I have another movie review today, something that is very different from the last two movies I have reviewed here in recent days.
“Listen. We’re the weaker sex. Men don’t live as long as women. We get more heart attacks, more strokes, more prostrate trouble. I say it’s time for a change. I say let them give us money. Let’s live off them for awhile. That probably shocks a guy like you, right?” ~ Freddy Benson
“Well, it’s rather a revolutionary thought. Do you really think it’s possible?” ~ Lawrence Jamieson
“Look what I did in the dining car! She gave me a hundred francs! That’s like, ah... twenty bucks! Do you have any idea what it feels like to take a woman for twenty bucks?” ~ Freddy Benson
“No, I haven’t. I’m afraid it’s a little out of my class.” ~ Lawrence Jamieson
“We all have our limitations, Freddy. Fortunately I discovered that taste and style were commodities that people desired. Freddy, what I am saying is: know your limitations. You are a moron.” ~ Lawrence Jamieson
Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is a con man caper pairing two great actors, Michael Caine and Steve Martin, in brilliantly funny roles. A 1988 remake of the 1964 film Bedtime Story starring Marlon Brando and David Niven, it’s a light hearted and clever film set on the French Riviera, with two very different leads, a charming leading lady, and no shortage of laughs, some of them decidedly black and twisted in tone, so of course it would appeal to me. It’s one of my favourite comedies, and it comes to us from director Frank Oz, who, when he’s not directing, has spent a good deal of time voicing the Jedi Master Yoda. One must think that Yoda would not approve of con artists.
The film opens with the suave con artist Lawrence Jamieson (Michael Caine), a seductive man of taste and refinement. Lawrence has made a very good living swindling the unsuspecting rich and corrupt out of their money. His standard scheme is to pose as a deposed prince of an Eastern European nation, striving to unseat the Communists who took his country, acting the part of a freedom fighter. The women he seduces buy the story hook, line, and sinker, giving him money, jewels, anything to further his cause. His actual cause, of course, simply adding on to his own wealth. Still, he is a man with some scruples. He will not swindle the poor and virtuous, only those who are wealthy and eminently corrupt. In his opinion, they have it coming.
Returning home to the town of Beaumont-sur-Mer from one such successful con, Lawrence is in the dining car of a train when he notices the arrival of an American, Freddy Benson (Steve Martin). Freddy is brash, arrogant, not terribly bright, and without any scruples. He’s a con man who will sucker anyone he can to get a free meal, using the reliable sick grandmother story to gain sympathy. Lawrence recognizes him as a hustler, and the two chat, while Lawrence never once lets on that they share an occupation in common. He understands that the inexperienced and dimwitted Freddy might end up scaring off some of his usual marks, and so makes efforts to deflect him away from his home town.
Lawrence is more concerned with reports in the papers about a con artist known only as the Jackal fleecing Europeans. He admits to his friend Inspector Andre (Anton Rogers) that the Jackal can’t be that effective considering he’s made the papers. Andre may be a cop, but he’s a corrupt one, having had profited nicely by his business relationship with Lawrence. And into the midst of it all, Freddy turns up in town again, swindling a woman for what he can get. Lawrence arranges for his arrest and deportation... but things don’t quite go to plan. Soon enough, the two con men are working together, and then competing against each other. A visiting American woman by the name of Janet Colgate (Glenne Headly) becomes the focus of their competition.
The story was adapted from the 1960s film by two of the screenwriters of that film, Stanley Shapiro and Paul Henning, with an additional screenwriter, Dale Launer, brought in. It was at one time meant as a vehicle for Mick Jagger and David Bowie (one can only imagine how vastly different the film would have been), but ultimately Caine and Martin were cast in the roles. Filming was done along the French Riviera, taking full advantage of palatial estates, hotels, casinos, and the lush scenery. Oz, a puppeteer with the Muppets who would have a prolific directing career, including The Dark Crystal, Little Shop Of Horrors, What About Bob, In & Out, The Stepford Wives, and Death At A Funeral, would come in as director, He brought along a fellow Star Wars alumni, Ian McDiarmid (otherwise known as the Emperor), who played Lawrence’s butler. Oz brought a gift for comedy to his filmwork, and the story goes along briskly, with a rich sense of humour amid the games of two con men showing each other up. The result is a beautifully crafted caper with two leads who have terrific chemistry, as different as they are. It’s a great pleasure to watch Caine and Martin banter with each other throughout the film, and that’s as much on the performers as it is on the clever dialogue and the director.
