Steve Martin and Michael Caine luxuriate in some exquisite deceptions against the moneyed backdrops of Antibes, Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, Nice, Villefranche-sur-Mer, Cannes, and finally, Beaulieu-sur-Mer (rechristened Beaumont-sur-Mer) in Frank Oz’ Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988); the pair bilking simple-minded wealthy trophy wives, divorcées and widows out of their life savings. Curiously, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is rarely referenced as a remake of Ralph Levy’s Bedtime Story (1964) even though the plots are suspiciously similar. Did I say, similar? I meant, verbatim with a few minor exceptions. In the all-but-forgotten original, David Niven played Lawrence Jamieson, a disreputable cad, impersonating a prince to extract tidy sums from a very dulcet sect of gullible females. Sound familiar? The remake has another superbly cynical bon vivant in mind: two-time Academy Award winner, Michael Caine, clearly having a whale of a time as – you guessed it – Lawrence Jamieson; a con artist cum aristocratic scion, working the French Riviera (and working over some fairly moneyed mistresses in the process) to support his uber-lavish lifestyle in the serene hamlet of Beaumont-sur-Mer.
Dirty Rotten Scoundrels ought to have been quite a different picture; initially planned to costar – of all people – Mick Jagger and David Bowie. It seems Jagger was the catalyst, admiring Dale Launer’s screenplay for Ruthless People (1986) for which the Mickster had also written its title song. Launer soon became obsessed with doing a remake of the little seen 1964 comedy, Bedtime Story, costarring David Niven and Marlon Brando. However, when Launer approached Jagger with this idea Mick bowed out, soon attaching his name to another project to be directed by Martin Scorcese. Undaunted, Launer obtained the screen rights, eventually ironing out a deal with producer, Herbert Ross and Orion Pictures. In the dog-eat-dog world of Hollywood, Launer rewrote his original draft expressly to suit Ross to direct; Ross almost immediately deciding to replace Launer when he himself was ousted from the director’s chair in favor of Frank Oz, who preferred Launer’s original adaptation.
Oz’s movie has style; thanks to Michael Ballhaus’ gorgeous cinematography (perhaps taking his cue from Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief 1955 – also Charles Walter’s High Society 1956); the sumptuous playground a very rare and sparkling vintage, providing the perfect backdrop for Dale Launer's update of the Stanley Shapiro/ Paul Henning scenarios to unfold. There’s wit and a sophistication here: alas, also occasional tedium in this crazy quilt of contrivances as Caine’s oily Lothario endeavors – mostly, in vain – to orchestrate the removal of one, Freddy Benson (Steve Martin) from his lucrative enterprise. Benson’s a rank swindler at best; content merely to connive and get freebees from silly women who believe his ridiculous story about an ailing grandmother. Benson’s living moment to moment as opposed to Lawrence, who’s systematically built an empire on manipulating the ‘kindness of strangers’.
The middle act of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is an odd disconnect from the rest of the movie; Lawrence going through some very elaborate machinations with the help of his spy, Inspector Andre (Anton Rodgers) and valet, Arthur (Ian McDiarmid); resigned to ‘train’ Freddy in the art of the con after Freddy threatens blackmail. However, this tenuous détente may lead to an even more elaborate hoax, the cultured shoe never quite able to empty its annoying sand pebbles. Consider, for example, that the montage benefiting Freddy’s expert tutelage devolves into a fairly silly masquerade counterproductive to its purpose; Lawrence exploiting his newly groomed protégée against this carefully crafted proto-aristocrat in order to impersonate his mentally-challenged brother; using Freddy to disentangle himself from a string of marriage proposals after the necessary funds from his unsuspecting female dupes has already been extorted.
Eventually, Freddy grows tired of playing the fool. A closer examination of his own life and circumstances might have revealed he’s never been anything but. So these two scamps strike up a bargain; to con their latest prospect, heiress Janet Colgate (Glenne Headly) out of a whopping $50,000. The first man to get Janet’s cash also gets to stay on, the other agreeing to leave the Riviera immediately and never return. It’s a ridiculous wager, made all the more complicated when each con digs in, endeavoring to destroy the other’s carefully laid plans for deception.
