Picks and Pans Review: The Spanish Prisoner

updated 04/13/1998 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/13/1998 01:00AM

Campbell Scott, Steve Martin, Rebecca Pidgeon, Ben Gazzara, Ricky Jay

You never really know who anyone is, and it would pay to be a little careful," a sassy assistant (Pidgeon) warns her too-trusting boss (Scott). She sure has that right. Almost no one is who he (or she) seems in The Spanish Prisoner, a diabolically clever thriller by writer-director David Mamet. Like the best of Hitchcock, Prisoner seductively sucks you into its paranoid world. It is one of those movies that is even more pleasurable upon second viewing, as one can then really admire the elegance of its setup and just how neatly the pieces all fit.

Scott, as the movie's naive hero, heeds his assistant's warning almost too late. The token dweeb at a big corporation, he has invented a formula, referred to here only as "the process," from which his company stands to make millions. He hopes to share in the manna, but he's a lamb in a wolf's den when it comes to business. While at a company meeting on a Caribbean island, he is befriended by a rich man (Martin, smoothly exacting) who asks Scott to drop off a gift for his sister when he returns to New York City. It's the first step in an elaborate con game in which Scott is the all-too-gullible victim. (The movie is named for an ancient scheme in which a con man tells a mark that he has a beautiful sister and a fortune being held hostage back in Spain, but that, with a little money from the mark, both sister and swag can be sprung.)

Prisoner is Hitchcockian in its precision and the sexy byplay between Scott and Pidgeon (Mrs. Mamet in real life), but wholly Mametian in its fascination with ornate cons (remember his House of Games?) and the now-bordering-on-cliche staccato dialogue. All told, it's a richly absorbing film. (PG)

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