Insomnia File #40: The Spanish Prisoner (dir by David Mamet)


What’s an Insomnia File? You know how some times you just can’t get any sleep and, at about three in the morning, you’ll find yourself watching whatever you can find on cable? This feature is all about those insomnia-inspired discoveries!

If, at 3 in the morning on Wednesday, you were struggling to get to sleep, you could have flipped over to Flix and watched the 1998 film, The Spanish Prisoner.

Joe Ross (Campbell Scott) is an engineer.  He’s a quiet, polite, and always considerate man.  At one point, he’s told that he’s “too nice” and, watching him, you can’t help but agree.  Joe works in an otherwise bland office where the walls are covered with menacing posters that, in an accusatory manner, announce, “SOMEONE TALKED!”  Paranoia is in the air but Joe, for whatever reason, seems to be incapable of sensing it.

Joe has just invented something called The Process.  It’s deliberately left obscure just what exactly The Process is but we do know that it stands to make Joe’s boss, Mr. Klein (Ben Gazzara), a lot of money.  When Mr. Klein invites Joe and the company lawyer, George (Ricky Jay), to an island retreat, Joe assumes that it’s so Mr. Klein can offer him a lucrative cash bonus as a reward for creating the process.  Instead, it turns out that Mr. Klein has no interest in giving George any extra reward.  Instead, Klein feels that Joe should just be happy to be a part of the company.

On the island, Joe takes a picture of a mysterious man named Jimmy Dell (Steve Martin).  Jimmy offers to give Joe a thousand dollars for the camera.  Joe, instead, hands over the camera for free.  Later, Jimmy tracks down Joe and apologizes for his behavior.  He and Joe strike up an unlikely friendship on the island.  Upon learning that Joe will soon by flying back to New York, Jimmy gives Joe a package to deliver to his sister.  Joe agrees.

It’s not until Joe is on the plane and in the air that he starts to wonder about what’s inside the package.  It doesn’t help that his secretary, Susan (Rebecca Pidgeon), won’t stop talking about you never really know anyone and how easy it is to trick an innocent person into becoming a drug mule.  Finally, Joe steps into the plane’s lavatory, unwraps the package, and….

And that’s all I can tell you without spoiling the film.  The Spanish Prisoner is a film about a dizzying confidence game, one that is full of nonstop twists and turns.  No one in the film turns out to be who you thought they were when you first saw them.  At times, it can be a bit hard to keep up with the plot but that’s actually a part of the fun.  The Spanish Prisoner keeps you guessing and, fortunately, Campbell Scott gives a likable enough performance that you’re willing to explore the maze at the heart of this film with him.  Steve Martin is also wonderfully sinister as Jimmy, using his own “nice guy” image to keep us off-balance.

As you might expect from a film written and directed by David Mamet, the dialogue is heavily stylized.  The characters all move and speak at their own odd rhythm.  Lines that should be innocuous take on a dangerous edge and it becomes impossible not try to read between the lines of even the simplest of exchanges.  It creates a rather dream-like atmosphere, one in which you’re never quite sure what’s real and what’s just another part of the game.

The Spanish Prisoner is an intriguing mystery and one that seems like it will definitely reward repeat viewings.

Previous Insomnia Files:

  1. Story of Mankind
  2. Stag
  3. Love Is A Gun
  4. Nina Takes A Lover
  5. Black Ice
  6. Frogs For Snakes
  7. Fair Game
  8. From The Hip
  9. Born Killers
  10. Eye For An Eye
  11. Summer Catch
  12. Beyond the Law
  13. Spring Broke
  14. Promise
  15. George Wallace
  16. Kill The Messenger
  17. The Suburbans
  18. Only The Strong
  19. Great Expectations
  20. Casual Sex?
  21. Truth
  22. Insomina
  23. Death Do Us Part
  24. A Star is Born
  25. The Winning Season
  26. Rabbit Run
  27. Remember My Name
  28. The Arrangement
  29. Day of the Animals
  30. Still of The Night
  31. Arsenal
  32. Smooth Talk
  33. The Comedian
  34. The Minus Man
  35. Donnie Brasco
  36. Punchline
  37. Evita
  38. Six: The Mark Unleashed
  39. Disclosure

5 responses to “Insomnia File #40: The Spanish Prisoner (dir by David Mamet)

  1. Pingback: Lisa’s Week In Review — 9/30/19 — 10/6/19 | Through the Shattered Lens

  2. Pingback: Insomnia File #41: Elektra (dir by Rob Bowman) | Through the Shattered Lens

  3. Pingback: Insomnia File #42: Revenge (dir by Tony Scott) | Through the Shattered Lens

  4. Pingback: Insomnia File #43: Legend (dir by Brian Helgeland) | Through the Shattered Lens

  5. Pingback: Insomnia File #44: Cat Run (dir by John Stockwell) | Through the Shattered Lens

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