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Case Number 00164

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The Spanish Prisoner

Sony // 1998 // 110 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Dean Roddey (Retired) // October 26th, 1999

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All Rise...

The Charge

It's the oldest con in the book.

Opening Statement

The Spanish Prisoner is a very interesting but odd film, which I very much enjoyed watching. It's a very intelligent whodunit with an extremely twisty plot, and a very odd atmosphere that keeps you guessing all the way to the last minute. If you like challenging mysteries, but prefer something more modern than most PBS mystery material, you'll appreciate this film.

The Evidence

I can't give away too much of the plot here without ruining the experience completely for you, so I'll stick to a relatively bland summary. Joe Ross, played by Campbell Scott (The Daytrippers, Singles), works for a company for whom he has created a mathematical description of the financial markets, known as "the process." This process will allow the company to effectively play the market like an instrument, and make its owners unbelievable wealthy. It goes without saying that such a situation brings out somewhat less than the best in people, and so the wheels of mischief are begun turning.

Joe is concerned about whether his compensation, as the primary author of the process, is going to be sufficient. His concerns are increased by his boss' refusal to deal with the issue in any meaningful way. Eventually he seeks the counsel of a man he previously met and befriended during a trip to the Caribbean, named Jim Bell, played by Steve Martin (LA Story, Father of the Bride, Grand Canyon, et al). At this point the plot descends into a labyrinth of deceptions and nested con games within con games that are very well laid out. This sort of story has been done many times but, when well done, it can still be riveting. And with The Spanish Prisoner, it is very well done.

The other major players are Ben Gazzara (The Big Lebowski, Stag, The Thomas Crown Affair) as the bossman and Rebecca Pidgeon (Uncle Vanya, Homicide) as a newly hired secretary to whom Joe turns when he feels he cannot trust anyone else. Both of them do excellent jobs in their roles. Rebecca's character has a weird vibe that is hard to place at first, and initially seems almost like bad acting, but eventually the reason for it becomes apparent.

This film was directed by David Mamet, the well-known writer and director of Lansky, Wag the Dog, and Hoffa. His style in this film is almost grating and from a lesser director might be mistaken for just bad filmmaking. But it seems to me to be purposeful and designed to keep the viewer from ever slipping into complacency. The motivations of all the characters are shrouded and clouded, and their weird body language and interactions further stirs the broth.

The Rebuttal Witnesses

The video quality is okay but nothing to brag about. Though the box does not indicate so, the widescreen version is actually anamorphic. The look of the movie tends towards understated colors and low saturation. It's a little soft in places as well, but not badly so.

Since this is an almost pure talkie, the audio is pretty rudimentary Dolby Surround. It is intelligible but could have added much more to this movie, which does present plenty of opportunities for ambient effects that are not taken advantage of.

There are no extras other than a standard trailer. Boring. Given the type of film and the obvious intelligence and understanding of the writer/director, an audio track would have been an extremely obvious extra to add. I think it would have added tremendously to the worth of this disc.

Closing Statement

There aren't many mystery movies this hip and complex. The obvious comparison is The Usual Suspects of course, but I think that in terms of pure mystery this one is better. It would be considered considerably less mainstream than The Usual Suspects by most folks, and definitely has less action. But if you are a fan of Mamet's films and/or like quieter and more cerebral mystery fodder, you'll almost certainly find this one very much worth a viewing.

The Verdict

Another suspended sentence for audio and lack of extras, but overall the perp is released under bail. The quality of the material outweighs the shortcomings of the presentation.

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Scales of Justice

Video: 85
Audio: 65
Extras: 10
Acting: 90
Story: 100
Judgment: 70

Perp Profile

Studio: Sony
Video Formats:
• 1.85:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (French)
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (Spanish)
• English
• French
• Spanish
Running Time: 110 Minutes
Release Year: 1998
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
• Drama

Distinguishing Marks

• Theatrical Trailer


• IMDb

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