Film / The Spanish Prisoner

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The Spanish Prisoner is a suspense/crime/mystery film written and directed by David Mamet. It revolves around Joe Ross, a researcher for an unnamed major company who's recently perfected an unspecified process which is worth a great deal of money. While on a business trip in the Caribbean, he meets and befriends a wealthy traveler who offers to advise him and help him get a fair share of the profits. Shortly, however, he begins to question his new friend's motives and intentions. As in most Mamet stories, deceptions and cons pile up as both the protagonist and the audience try to figure out who's telling the truth, and who's part of a plot.


This film provides examples of:

  • Better Manhandle the Murder Weapon. Joe attaches himself to the murder of his lawyer friend by touching the knife in the chest.
  • The Cameo: The fed who explains the Spanish Prisoner con is played by Ed O'Neill, post-Married... with Children, pre-Modern Family.
  • Chekhov's Armoury: Several objects turn into plot-driving devices later on.
    • The business card of the FBI agent. Invoked to trap Joe deeper in the scheme.
    • The video tape from the island. Joe remembers it when seeing the surveillance monitor at Susan's place.
    • The tennis book (with Jimmy's finger prints on it) eventually brings the charade down.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: In multiple scenes throughout the movie, there are Japanese tourists in the background taking pictures. Everyone ignores them, except to comment on the ubiquity of Japanese tourist photographing things; in the end they turn out to be Federal Marshals who were following the whole plot.
  • Chekhov's Cough: Joe's best friend, a lawyer, gets a cold that follows him throughout the movie. Subverted when he is found stabbed to death in the second act
  • The Con: Joe spends the whole film trying to figure out what con he's been a victim of. The titular "Spanish Prisoner" con is but a foreplay to one of them.
  • Didn't See That Coming: Almost everything that happened was planned out, but the plotters didn't predict that Joe would just happen to hang on to a book that one of them left fingerprints on.
  • The Ending Changes Everything: By the end of the film, it's clear that almost literally no one but the protagonist has been telling the truth about anything. The whole thing has been a con within a con within a con.
  • Failed a Spot Check: Dell duped Joe on several occasions without the latter noticing anything wrong.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • Early on, Joe sees a boat moving from a seaplane towards the shore. Susan points out that he never actually saw the boat leave the plane, it could have been coming from anywhere, "and we have no idea who anyone is."
    • We never get a good look at pictures of Jimmy's sister, most noticeably when a lamp is reflected over her face. It turns out she doesn't exist.
  • For Want of a Nail: The entire scheme, including two elaborate failsaves, ultimately crumbles due to Joe wanting to impress the girl and replacing the damaged book with a mint copy and the fact he's really a Nice Guy. And it's entirely on the schemers part, since he's played to panic in the plane and to start think Jimmy could set him for something. Should he deliver the package without ever opening it, the plan would work flawlessly. Should they use a copy in good conditions rather than the first book they could grab, the entire plot would have worked.
  • It Was Here, I Swear!: Joe leads authorities to Jimmy's "office," which is empty. Then he takes them to the private club Jimmy signed him up for, which turns out to be a family restaurant.
  • Gambit Pileup: There is a con within a con and the fail-safe situation is based on combination of another two cons. All of it to get the formula without paying Joe a single cent for it.
  • Greed: Rather than paying Joe his due for the process, which shouldn't be that much in the first place, Mr. Klein, his boss, takes part in an elaborate con to steal the process and frame Joe for murder of his friend. If he wasn't so greedy, he might actually profit on the process at minimal cost and without criminal charges.
  • Japanese Tourist: They seem to be everywhere and it's even invoked by one of the conmen.
  • Kansas City Shuffle: Just when Joe thinks he knows he is being conned and what to do about it, the rug is yanked out from under his feet and he is blindsided by a completely different con.
  • Last Request: Dell grants one to Joe on the ferry. Joe requests to learn more about the process.
  • Mamet Speak: But of course. One of the opening scenes, where Joe, Mr. Klein and the other businessmen discuss the process, its applications and value is the best example of it.
