard thriller but just couldn't help himself. On the other hand he may have had the understated parody in mind all the way, but just didn't want to tell anybody! Certainly Steve Martin was not fooled, but I do wonder about Campbell Scott who played his part with such single-minded intensity.
Anyway, there's a lot of clever dialogue, some of it cribbed ("Beware of enterprises requiring new clothes" is from Thoreau), and some interesting stage business (the tickets, the tennis book, the red-bound book, the camera/gun, the club certificate/request for passage to Venezuela, etc.). And trying to figure out who is up to what will keep you awake. But see this for Rebecca Pidgeon who, in her way, is as original as Mamet. Although her role here is not strictly comedic she reminds me a little of the Japanese comedic actress, Nobuko Miyamoto, widow of director Juzo Itami. She also reminds me of somebody who should be playing Saturday Night Live. Maybe she has.
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VINE VOICEon December 16, 2003
If you can look beyond the usual staccato Mametian dialogue and the uneveness always caused by casting Mamet's wife Rebecca Pidgeon in the leading female role, then you've got yourself a very fine movie - probably David Mamet's best as writer/director in my opinion. I know many people will choose 'House of Games,' but I thought the 'Prisoner' storyline was better, and I really like the work turned in by Mamet novices Campbell Scott (whose combination of brains and naivete drives the film), Ben Gazzara and especially Steve Martin, who plays totally against type here.
In the Mamet-penned 'Wag the Dog' we hear over and over again "It's a pageant." Replace that here with "It's a process." We hear over and over again about The Process. We never find out what exactly the Process is (that's not the point), but all actions and reactions in 'Prisoner' involve securing, stealing and resecuring The Process. It's a classic Mametian plot device and it works great here.
For Mamet fans, there's a subset of regulars, most notably Mamet house players Ricky Jay and Jerry Graff. ['Glengarry Glen Ross' fans ought to recognize that name.]
Also - be on the lookout for Ed O'Neill for a brief - but memorable - turn as an FBI Team Leader.
And keep your eyes on that suitcase.
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on August 26, 2014
This David Mamet screenplay, directed by David Mamet, and peopled by actors delivering classic David Mamet dialogue rife with David Mamet cadences is a delight. Joe Ross (Campbell Scott) has created a 'process' everybody wants. We don't know what the process is, and it doesn't really matter. What matters is that everybody wants it. Joe meets a stranger, played by Steve Martin, who offers him advice on how to protect the process and himself as he negotiates the sale of the process. But all is not as it seems. It is hard to follow the twists and counter-twists in this delightful example of the confidence game genre. This is a fine mystery.
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on April 6, 2013
I was told this was a good con movie and a classic must see. Well, maybe it's a classic but it's not a good one. To sum it up, this movie has stilted, absurd dialogue delivered with sub-par acting and a tediously slow plot that centers around a supposedly intelligent guy, Joe, who is really just an idiot. And the ending was a cop-out that ruined everything this movie was trying so hard to be.

After all the twists (which weren't all that twisty) and the agonizing wait to see Joe finally start figuring things out (which he doesn't until it hits him in the face), the ending rushes past in a blur of cop outs. The director/writers backed Joe into such a corner by the end, giving him no good way to get out of his situation, that they took the easy way out - made it so law enforcement knew he was innocent all along. Viola, after everything, we learn that Joe was never in any danger (it's like a movie that ends with a character waking up and realizing it was all just a bad dream.) Sure, his friend was still killed (where were the U.S. Marshals when that happened?) for seemingly no reason and his boss goes down in an off-screen arrest that you might miss if you tune out for a moment but Joe doesn't need to worry about prison anymore. And that's about as exciting as it gets.

The last line of the movie really showcased how poorly written, directed and acted the movie was. Worse last line in a movie ever. Wondering what it is? Here ya go..."I think you need to spend some time in your room". Seriously, that's it. Another detail that really stood out was that Joe brings his ACTUAL book with his mysterious process in it to the meeting. Huh? I mean really, even a rank amateur at all the clandestine stuff would have known better, let alone a smart guy who's thus far taken measures to ensure secrecy. The writer should have given Joe the final leg up here. He should have had the real book tucked away somewhere safe and have conned the conmen. THAT would have been a worthwhile ending.

One of the few things I did appreciate about this movie was the disparity between perception and reality. Seeing Joe look at his surroundings after he realizes he was conned was a nice touch. Also, Steve Martin pulls it off despite the bad writing and so-so plot and for him I gave it 2 stars. Although, Martin really doesn't do the "guy with the gun" thing very well.

If you're looking for a good con movie that you haven't seen yet, I would suggest THE BROTHERS BLOOM with Adrien Brody.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon March 30, 2015
When Scott fails to get his company's assurances that he will be duly compensated for his work, he falls for the advice of the dapper Martin, who knows how corporations exploit nice people and resent them for their good nature. It is now when the proverbial hits the fan.

-------------Steve Martin later tells Scott, "Good people, bad people, generally look like what they are." ---------------

The film works on the viewer’s identification with Scott as a kind of white-collar Joe Six-Pack--Charlie Chardonnay. Even his weird, vocabulary has the sound of a language developed in library. When he is trying to buck a woman up, he tells her that she's "loyal and true and not too hard to look at." Unfortunately, most of the characters speak with the same. The Spanish Prisoner sounds as if he translated some 19th-century farce from English into Russian and then back again. The sexiest thing in the movie is the way Martin wears clothes. Rebecca Pidgeon she is stuck in the jarringly off-key role of the love-struck secretary. Pidgeon's character is inauthentic, whether she is falling for Scott or just playing him for a pigeon.

Warts and all this still a film worth seeing.
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