Friday, October 29, 2004

The Spanish Prisoner

"We must never forget that we are human, and as humans we dream, and when we dream we dream of money..."

The Spanish Prisoner is an old confidence game. The con itself stems from the 17th century, but its application is timeless. The con-artiste tells the woeful tale of how their employer/benefactor, whom is very powerful/influential is being held captive in Spain under an assumed name. The employer/benefactor cannot escape, nor can they reveal their true identity, accept under the penalty of severe pain/anguish/death. And so it has become our woeful friends duty to gather sufficient funds to ensure their employer/benefactor's release. At this point in the telling, the con subtly makes it clear that if the victim (or mark) were to front the money for their benefactor's release, that they would incur a great reward. Once the con has ascertained the money for the prisoners escape, the situation will over time become more and more difficult as other events delay the prisoners release, and thus the mark is slowly bled of all their cash.

David Mamet's variation on the Spanish Prisoner is exquisite. Long known for his handling of language, Mamet's films (even About Last Night... , which was based on Sexual Perversity in Chicago) stand out for the dramatic contortions his protagonists go through because of their perspectives on trust. And trust is central to all cons.

Campbell Scott portrays researcher Joe Ross. A middle of the road numbers-cruncher who leads the simple life, but that's about to change. The film opens with Joe, his partner George Lang (played by illusionist Ricky Jay), the new receptionist Susan (played by Mamet regular Rebecca Pidgeon), and their boss arriving on a tropical isle, on business of course. It is here that we learn that Joe and George have developed "The Process", a McGuffin of the highest order, which will serve to make all involved rich. From here we begin to see Mamet formulate the entanglements of business, as Joe begins to get concerned over whether he will justly profit from his labor. It is at this vulnerable point that Joe witnessing something, or does he? In either case, his wandering eyes have led him to Julian "Jimmy" Dell (expertly played by Steve Martin), and to the quandry central to The Spanish Prisoner.


  • Rebecca Pidgeon is David Mamet's ex-wife.
  • Ricky Jay is an expert magician, raconteur of the strange, historian, and film-advisor.
  • Ricky Jay is beheaded in an episode of the X-Files.
  • Ricky Jay is world famous for throwing ordinary playing cards across a room and into watermelon. Take that Gallagher!
  • Joe's boss, played by Ben Gazzara was Jackie Treehorn in The Big Lebowski.


If you liked:

  • Mamet's use of the McGuffin, and cons. See any of his films. It ain't Hitchcock, but its as close as we can get nowadays, and there is cursing!
  • Mamet better when he cussed alot, just go back to watching Glengarry Glen Ross.
  • The basic plot and set-up but couldn't get around some of the acting, check you local paper for any of Mamet's plays, most major cities have at least one of his plays running, support your local theatre!
  • Ricky Jay, read more about him or from him. He's a true renaissance man.
  • Steve Martin as a devious villain, you're at a loss. Drop me a line if you come up with a film where he's this good, and isn't being funny.
  • The Spanish Prisoner con, check your inbox, the prisoner's modern cousin is the Nigerian money transfer scam.