Charming swindlers

There are certain movies I can make a reference to and people immediately know the film and usually recall it with a smile — if not outright laughter. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is one of those movies. It didn’t change the world of movie making when it came out and didn’t win any awards. It simply did what most movies hope to do: get seen, be appreciated and remembered.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988)

Directed by Frank Oz

In any interview I have ever seen of director Frank Oz he always seems like a giddy schoolboy who has found himself in room full of “neat stuff” he can play with. There is never any pretension regarding the making of a film or the craft of directing.

In one brief interview, he even says he finds the word “director” a misnomer. He doesn’t direct so much as place cameras and watch actors perform.

This sense of fun comes across in a big way in his 1988 movie about a couple of scam artists, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, starring Michael Caine and Steve Martin.

Was there ever a pair of criminals with the endearing charm of those two?

Lawrence Jamieson and Freddy Benson (Michael Caine and Steve Martin).

They make a lovely contrast. Caine as Lawrence Jamieson has elevated his skills as a swindler into an art. He is refined and precise. Everything he does has a reason; no detail is overlooked.

Martin as Freddy Benson, on the other hand, is the antithesis of Jamieson. He’s small time and awkward. He doesn’t think things through. He’s slovenly and crass.

In the French Riviera town of Beaumont sur Mer, Jamieson has carved out a beautiful life for himself conning the rich and self-involved out of their money and living a life of leisured wealth. Into his perfect set up comes Freddy and his bumbling attempts to grab a piece of the action.

The movie has its three distinct parts.

Glenne Headly as Janet Colgate talks to Michael Caine as Laurence Jamieson as Dr. Emile Shuffhausen.

It begins with establishing the characters and the threat to Jamieson’s world. It then movies into the two agreeing to a student-teacher relationship, Jamieson agreeing to educate and train Freddy in the art of the con in order to be rid of him. Finally, it moves into the capper: a competition between the two to see who is the better fraudster, the loser having to leave Beaumont sur Mer.

Into this situation comes Janet Colgate (Glenne Headly) who becomes their bet. Whoever cheats her out of $50,000 first, wins the bet.

But a story synopsis doesn’t really communicate why something works and it doesn’t really highlight key aspects of the movie.

Apart from three great performances that work wonderfully well together (Caine, Martin and Headly), I was fascinated by the fact that the actors are acting in roles that for the majority of the time are characters who are themselves acting. (Michael Caine, for instance, is at least three characters — British, German and Australian.)

Steve Martin as Freddy Benson as Ruprecht.

Because the characters are almost always acting, the performances are often arch. We would probably find this bad acting but we know from the start that the characters are criminals and are acting and there is great fun in seeing them work their con.

The comedy comes from the responses of others to what they are doing. (For example, Caine’s heroic prince and the response elicited from “Lady Fanny of Omaha,” Barbara Harris.)

As it turns out, the sense of over-acting is an important element for both dramatic purposes and comedic. Both are achieved, alternatively and often together, by those moments when the cons slip out of character and are themselves, usually because they are reacting to something.

Glenne Headly may be the performance I enjoyed most. She plays the perfect wide-eyed innocent (and often has in other films) but here she is acting as the awkward, wide-eyed innocent. And her character’s skills at this are a notch or two better than Jamieson’s and Benson’s — it’s quite a while before we understand it is a performance.

Harmony among cons: Michael Caine, Glenne Headly and Steve Martin.

In fact, it’s not driven home until the final scenes, particularly the very last scene (possibly my favourite).

Because there is so much pretense in what the characters do, this is in many ways a comedy based on mistaken identity, an old comedy staple. A large part of the reason it works so well is because while characters are mistaken, we as an audience are not.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is simply marvelously funny and charming comedy.

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