Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988)
“Nice guys finish last. Meet the winners.”
Director: Frank Oz
Cast: Steve Martin, Michael Caine, Glenne Headly
Synopsis: Two con men try to settle their rivalry by betting on who can swindle a young American heiress out of $50.000 first.
While we’ve grown accustomed to a comedy movie’s trailer showing the funniest parts from the movie its advertising, it’s not often that the funniest scene in the trailer doesn’t even appear in the full movie. The scene in question is the one for which Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is most famous, and features Michael Caine pushing a kid’s face into his cotton candy and Steve Martin pushing an old lady into the water as they stroll along a boulevard. At least, although the movie doesn’t live up to this laugh-out-loud movie, it’s nevertheless a funny movie which combines 1980s sensibilities with an old-fashioned plot.
Caine (Zulu, The Dark Knight) plays Lawrence Jamieson, a cultured Englishman enjoying a privileged lifestyle who just happens to have amasses his considerable wealth by conning women out of their money and jewels. Operating at the other end of the swindle spectrum is brash American grifter Freddy Benson (Steve Martin – Roxanne) who scrapes a living conning women out of 20 bucks at a time. The paths of these two mismatched con men cross on a train to Beaumont Sur Mer, Jamieson’s base on the French Riviera, where Benson is intending to try his luck, much to Jamieson’s consternation. He decides that Benson must be conned out of town, explaining to his police official accomplice, Inspector Andre (Anton Rodgers) that, although they’re clearly in different leagues to one another “the poacher who shoots at rabbits may scare the big game away.” When his efforts prove unsuccessful, he reluctantly decides to take on Benson as a protege, a ploy which initially yields some success — and some of the movie’s funniest scenes as Benson takes on the role of Jamieson’s idiot cousin, Ruprecht — the two men enter into a bet: the first man to part visiting soap heiress Janet Colgate (Glenne Headly) from $50,000 can stay in town while the loser must clear out.
Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is a remake of the 1964 comedy Bedtime Story in which David Niven and Marlon Brando played the roles of Jamieson and Benson, and the age of this source material is apparent in the far-fetched storyline. It’s not the duelling conmen that moves the film from straightforward comedy to farce so much as the tactics employed by both men to con Janet out of her money, with Benson pretending to be a crippled serviceman in need of $50,000 worth of psychiatric treatment and Jamieson attempting to hijack his plot by posing as the fictional psychiatrist whom Benson claims is the only man who can cure him.
Despite this, the quality of the writing mostly manages to overcome the plot deficiencies, and is aided immeasurably by the performances of Caine and Martin, who work surprisingly well off one another. This is partly thanks to director Frank Oz’s success at reining in Martin’s tendency to over-improvise — at times the comedian appears to believe the movie is purely a showcase for those talents — but also by Caine’s refusal to be overshadowed by his manic co-star, and the three-man script which works best when contrasting the methods of Jamieson, whose practiced technique has his victims practically begging him to take their jewels, with those of his less-accomplished counterpart, who spins the kind of tear-jerking bad-luck stories you’d expect to find in a D.W. Griffith movie. With his narrow moustache and slicked-back hair harking back to David Niven’s trademark suavity, Caine provides the perfect antidote to Martin’s sometimes misjudged energy and manages to turn what is essentially a dishonest character into a likeable rogue. In fact, when you think about it, it becomes obvious that it’s not only in the plot that he and Martin are master and student…
(Reviewed 5th September 2014)