[Screen It]


(1998) (Campbell Scott, Steve Martin) (PG)

Blood/Gore Disrespectful/
Bad Attitude
Tense Scenes
Mild Mild Moderate Mild Moderate
Minor None Mild None Minor
Smoking Tense Family
Topics To
Talk About
Minor Minor None Minor Moderate

Suspense/Thriller: A man finds himself the victim of an elaborate plan to steal the top-secret formula that he's created for his company and discovers that he can't trust anyone.
Joe Ross (CAMPBELL SCOTT) has developed a top-secret formula that will put his company years ahead of the competition. Worried that they might not properly compensate him for his work, and heeding the advice of his lawyer friend, George Lang (RICKY JAY), Joe meets with his boss, Klein (BEN GAZZARA), while on a company trip to the Caribbean.

Assured that he'll get what's due to him, Joe tries to relax and ends up meeting Jimmy Dell (STEVE MARTIN), a mysterious but apparently quite wealthy businessman. Immediately hitting it off, Joe agrees to deliver a book to Jimmy's sister upon his return to New York. Although he never meets this woman, he's intrigued by Jimmy's description of her, and thus overlooks the obvious crush that Susan Ricci (REBECCA PIDGEON), his new office assistant, has on him.

Still worried about getting gypped over his invention, though, Joe listens to Jimmy's advice and comes to believe that the company will probably try to take advantage of him. Sure enough, Klein and his associates then try to renegotiate his contract and Joe begins to follow Jimmy's directions on how to solve this problem. From that point on, however, events slowly begin to spiral out of control for Joe as he learns too late that no one is what they seem, and as he discovers a massive conspiracy organized to steal his formula.

Probably only if they're fans of someone in the cast, or of playwright, turned filmmaker Mamet's other work.
For thematic elements including tension, some violent images and brief language.
  • CAMPBELL SCOTT plays a man who's concocted a top secret formula for his company, but worries that he won't get proper credit or financial recognition for his work.
  • STEVE MARTIN plays a wealthy, but mysterious businessman whose motives toward Joe are unclear until very near the end of the movie.
  • REBECCA PIDGEON plays Joe's new assistant who's attracted to him and tries to help him face this conspiracy, but like Jimmy, her true motives are unclear until the very end.


    OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10
    Con games come in many variations, shapes and sizes, but usually involve an unknowing victim who falls prey to a carefully constructed, but often quickly executed plan of deception. Usually played to bilk someone out of a small amount of cash or property -- therefore less likely to draw much heat from the police -- such cons are often comparable to pickpockets and come off as nothing much more than annoying. The awkwardly titled "The Spanish Prisoner" -- named after an older and more elaborate con -- takes that criminal deception to a higher level and, in doing so, creates an ever growing maze of conspiracy that would make even Oliver Stone proud.

    Written and directed by David Mamet -- one of America's foremost playwrights who's now building his cinematic resume with this, the fifth film he's written and directed, "The Spanish Prisoner" starts out a little slow, but then begins to deal out layer upon layer of complications. Much like the traditional "Hitchcockian" theme where an ordinary man gets caught up in extraordinary circumstances -- the film should please moviegoers who like plots where the protagonist gets deeper into trouble and learns he can trust no one.

    What might annoy audiences, though, is the obvious theatrically based dialogue, especially as delivered by Rebecca Pidgeon who plays the main characters' new assistant. Often repeating carefully constructed lines, her character sounds interesting, but certainly not human. Now, don't get me wrong -- Mamet definitely has a gift for writing the spoken word and his intense dialogue is often fun just to sit back and absorb. Yet where that works, and truly is needed, is on the stage where the often limited resources, stage space or lack of scenic elements put a high emphasis on what's spoken and how it's delivered.

    On film, however, it just doesn't work. In real life nobody speaks that way either, and it only serves to distract the audience from the rest of the film. Things move along fine until certain characters open their mouths and the audience's attention immediately shifts to the artificial sounding dialogue.

    The performances, however, are good and make up for those "problems." Campbell Scott ("Dying Young," "Singles") -- with his handsome, "everyday" looks -- does a decent job playing the average "Joe" (no pun intended) who finds himself the victim in an elaborately staged conspiracy. Rebecca Pidgeon (a Broadway actress and Mamet's spouse), as stated earlier, is the unfortunate performer saddled with the abstract dialogue, but she still manages to pull off a decent, albeit odd character.

