David Mamet has a penchant for sleight-of-hand thrillers, and "The Spanish Prisoner" is his craftiest to date. Centered on a relentless cat's cradle of a business scam, the picture is a devilishly clever series of reversals that keeps you guessing to the very end. On target for specialized crowds, it has excellent crossover prospects, and the marquee cast should smooth the way for upbeat international playoff and strong ancillary action.

David Mamet has a penchant for sleight-of-hand thrillers, and “The Spanish Prisoner” is his craftiest to date. Centered on a relentless cat’s cradle of a business scam, the picture is a devilishly clever series of reversals that keeps you guessing to the very end. On target for specialized crowds, it has excellent crossover prospects, and the marquee cast should smooth the way for upbeat international playoff and strong ancillary action.

Joe Ross (Campbell Scott) arrives at the fictional Caribbean isle of St. Estephe for a secret meeting to unveil a new invention. It’s worth a fortune to his company, and all precautions are being taken to keep its existence under wraps. Joe has been promised personal compensation for the unnamed scientific/technical godsend and told to enjoy a couple of days at the remote resort on the bosses.

While taking photos with Susan (Rebecca Pidgeon), a company secretary, Joe is approached by Jimmy Dell (Steve Martin) and offered $1,000 for the camera. Jimmy’s blunt approach offends Joe, who gives him the camera gratis. Later, a contrite Jimmy explains that he’s fearful Joe may inadvertently have caught him on film in the midst of an illicit tryst.

Joe is drawn to the shadowy businessman, awed by his cool confidence and lack of sentimentality. Joe agrees to deliver a package to Jimmy’s sister when he returns to Manhattan, and thinks nothing more of it until Susan plants several disturbing seeds. “How do we know who people are?” she wonders, and cites the man on the beach as an example. It’s enough to get Joe scurrying to the bathroom on the plane to open the bundle he’s been handed, only to uncover a first edition of “(Don) Budge on Tennis” — Jimmy’s sister being a racket pro.

Back in New York, Joe decides to buy a better-preserved edition, and that sets off a chain of actions that kicks into the plot’s many twists. The emotional roller-coaster of the “friendship” that develops between the reserved Joe and mercurial Jimmy is the perfect frame for the Kafkaesque machinations. A cipher a la Joseph K., Joe is the vessel for our disquiet and sense of vulnerability in relation to forces in the universe that trample ambition, privacy and the like. “The Spanish Prisoner,” we’re told by a seeming FBI agent, is the term for a classic confidence scam. Set up the patsy, make him believe an improbable tale and reel him in with the bait.

Joe’s weakness arises when he doesn’t receive the bonus he knows he has earned. Jimmy, after magnanimously giving him a club membership, listens to his woes. Again playing on his ambition, he puffs up his expectations and offers the services of a copyright lawyer. When Joe’s boss, Mr. Klein (Ben Gazzara), wants to change his contract, the inventor takes on the situation with Jimmy’s toughness, refusing to sign.

But then he realizes he’s caught in a trap. He seeks out an FBI agent he met in St. Estephe, and they devise a sting operation. But this move only hastens his descent into the quicksand.

The picture embraces many of Mamet’s themes, and echoes the tone of his early film “House of Games.” And while Mamet regular Joe Mantegna never pops up, friend and card wizard Ricky Jay materializes in a major supporting role as a philosopher-clown.

“The Spanish Prisoner” is an elegant construct. Smoothly shot by Gabriel Beristain, edited for maximum tension by Barbara Tulliver and with an unsettling Carter Burwell music score, the film works as a complete piece, never showing more of its hand than necessary.

Scott and Martin are a deliciously effective pairing, the latter providing a tacit menace that belies his warmer screen persona, while the former is a rock, with enough loose debris to telegraph potential danger. The support players, especially Pidgeon, wonderfully provide the sort of mixed messages that bring both the onscreen characters and audience to the brink.

The indie effort is the sort of daunting, satisfying thriller one would like to see several times just to be sure one hasn’t missed any clues or reverses. A beautifully crafted noir, it’s an airtight entertainment sure to sate any audience that wants to be engaged, challenged and surprised.

The Spanish Prisoner

Production

A Sweetland Films presentation of a Jean Doumanian production. (International sales: Intermedia.) Produced by Doumanian. Co-producer, Sarah Green. Executive producer, J.E. Beaucaire. Co-executive producer, Letty Aronson. Directed, written by David Mamet.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor, Panavision widescreen), Gabriel Beristain; editor, Barbara Tulliver; music, Carter Burwell; production design, Tim Galvin; costume design, Susan Lyall; sound (Dolby Digital), John Patrick Pritchett; assistant director, Cas Donovan; casting, Billy Hopkins, Susan Smith, Kerry Barden. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentation), Sept. 8, 1997. Running time: 112 MIN.

With

Joe Ross - Campbell Scott
Susan Ricci - Rebecca Pidgeon
Jimmy Dell - Steve Martin
George Lang - Ricky Jay
Klein - Ben Gazzara
Pat McCune - Felicity Huffman
FBI Team Leader - Ed O'Neill
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