Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Movie and DVD Reviews: The best and not-so-best movies available on DVD, and whatever else catches my eye.

Mimsy Review: The Spanish Prisoner

Reviewed by Jerry Stratton, June 7, 1999

Thus are all men made equal.

Special features


A friend of mine coined the term “mind-fuck” for movies like this. Steve Martin is at the top of his form. David Mamet still has some trouble directing actors as if they’re in a movie rather than a play. But this is still a very twisted, tight movie that will keep you guessing all the way through, and through more than one viewing. The movie is presented in both letterbox (1.85:1) and pan & scan format, with English, Spanish, and French dialog and subtitles.

RecommendationPossible Purchase
DirectorDavid Mamet
WriterDavid Mamet
Movie Rating7
Transfer Quality9
Overall Rating6
  • Letterbox
  • Pan and Scan

Spanish Prisoner is a brilliant movie with a major flaw: the acting (or possibly the direction) is stage acting, not film. The problem is most apparent with Rebecca Pidgeon, less so with Campbell Scott, and least with Steve Martin, who is perfectly natural. It could have been part of the plot, but I doubt it: I had a similar problem with Mamet’s “Oleanna”. Everything is enunciated clearly, and there is a pause between each statement to let the people in the back row catch it.

If it weren’t for the incredible writing and the generally good acting apart from that, this would be a fatal flaw. As it is, it detracts from what could have been one of the greatest films of its type since Hitchcock’s best.

The ending, also, was a bit of a problem. The federal marshal comes completely out of nowhere; the magic bullet is too magical. But the movie itself, the painstaking build-up of the con game, Steve Martin’s brilliantly-played con man, any of us could have fallen for this con. This wasn’t just a “stupid movie” where the main characters have to be brain dead to get into trouble. Joe Ross (Scott) only makes one stupid mistake. Everything else is natural. And everyone’s allowed one stupid mistake, right? Not in The Spanish Prisoner

Joe Ross has developed a mathematical “process” with the potential to reap huge amounts of money. They have a window of three to five years before others can figure out the same process. Unless someone (the Japanese are mentioned) manages to steal “the process” earlier. The company is worried that Joe is untrustworthy (and might leak the process); Joe is worried that the company is untrustworthy (and might not pay him what he deserves). The company secretary has a crush on him. He has just met a suave businessman with a beautiful daughter and a penchant for sleeping with his friends’ wives. In between all of these elements is the potential for major trouble. Mamet gives it to him in spades.

This is a thrilling roller-coaster ride of a movie. It does not live nearly to its potential, but that still puts it better than most movies, and it is still well worth watching multiple times. I tentatively recommend purchase, but you might want to rent it first. There are no extras except for the trailer. The DVD holds both the pan & scan, and letterbox versions, one on each side.

Recommendation: Possible Purchase

DirectorDavid Mamet
WriterDavid Mamet
ActorsCampbell Scott, Steve Martin, Rebecca Pidgeon, Ben Gazzara
Spoken languagesEnglish, French, Spanish
SubtitlesEnglish, French, Spanish
Special FeatureTrailer
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If you enjoyed The Spanish Prisoner…

For more about David Mamet, you might also be interested in Wag the Dog and The Secret Knowledge.

For more about Steve Martin, you might also be interested in L.A. Story and My Blue Heaven.