The Spanish Prisoner

By David Mamet with Steve Martin, others

My Rating:

An intrigue based on a classic con game.

Bitable Bytes:
"Engaging in its twists and turns!"
"...Fun to watch!"
"Mamet...earns high marks as a writer!"

What to do while watching:
Follow closely, so you don't miss the subtleties.

What to eat while watching:
An Oreo Mangle!

Put 2-3 Oreos® in the bottom of a mug or glass.
Using a spoon, hack them into bits.
Then, scoop ice cream on top of the pieces, and enjoy!
Substitute your favorite cookie, and use your favorite ice cream. You can also drizzle chocolate syrup or blackberry brandy over the works.

The con games of yesteryear have a romance about them. We think of legendary criminals with storybook monikers: The Yellow Kid, Little Rock Blackie, Bennie the Stilt. They live dangerously, always on the grift, a combination actor, politician, and Robin Hood, setting up extravagant scenarios to rook big bucks from rich and foolish marks. Modern films, like The Grifters, and this week's feature, The Spanish Prisoner, modernize The Sting, bringing these century-old plots into the new world of high-tech riches.

In the former film, John Cusack, Annette Benning, and Angelica Houston recreate the kind of con artists that thrived early in the 20th century. Though their backdrop is contemporary, they are larger-than-life characters who are both tragic and romantic. That film I remember as engrossing and sad, but not real. None of those characters had enough in common with my modern conception of crooks to warrant any great measure of emotional investment on my part. And nowadays it seems that someone wise enough to pull some of the fast ones that con artists were famous for long ago would also be bright enough to work semi-legit schemes on the Internet or in the cracks of the U.S. tax law. I've met some of these people. They drive Jags and think they are every bit as honest as they need to be.

But I digress. Mamet's The Spanish Prisoner is gritty and realistic by comparison. His characters are not sympathetic or romanticized. They are the bright types who also thrive on the thrill of get-rich quick schemes. One could believe that they'd see this complex con game not as a romantic lifestyle choice but merely as a good way of scoring big bucks. Even the hapless mark comes off realistically. No vengeance or pity tempers his status as fooled pawn. He is left to grieve without respite over his blunder.

The story is interesting, engaging in its twists and turns, but no more so than The Sting. In fact, having seen that film, arguably superior in many aspects, The Spanish Prisoner comes off as careless, self-conscious and cold. (Nice on a hot day like today!) Sort of like Steve Martin: he isn't acting funny here, and when he's not acting funny, he's not as much fun to watch. (I know this opinion seems harsh, but it's just simple definition: funny is fun.) Give me the 20's costumes and Scott Joplin rags over Martin in an Aloha shirt any day.

The story, as I said, is interesting, however, and the acting on most everyone else's part is credible. Also, Mamet is a great dialogue writer. Even when his subject is basically without soul, his handling of character engages a viewer. This is true up until the end of this movie, when we get a few tossed off excuses as to why the con artists behave as they do. Things move fast at the end. Cops appear. Mamet seems in a rush to finish under two hours. And thank goodness! After that Oreo mangle, I couldn't sit still much longer.

But you know, friends, I like Mamet better when he's giving us a sympathetic character in contrast to a bunch of wolves. In Glengary Glen Ross, for just one example, we get to see a bunch of sympathetic and pathetic men crack under the pressure of the bottom line. In comparison, Spanish Prisoner is spotty. Not bad, just not as emotionally charged.

Which is unfortunate, because the title comes from a fascinating con game from days gone by. In The Spanish Prisoner game, a con man identifies a potential mark: someone with wealth and naivete. The con man convinces the mark that he serves a dethroned princess who is being held prisoner in, say, Spain. If the mark can only come up with a few hundred dollars, then a guard can be bribed, and the princess can flee to the US (where the mark lives) in eternal gratitude.

The mark can easily part with a few hundred, so though he is wary, he falls far enough for the con man's smooth line. A week goes by. Two. The mark has come to understand that he's been tricked, but before that last spark of hope can die, the con man reappears with a letter from Her Majesty. She is free and in France. Now she needs a few thousand dollars for her final passage by sea, and the mark gladly shells it out. Next, the princes might need money to bail out her mother and father, the ex-monarchs; then, she'll need to buy off a Spanish spy who has discovered her escape. The mark keeps paying for as long as the con artists can keep him fooled. He shows the mark photographs of the beautiful princess (really, Dotty from the Nighthawk Diner in a ten-cent tiara). More players are brought in to act out additional roles, each earning part of the take.

Finally, the mark can be brushed off. One way to do this is for the princess to arrive, at last, on the mark's doorstep. The con man is there too, but then the Spanish spy shows up and murders the con man. (It's an act.) The mark is terrified, and the princess runs to his side, kisses him tenderly, and tells him that she must go into exile or she endangers his life as well as her own. And so, the mark never sees the princess again, and the con man, princess, and Spanish spy agent all split the take.

To have shared this is not to have spoiled Mamet's script, which is one reason he earns high marks as a writer. He manages to re-cast this classic con game not only to modernize it, but also to give it some added twistiness and suspense.

If you enjoy this taste, I might recommend the other films I've mentioned, but for an even more fascinating experience that will last more than 2 hours, try reading The Big Con. This book talks about all of the classic con games and gives marks like us some real insight into the trade (though probably not immunity should a true con artiste ever cross our paths). I'd be glad to circulate my copy if you'll send a few bucks for postage and your address to me. And, incidentally, there are some hot stock options I can get you in on for a few thou, a mere pittance...

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For your collection: The Spanish Prisoner. Also try: The Grifters, The Sting, Glengarry Glen Ross.

Recommended reading: The Big Con

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