    The real standout, however, is Steve Martin ("Leap of Faith," the "Father Of The Bride" movies), who appears to be slowly distancing himself from his early glory days of the "wild and crazy guy" character that introduced him to worldwide audiences several decades ago. Many comedians often have darker sides underlying their "surface" humor, and Martin expertly puts that developed characteristic to use in his shady character.

    Mamet's script delivers the requisite twists and turns and they neatly and precisely unfold as the story progresses. While a few of them are telegraphed -- and thus aren't that surprising -- for the most part they are quite effective. At times, however, the revealing of information is too obviously shoved down our throats. When a mother repeatedly tells her child two bits of superfluous info -- that have no bearing beyond the moment for her -- Scott's character should pick it up right away. It's so obvious that we do after just her first utterance, but he doesn't, so she's forced by Mamet to say it several times until he finally understands the "clue."

    Likewise, many of the characters repeatedly make observational comments about people in general to Joe. Susan spouts awkward lines about people never being what they seem, and considering the way things turn out, one would think she should keep her mouth shut, lest she give away ulterior motives. Conversely, Steve Martin's character mentions that people are generally what they look like -- perhaps a counterpoint to Susan's near spilling of the beans as they are -- but none of it ever comes across as natural feeling dialogue.

    Even so, it does give the film something of an abstract, and perhaps even nightmarish quality considering what eventually unfolds. The whole film is something akin to a dream. We never know what Joe really does, or what the "product" he's devised really entails. Likewise, with other nebulous characters, odd dialogue and the progression of events that remind one a little of "North By Northwest" or other similar stories where the protagonist finds themselves in an out of control world, the film is certainly never boring to watch. Except for the often incongruous dialogue, this is a decent, intelligently constructed thriller that will keep you unsure of the resolution right up until the very end. We give "The Spanish Prisoner" a 7 out of 10.

    There's very little of major concern to object to in this film. A person is murdered off-screen (we see the mildly bloody results) and a few other threatening moments occur. Obviously everyone involved in the conspiracy has bad attitudes, and only a handful of profanities and phrases are uttered. Older teens are most likely the only segment of those under eighteen who may want to see this film, and there's probably nothing that occurs here that they haven't already seen or heard somewhere before.

  • George has a drink at an outside bar as do others, including Susan and an FBI agent.
  • Joe and Jimmy have drinks.
  • Joe takes a beer out of the fridge, but we don't see him drinking it.
  • Joe and Jimmy have martinis, and later have some sort of after dinner drink.
  • Joe finds a man who's been stabbed to death and the man's chest is bloody, as are Joe's hands for several scenes after that (as he tries to find a place to wash them).
  • All of those involved in setting up and manipulating Joe have both.
  • Joe must leave an apartment after he finds a dead body and as the police arrive.
  • A man prepares to shoot Joe on a boat.
  • Rifles: Seen hanging on the wall in a scene where Joe meets with Klein, and later one is prepared by an FBI agent.
  • Knife: Used to stab a man to death (we don't see the act, but see the body afterwards).
  • Handgun: Seen in a bag in an X-ray machine monitor.
  • Handgun: Aimed by a man at Joe as he prepares to shoot him.
  • Tranquilizer gun: Used to shoot a man.
  • Phrase: "Screw you."
  • Susan calls Joe a "dumb mick" in a fake argument to elude the police.
  • None.
  • There is a mild amount of tension filled music in several scenes.
  • None.
  • 5 hells, 1 damn, and 1 use each of "G-damn," "Lord," "Oh my God," and "Lord have mercy" as exclamations.
  • George asks Joe if he's going to give a woman "a tumble" (in the bed). Joe replies that he was thinking of something else.
  • Susan tells Joe that if he ever feels like having someone make him dinner..."or dinner with breakfast..." that he should let her know (innuendo).
  • Joe smokes a cigar, and also holds an unlit one.
  • Several minor or background characters smoke.
  • None.
  • Con games -- large and small.
  • Joe finds a man who's been stabbed to death with a knife.
  • A man holds a gun on Joe as he prepares to shoot him.
  • A man is shot with a gun, but it turns out to fire tranquilizers and not bullets.

  • Reviewed March 18, 1998

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