  • Massive Multiplayer Scam: There are roughtly 30 people involved in the scheme, countless locations are used and there is a possibility there even was a third-party involved in their own scheme.
  • My Card: Felicity Huffman's character leaves behind a business card that turns out to be an important part of the larger plan.
  • McGuffin: The "process", about which we are told absolutely nothing except that it's worth a lot of money.
  • Meta Casting: Ricky Jay, a professional magician and expert in charlatans, plays George, Joe's friend and a lawyer. This indicated from the very start he will play important role in the plot. He's killed instead and Joe is framed for it.
  • Meta Twist: Mamet must have known that the audience would be expecting a con game to turn up in this film. We hit that twist and the con is uncovered and explained before the movie is half over. Then we realize that we haven't uncovered anything yet.
  • Mistaken Nationality: The "Japanese" tourists.
  • Nice Guy: Combination of this and Pride makes Joe a superb target for the scheme, which is entirely tailored around those traits.
  • Nice to the Waiter: Joe being too nice eventually leads the entire plot to crumble, even if initially it helped the conmen.
    • Should he let Susan return in business class, she wouldn't get an extra chance to point out Jimmy might be bad. Joe would never open the package and he wouldn't notice the book is damaged - something that wasn't even important for the scheme.
    • Later on, helping a troubled mother leads to the realisation he still has Jimmy's fingerprints.
  • Out-Gambitted: The plotters had a brilliantly detailed and multi-layered plan to get a hold of the process and leave Joe to take the fall. In the end the Feds were watching them the entire time and were just letting them proceed to gather evidence.
  • Plot-Based Voice Cancellation: This is used to prevent the audience from ever learning where the process was hidden. Oddly enough, though, the line shows up clearly in the subtitles.
    • Judging by the DVD release, where the lines are much more audiable, the idea was different. Jimmy uses the sudden noise to never give anything on the Hidden Wire, since he expects the ruse.
  • Police Are Useless:
    • In fairness to the police, things were deliberately set up so that Joe would look guilty and half of his story fell apart on inspection. Naturally they don't believe his pleas of innocence.
    • Then subverted when we find out that Federal Marshals were following the case from the beginning.
  • Read the Fine Print: Joe is tricked into signing a club membership form which turns out to be a request for political asylum from the Republic of Venezuela.
  • Refuge in Audacity: Susan manages to get their car around the road block by making a scene in front of the cop.
  • The Reveal:
    • Joe isn't part of the Spanish Prisoner con, but everything is set up to make him believe it's the case.
    • Susan is part of the scheme. So is Mr. Klein.
    • The Japanese tourists aren't just background extras, nor they are send out by the Japanese corporation to steal the process.
  • Spanish Prisoner: The film includes a detailed explanation of this con, the purpose of which exposition is to disguise the fact that it is not the con being performed.
  • Stun Guns: Jimmy is caught using tranq gun. This was the main cause of fan theory about the real identity of the Marshalls, who make sure Jimmy is alive and well when the plot crumbles.
  • Title Drop: During the Spanish Prisoner exposition scene, delivered by Ed O'Neill's character.
  • Tricked Into Signing: Used as part of a Frame-Up. The hero is rushed to sign a club membership form that turns out to be a request for political asylum from the Republic of Venezuela. It gives the impression that he is about to skip the country with a fortune. And the police fall for it.
  • Undercover Cop Reveal: Stuck on a boat with a man about to shoot him, Joe appeals to the other people around - the ubiquitous Japanese tourists. They immediately subdue the villains and reveal they were actually U.S. Marshals.
  • Undisclosed Funds: The stake at the beginning is not shown to the audience, but is presumably an impressive sum. Judging by Joe's writing and sounds he makes with chalk, it's eight figures. And that's a conservative projection.
  • Unreveal Angle: Dell's sister is The Ghost. When he shows Joe a photo of her, glare on the glass over the photo prevents the audience from seeing anything.
  • Unwitting Pawn: Joe is this in Dell's scheme.
  • Vocal Dissonance: One of the Asian U.S. Marshals has a cartoonishly thick Southern accent (that was obviously dubbed).

http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Film/TheSpanishPrisoner