The opening shot in this film features that oft-ignored airport security sign about not taking packages handed to you by strangers, which implies that there will indeed be a stranger and a package. In a much later scene, the x-ray scanner betrays a horrible secret. The cards are all on the table from the very beginning, but we cannot quite understand what suit is being played or who the dummy is. Actually, that last question we can indeed answer: the man helplessly watching all the cards being placed is an engineer by the name of Joseph Ross (Campbell Scott).
Ross's unspecified corporate job is why he finds himself "traveling for business" to the Caribbean island paradise of Saint-Estèphe, which I am pleased to report does not exist in our reality, and barely so in Ross's. He heads there with his friend and colleague George Lang (the redoubtable Ricky Jay), and the two present – to a snarling, cigar-chomping board of directors – the industrial breakthrough known simply as "the process." In lesser films the process would be explained in pseudo-scientific detail; but Mamet wields the power of omission like few others, and wisely has Ross and Lang finish each other's sentences so that the operation in question remains a complete mystery. Even our periodic glimpses into Ross's red notebook – yes, his bright red notebook containing the greatest industrial secret in the world – yield nothing more than equations, indistinguishable sketches, and a lot of chicken scratch. The directors' first post-presentation question ("How long can we hold on to it before the competition steals it?") cloaks a parallel, far more sinister implication. And in an iconic vignette, Ross indulges the directors by silently writing out the expected profit margin – an exercise that takes several delicious seconds. We never see the exact figure, of course, but the wolfish grins exchanged, especially from Ross's supervisor Mr. Klein (the late Ben Gazzara, who in his role recalls this actor), reinforce our suspicion that greed is the most overwhelming of human sins. Klein parries Ross's later question about his bonus with the perfect insincerity of a man who has been lying for so long that he could only disclose genuine facts by accident or error. "I'm in the same position as you," he tells the young engineer, which could not be on a farther planet from the truth. We realize that corporate avarice, endless gains stripping in front of old, cigar-smoking businessmen, is the end of the world as we know it to be good and redeemable. "They keep me in the dark, too, yes they do," adds Klein, as if preempting Ross's utter disbelief. What he means is: they keep me in the black, the very, very black. And with dim prospects of tasting the fruit of his labors, Ross has an island encounter with another member of the wealthy elite, a shady businessman by the name of Julian "Jimmy" Dell (Steve Martin).
What Dell does and does not do for a living is never substantiated; all Ross knows is that Dell, unlike Klein, appears to have some traces of human blood coursing through his veins. Is it remarkable that Dell, who so wants Ross to believe that he came to Saint-Estèphe on a sea plane, has a poster of a sea plane and a wooden propeller as the only wall art in his office? Yes, it is remarkable. Is it also remarkable that Dell, allegedly a multimillionaire, would send his sister a ragged, dilapidated edition of this book, a near-mint copy of which Ross quickly tracks down at the local bookbinder's? Maybe not quite as remarkable, although when Ross unwraps the book in expectation of contraband, he stumbles on an implicative note from sibling to sibling. Why Ross befriends Dell is not immediately clear unless you consider his rather unenviable position as an inventor of genius on the verge of being mulcted of a fortune he alone has earned. At the same time, he is accosted by the new girl in the office, an undersexed sparkplug called Susan Ricci (Rebecca Pidgeon). In the film's best scene, Susan, who exhibited unabashed carnal interest in this engineer "in line for higher things" when they first met in Saint-Estèphe, happens to be "accidentally in the vicinity" of his Manhattan apartment. Susan bets Ross that Dell did not emerge from that sea plane as the latter asserts and produces photographic evidence to that end. Yet the pictures only show a married woman allegedly involved with Dell, one he claims is a "princess" of a "country that barely exists any more." It is also Susan who alerts the staggeringly naïve Ross to the possibility of Dell's package having an ulterior aim. And so, a lonely and brilliant engineer engages in two, perhaps mutually exclusive relationships, while George, a font of made-up adages and recondite quotes (he paraphrases this work when hungover) doesn't think either one of them will long live enough to regale his grandchildren on the discovery of "the process."
This Othello allusion notwithstanding, we have not spoken of Spain or of prisoners, and that is because our title is a famous confidence game ("the oldest one on the books," says one character) that the curious can easily research. With a protagonist named Joseph and an operation called "the process," however, one cannot but think of this famous novel, which likewise features a conspiracy that appears to have enlisted everyone except its victim, Joseph K. College term-paper writers may also wish to point out that klein is German for "small," and lang for "long," indicating – well actually, perhaps that minor exegesis might indeed reveal something out of the ordinary. Suffice it to say that Ross will be approached by many actors, all of whom claim to be benevolent, and his ability to distinguish truth from lie will rest squarely on his limited knowledge of human nature. Less experienced viewers may deem The Spanish Prisoner strikingly novel, but it actually follows plot economy rules and pacing almost to a fault, a tidy, polished sonnet that insists on reinspection. Mamet's strength as a writer is to oblige his actors constantly to imply something else – even, at times, to themselves – leading them to speak the same language, yet accusatorially, as if others simply didn't speak it with sufficient correctness. The easiest and most obvious manifestation of this technique is sexual innuendo; far less detectable is a dark hint of someone's character or intent. The serpentine soundtrack is well-employed in this regard, punctuating looks and phrases with more substance than they otherwise would have garnered. As it were, Mamet has turned political coats in recent years, rendering works like The Spanish Prisoner either ironic or tragic depending on your notion of social justice. So when Ross quips at one point, half-resigned to his fate, "All I want is an umbrella in my drink," he would do better to consider that cautionary poster in Klein's office of a drowning man captioned, "Someone talked!" After all, a mere umbrella can only deal with so much water.