The cast members are well chosen. Ian McDiarmid, who’s become most associated with the evil Emperor in the Star Wars films, shows a gift for dry humour as the butler Arthur. He doesn’t talk much, but when he does, it’s funny. His “welcome to Hell” greeting to Freddy is appropriately dark and twisted, and the character seems perpetually annoyed by the American.
Anton Rogers gives the corrupt policeman Andre a very French sensibility in how he plays the role. He might be corrupt, but he is an engaging character, loyal to Lawrence, even while technically breaking the law. He seems world weary and yet something of a schemer, resourceful in how far he might take his police powers in maintaining the status quo. His remark about cheating being very French and getting caught being quite American is hilarious- all the more so because of how dryly he delivers it, something common throughout the film.
Glenne Headly is delightful as Janet. She first appears in a clumsy moment arriving at a hotel, and Lawrence learns from a concierge that she’s the United States soap queen. What precisely that means is left for later, but it’s quite an entrance, and as the audience gets to know her, she comes across as wide eyed and naive, entirely trusting and virtuous- the sort of person Lawrence would refrain from swindling. There’s more to the character, though, and as time goes along, she has great chemistry with both con men, all while both swindlers maintain their personas in the midst of competition over her. This is Headly at her best, and a terrific role for her to play.
Steve Martin has a gift for physical comedy, and that certainly plays out throughout the film. He’d worked with Oz before, playing the deranged dentist in Little Shop of Horrors. He has a wiseguy sensibility in many of his films, and that does present itself in his performance as Freddy- though Freddy is a dimwit. He’s brash and obnoxious, a playboy who gets in over his head, and he fails to get the notion of walking away while he still can. He’s arrogant and highly competitive, totally devoid of ethics, tends to get frustrated easily, and fights dirty. As the film goes along and Freddy is put into situations that require that strong physical comedy, Martin delivers. His frustrated attempts to remember Lawrence’s name while in jail is one such example, as is the persona he adopts for a time, playing the part of the prince’s mentally addled, socially inept brother Ruprecht. His performance is a strong match and a contrasting character to his co-star, and such a fun role to play.
Michael Caine was nominated for a Golden Globe as Best Actor for this role, and it’s a deserved nomination. Lawrence is a sophisticated man, refined, charming, and classic, a man who inhabits a role effortlessly. He slips in and out of accents with ease, and operates in a way that his marks never know they’re being scammed. He’s a resourceful con man, calm in a crisis and able to adapt to a problem with quick wit- the way he handles an encounter with a previous mark while out with Janet and Freddy is priceless, while how he deals with a trap Freddy sets for him involving sailors is inspired. He does fight a bit dirty- not in the same way as Freddy, but he relishes dishing out some punishment to his rival as the competition goes along. Lawrence is also a man of some principles, unlike his rival, and that relates to how he treats Janet, who he sees as less of a mark and more of a virtuous woman. She thoroughly charms him, and it’s not hard to see why. Caine successfully takes all of these elements into mind and brings that into his performance. It’s a pleasure to see him play this role.
Dirty Rotten Scoundrels goes against the usual trademark of the con man film- having a mark who deserves to get swindled. Instead it gives us a mark who seems virtuous, and so moves in a different direction, deriving its fun from these two swindlers working to outdo each other while the stakes change. It's a delightful comedy with wonderful twist endings, a dark sense of humour, and great lead actors playing off each other in the best of ways.