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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:

  • Actually Pretty Funny: Even Susan has to crack a wry smile when Joe declines to do a "good deed."
  • Better Manhandle the Murder Weapon: When Joe finds his friend dead, with a knife in his chest, his first move is to try to grab the knife.
  • The Cameo: The fed who explains the Spanish Prisoner con is played by Ed O'Neill, a personal friend of Mamet's.
  • 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.
    • Joe's ridiculously huge folding knife.
  • 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.
  • 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. It turns out that everything that's gone on has been a giant con to steal a multimillion-dollar process and pin the theft on the protagonist. And just about everyone was in it, too. Unlike typical scam story, The Reveal happens half-way through, forcing Joe to clear his name.
  • Deus ex Machina: US Marshalls were clued in to the whole scheme from the start, when Jimmy has Joe cornered on the boat two "tourists" come to the rescue.
  • 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. When they tried to set him up at airport, he left just as the "camera" (really a gun to alert security) went through the x-ray.
  • The Ending Changes Everything: By the end of the film, it's clear that Joe had been set up by almost literally everyone close to him in order to get him to deliver the process and set him up to take the fall. The whole thing has been a con within a con within a con, which makes a second viewing more interesting.
  • 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 scheme runs pretty much perfectly, except that Joe accidentally tore the book when opening it, replaced it, and kept the original, which had Jimmy's fingerprints.
  • 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.
  • Gambit Roulette: It becomes evident that almost everyone introduced in the film had been manipulating Joe into this scheme. Small deviations are treated with more exaggerated responses because they are all trying to direct him down a particular path. Exactly where things went wrong are implied through multiple layers to the scheme (the initial crux of the scheme was to convince Joe that management was going to short change him and convincing him to bring the process to Jimmy and his lawyers, once that didn't go right they created the fake FBI sting to get their hands on the process). It takes until the last few minutes before the audience and Joe are clued into the final piece of the puzzle, where the entire plot is revealed.
  • The Ghost: Jimmy's sister. The promise of meeting her strings Joe along with Jimmy for a while. We never see what she looks like. The one photograph that Jimmy shows has her face covered by glare. It turns out she doesn't exist.
  • Greed: Rather than paying Joe a reasonable fee for developing a very valuable process, his boss takes part in an elaborate con to steal the process and frame Joe for murder of his friend. He stood to make a lot of money legitimately, but instead ended up caught for a criminal conspiracy.
  • It Was Here, I Swear!: Once Joe is caught, he leads them to all the places that Jimmy took him, to find them totally different. Jimmy's house is abandoned, and the private club they went to was a family restaurant.
  • Hiding in Plain Sight: The Japanese tourists are really law enforcement officers tracking the conmen. Jimmy even notes that no one ever pays attention to them.
  • Irony: Jimmy notes that no one ever pays attention to Japanese tourists. His con is undone by the very fact that he's been ignoring the tourists.
  • Japanese Tourist: They appear in a number of scenes, and Jimmy notes that no one ever pays attention to them. It turns out that they're U.S. Marshals hiding in plain sight.
  • 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.
  • My Card: Felicity Huffman's character leaves behind a business card that turns out to be an important part of the larger plan.
  • MacGuffin: The "process", we are merely told that this will circumvent something about a Japanese investment, it touches upon insider trading and the payoff would be a lot of money. Even the amount of money is not disclosed, only that it takes Joe a few seconds to write it out.
  • 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: A 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.
  • Offscreen Teleportation: The only explanation for what happens to the book containing the process during the Title Drop scene.
  • 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 gets Joe through a roadblock by playing a bickering couple and staging a massive fight, until the police wave them through just to get rid of them.
  • 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 are they sent out by the Japanese corporation to steal the process; they're U.S. Marshals.
  • Stalker with a Crush: Downplayed as early on Susan expresses an attraction to Joe, who is Married to the Job but polite in dismissing her interest, while she seeks to be a Hypercompetent Sidekick otherwise. This was part of the scheme, slowly wear down Joes' support network until he feels she is the only one to turn to, where she delivers the final con and has him take the fall.
  • Swiss Bank Account: Jimmy creates a Swiss Bank Account for Joe as a lark. He points out that, even though the account is basically empty, Swiss law prevents the balance from being disclosed, so he can impress people with the possibility that's he's rich. This turns out to be part of the con, because that account makes it look like he's hiding a payoff, and the same law means he can't prove that there's no money in the account.
  • Title Drop: During the Spanish Prisoner con exposition scene, delivered by Ed O'Neill's character.
  • Tranquillizer Dart: 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.
  • 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).
  • Wham Shot: When the camera bag goes through the X-ray machine. It's when the audience first learns that Susan is in on the con.
  • Working Through the Cold: George gets a cold during the company trip, which is why he doesn't go out and ultimately ends up murdered.