On a very high note, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels caps off the 1980’s delirious yen for cynicism and slapstick. Alas, the times have changed since. Today the movie tends to not hold up nearly as well. For starters, Steve Martin’s persona as the proverbial ‘wild and crazy guy’ is in transition here. Lest we forget just three short years later, Martin would completely morph into the delightfully obtuse and harried, George Banks in Father of The Bride (1991). Herein, he’s trying a wee too hard to hang on to that whack-tac-ular fop on which his early years in comedy were based and, in fact, excelled. But Martin isn’t giving us his all as this semi-lucid weirdo. Even an enterprising ‘jerk’ would be better served. Tragically, we get a haphazard concoction of these polar opposites. Like pink champagne mixed with vermouth, it just leaves an awkward taste behind.
Thankfully, Michael Caine remains wickedly marvelous and fascinating as the perversely unscrupulous seaside Lochinvar. Caine’s deft and tenured training as an actor is revealed in his chameleon-like performance, moving effortlessly from the cultured and gentlemanly highness of a never disclosed, though war torn principality, in desperate and perennial need of money to fund his grassroots revolution, into the venomously obtuse German psychiatrist with latent Nazi tendencies (he horsewhips Freddy in an attempt to expose his momentary paralysis as a ruse to Janet – regrettably, to no avail). There’s really no substitute for Britain’s trial by fire in actor’s training and Caine has proven before - and long since - he is an enduring survivor of these dramatic arts; an actor’s actor who can slip into any skin quite comfortably and fit into any scenario perfectly.
Of course, the real ‘con’ here is not being perpetrated by either Lawrence or Freddy but Janet who, in all her faux naiveté, is decidedly not what she first appears. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels opens with a shimmering moonlit main title sequence set against the moneyed Riviera casino; Miles Goodman’s slick and stylish score lending an air of playful elegance to perfectly foreshadow the sardonic comedy yet to follow. We are introduced to Lawrence Jamieson (Caine), a pomade-quaffed, impeccably spoken and immaculately groomed Brit. He takes his seat next to the wealthy and unsuspecting American widow, Fanny Eubanks (Barbara Harris). Fanny doesn’t know it yet, nor will she ever perhaps take the time to figure things out. But Lawrence wastes no time convincing Fanny he is a descendant from a royal house in grave danger. Presumably because nothing appeals more to the mother instinct than a middle-age male beauty in distress, Fanny writes Lawrence a check, convinced she’s done her part for the people’s liberation army and, perhaps, world peace.
Meanwhile, the newspapers are filled with news of ‘The Jackal’ (shades of To Catch A Thief again) – a subversive, preying upon the Riviera’s rich. Lawrence is not the Jackal, although his presence is more than cause for concern. After all, there can be only one ‘pro’ in this ‘con’. Hence, when Lawrence inadvertently meets hustler, Freddy Benson aboard a train bound for Beaumont-sur-Mer, observing his slick seduction of an unsuspecting woman (Nicole Calfan) trapped into buying him a lavish lunch, Lawrence believes the Jackal has finally shown his face. Later, Freddy casually reveals to Lawrence he enjoys conning women out of their diamonds and cash. He also makes it quite clear he intends to settle in Beaumont-sur-Mer – at least for a time. To offset this prospect, Lawrence suggests Freddy try Sant-Troupès instead; nothing but the elderly in Beaumont-sur-Mer. To prove his point, Lawrence has Andre plant a gorgeous decoy, Marion (Nathalie Auffret) at the next station pretending to be returning to Sant-Troupès where she lives. Freddy falls for the act and stays onboard. A short while later he picks up with another silly female (Lolly Susi). Andre tails the pair to a flashy hotel where Freddy continues to live high on the hog; that is, until Andre proves to the woman Freddy is nothing more than a quisling. She presses charges. He goes to jail.
