Spanish Prisoner, The (1997)

The Spanish Prisoner (1997), written and directed by David Mamet.

This Art of the Long Con plot is more intricate than most, going through several unfoldings of deception and revelation, with surprises right to the end. Mamet likes tales of swindlers: House of Games (1987), Glengarry Glen Ross (1992), Wag the Dog (1997), Heist (2001).

Our protagonists (Campbell Scott and Ricky Jay) are so cryptic about "The Process" they are trying to fund that at first I thought they might be the con men.

Using Steve Martin as the Mystery Man was a good choice; we know from the first instant that he is not what he appears to be. Everyone swims in shark waters, the way everyone is selling something and evading what they are willing to pay.

Note how the habits of the rich rub off on Scott; is that part of the scam? The way he starts giving gifts and assuming his rights as his just due.

As always with these Long Con stories I wonder at how much it must have cost to set it up and what contingency plans they had to handle unexpected developments. I lost the thread at one point: when the con men have their prize shouldn't everyone be poof gone? But one key player remains and we have what seems like an unnecessary (and genre-violating?) murder. Was this just to put our hero even more firmly in the frame? He seemed pretty tightly screwed already.

I'm not sure the final ferry boat scene makes much sense, but the only bit that seems dumb to me: the instant-acting tranquilizer dart. Oh, boy.

I've mostly seen Rebecca Pidgeon in her husband's movies. She has a cold aspect and flat voice; it is good for some things.

I've been following magician Ricky Jay since his first book, "Cards as Weapons" (1977). It's just what it sounds like: he teaches you to throw cards and gives a vast amount of humorous lore to go with the new martial art. I remember stacks of the hardbound edition on bookstore remainder tables and now they go for $600 used, much sought after by the magician community. He's had one-man stage shows about magic and carny culture (directed by Mamet!); wish I could have seen them.

The actual Spanish Prisoner con game is mentioned in the story, but the plot is not related to it.

Intriguing Carter Burwell score.

Available on DVD.