David Mamet, poet of angst and anger on stage and screen, deletes most of his infamous expletives to fashion what he calls a light, romantic thriller. Ha! The Spanish Prisoner (the title refers to one of the oldest con games) is more like Hitchcock filtered through Kafka. This diabolical blend of suspense and wit brims with dark surprises, not the least of which is a superb dramatic performance by Steve Martin as a figure of malevolent mystery.
But I’m rushing ahead. Campbell Scott, in fine, piercing form, stars as Joe Ross, an inventor whose boss, Mr. Klein (Ben Gazzara), has jetted him to a Caribbean resort to talk up his latest invention. Joe and his collaborator, George (magician Ricky Jay), refer to their potentially lucrative work as the “process.” Despite being wooed by the company and propositioned by his bedroomeyed secretary, Susan (Rebecca Pidgeon, the real-life Mrs. Mamet), Joe worries that he’s being conned.
Enter Martin as Jimmy Dell, a wealthy businessman whom Joe meets on the beach. Jimmy convinces Joe that his fears are not unfounded. In New York, Jimmy gives Joe a taste of his elegant lifestyle, including intros to his beautiful sister and to lawyers who know how to shaft corporations. Then murder enters the equation. Whom does Joe turn to? Jimmy offers help. Ditto Mr. Klein and FBI agent Pat McCune (Felicity Huffman). Susan says she’ll bolster Joe in court and in bed.
Mamet uses the thriller genre to plumb matters of trust, a subject that informs his best plays, such as American Buffalo and Glengarry Glen Ross, and his four previous films as a director (House of Games, Things Change, Homicide, Oleanna). In The Spanish Prisoner, he weaves through shifting shadows — artfully arranged by gifted cinematographer Gabriel Beristain — to uncover a glimmer of moral light. That’s the Mamet process, and it’s spellbinding.