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Film / The Spanish Prisoner


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 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.
  • 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
  • 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.
  • Massive Multiplayer Scam
  • 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 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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
  • 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.
  • 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).