Pretending to finagle Freddy’s release from prison, but only if he promises never to return to the Riviera, Lawrence accompanies him to the airport, putting him on a plane bound for America. Too bad it’s the same plane Fanny is on. She, having seen the exchange of their seemingly warmhearted handshakes on the tarmac, now confides in Freddy as though he were another cultural attaché to his highness, the prince!!! Realizing he has been tricked, Freddy disembarks, seeking out Lawrence at his villa. In exchange for his renewed silence on the matter, Freddy demands some expert training in the art of the con. Lawrence reluctantly accepts this wager, putting Freddy through the ringer until he is almost his mirror image. But Freddy will never get the opportunity to put all of his education to practical use. For Lawrence has made another deal with Freddy; one effectively forcing him to obey Lawrence’s every wish. At present, Lawrence’s wish is for Freddy to pretend to be his mentally-challenged/patch-eyed brother, Ruprecht; employed to dissuade rich women in their plans to marry Lawrence. In short order, the pair effectively lighten the purses of a pair of ladies; one from Oklahoma (Meagen Fey) and another from Palm Beach (Frances Conroy); Freddy scaring them off with his manic and, at times cruelly disturbing behavior.
At the end of the month Lawrence and his cronies show a sizable profit – none of it shared with Freddy. Instead, Lawrence suggests Freddy’s reward is his gained knowledge and experience. Furthermore, he tells Freddy the money they steal is not simply meant to fatten their wallets, but also to enrich the community in which they reside. Lawrence takes Freddy to the cultured gardens and museum, showing him charitable donations of art that have enriched the local culture. Disgusted and put off, Freddy elects to leave Lawrence’s tutorials immediately, but not Beaumont-sur-Mer. What to do? This town isn’t big enough for them both.
So, Lawrence suggests a wager. The first con to pocket $50,000 from an unsuspecting mark selected by them both will get permanent grazing rights to the Riviera. The other will agree to leave Beaumont-sur-Mer and never come back. Selecting American heiress, Janet Colgate as their target, Lawrence goes to work plotting his usual seduction at the casino’s roulette table, only to be upstaged by Freddy, posing as a psychosomatically crippled and highly decorated U.S. Army officer who has been unable to move – or even feel – his lower extremities ever since seeing his ex-wife in bed with Dance U.S.A. host, Deney Terrio. In his sob story, Freddy explains to Janet that he needs $50,000 to attend psychiatrist, Dr. Emil Shuffhausen; the one man who can cure his condition. Janet is convinced her future is with Freddy and vows to write the necessary documents to make this dream a reality. Getting wind of this plot, Lawrence impersonates Dr. Shuffhausen in the lobby of the hotel, befriending Janet almost by accident while insisting she not give Freddy the necessary moneys for his treatment. Instead, Lawrence agrees to take on Freddy’s case. Thus, Janet can pay the fee directly to him.
Janet confides in Lawrence she is not a wealthy socialite after all, but rather enjoying this vacation as a contest winner. Touched by her generosity, Lawrence calls off their bet. Freddy proposes another: who can bed Janet first? Appalled, Lawrence refuses to consider this wager. He does, however, agree to take on the bet Freddy will be unable to land Janet for his own. Determined to foil even the slightest hope for their flagrante delicto, Lawrence keeps a watchful, intrusive eye on their relationship. To be rid of Lawrence’s meddling once and for all, Freddy attempts to buttonhole Lawrence with the help of some British sailors, who instead release Lawrence when they discover he was once a fellow officer. Freddy feigns a dramatic recovery from his paralysis, claiming Janet’s love has restored him to good health. But Lawrence is present for this revelation and manages to entangle Freddy with the sailors while he casually escorts Janet to the airport. Presuming Janet has boarded the plane, Lawrence returns home with a decided air of victory, only to learn Janet has since returned to the hotel where she finds a contrite Freddy ready to seduce her.
Graciously, Lawrence accepts his defeat. But only a few hours later, Janet informs Lawrence that Freddy has stolen all of her money and seemingly made off to parts unknown. Empathetic to her plight and fooled by her tears, Lawrence takes $50,000 from his private safe and compensates her. Hurrying Janet to the airport again, Lawrence also telephones Andre, instructing him to have the police pick up Freddy. Just before she boards the plane, Janet hands Lawrence back the bag presumably containing the money he gave her. She tells him she cannot except his generous gift and the two part as friends. As Janet’s plane departs Lawrence is left holding the bag – literally. For upon Freddy’s police escorted arrival – in a bathrobe no less – both men learn Janet is actually the Jackal; having stolen Freddy’s money, his clothes and taken Lawrence for a $50,000 ride. The bag she handed him contains Freddy’s clothes – but NO money! Freddy is outraged. Lawrence, however, can only smile in admiration of the Jackal’s prowess. Perhaps it takes one super con to appreciate another.
A week later, Freddy and Lawrence prepare to say goodbye; Freddy taking a last look around Lawrence’s villa. Suddenly, Janet – in her new disguise as a fast-talking New York real estate developer – appears from a yacht-full of impressionable, middle-aged investors ripe for the picking. Convincing Freddy and Lawrence to follow her lead, Janet quickly escorts her new victims inside the villa before returning to Freddy and Lawrence – who remain quite bewildered. She informs them that while her thievery accrued a cool three million last year, their $50,000 was undeniably the most fun she’s ever had perpetrating a heist. Locking arms together, this newly allied triumvirate of scallywags advances on Lawrence’s villa; already plotting how to fleece their latest victims.
The trailer for Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is what director Alfred Hitchcock would have considered a MacGuffin. Told by Orion Pictures they needed something to begin promoting the movie, director Frank Oz concocted a sequence on the fly, featuring Michael Caine and Steve Martin casually strolling poolside, politely stepping out of everyone’s way until the moment when Martin pushes a well-heeled Miss into the pool and Caine deliberately shoves a little boy’s head into some cotton candy. There is no corresponding sequence in the final edit of the film; marginally alienating opening night attendees who were expecting to see where and how this scene fit into the plot. Viewed today, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels retains only a faint glimmer of its original charm; perhaps because in the interim we have become considerably more jaded about heiresses, roués and that certain ilk in 80’s movie-making committed to the proverbial ‘happily ever after’. Still, it’s a mostly classy affair, only slighted dated by Marit Allen’s decade-long affinity for the pastel and polka-dotted, heavily shoulder-padded mademoiselle. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels may not be a perfect movie. But it remains a highly enjoyable one.
No such luck with MGM/Fox Home Video’s Blu-ray release. Frankly, I’m getting tired of counterbalancing the pluses with the minuses when it comes to the way the studio is handling its catalogue releases in hi-def. By now most are aware of MGM’s financial woes – also of the fact MGM provides the digital scans (eg. transfers) for Fox to merely distribute in disc format. Alas, MGM would do well to reconsider there really is no point sourcing hi-def masters from flawed print elements, especially when original camera negatives exist. This 1080p transfer reveals some fairly saturated hues – no complaints there. Contrast is equally pleasing…well, for the most part. A few brief shots seem wanting. But overall, fine details pops as one might expect it should.
However, occasionally the image becomes aggressively sharp (hints of artificial enhancement), also some troublesome ringing around trees and sky, and some intermittent difficulties handling the indigenous grain (again, in only a handful of shots). Fox’s higher than average bitrate minimizes compression artifacts – so, good news again. But now we come to the big transgressor: print damage. Why MGM did not take the time to source Dirty Rotten Scoundrels from original camera negatives, much less commit to blue-washing these elements to fill in the numerous scratches, dirt, white specs and so on is beyond me. There’s really NO point to skipping such a remedial step in the remastering process – period! Hi-def shows everything and these obvious age-related distractions are no exception! They’re more plentiful during the early half of the movie, but it doesn’t make a difference. By now, we ought not be discussing such things, especially on a title that is barely 20+ years old.
Released theatrically in Dolby Surround, MGM has upgraded the audio to 5.1 lossless DTS. Oh, so there was some money left over for that! In the accompanying audio commentary, Frank Oz tells of his decision to spend an additional $20,000 simply to add a single effect that was inexplicably absent from the original sound mix. Nevertheless, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is primarily a center channel driven audio presentation with a few noted exceptions; mostly, Miles Goodman’s score. The only other extra is a behind-the-scenes featurette and a theatrical trailer. Bottom line: recommended with caveats. Just do not expect perfection (rather ridiculous and disheartening, seeing as this is 2014 and we are speaking of Blu-ray – not VHS or even DVD!!!). Finally, I usually don’t critique cover art, but Dirty Rotten Scoundrels has one of the ugliest I’ve seen in a while. What have they done to the top of Michael Caine’s head? Flat top, anyone? Also, I’m not certain what sort of political statement the studio’s making by airbrushing out the cocktail glasses Caine and Martin used to be coddling in the original poster art. Badly done – and silly to boot!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)