The Revisit – Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988)
Written by Dale Launer and Stanley Shapiro & Paul Henning
Directed by Frank Oz


Lawrence Jamieson (Michael Caine) has a good thing going. He lives in a beautiful mansion in Beaumont Sur Mer, on the French Riviera. He makes his money bilking foolish wealthy American women by convincing them he is exiled royalty from a fictional Eastern European country. Everything starts to fall apart when Freddy Benson (Steve Martin) comes to town. Freddy is a rude, loud, obnoxious con man who thinks he’s impressive getting a woman to buy him a dinner. Lawrence and Freddy face off to determine who is the better criminal and end up crossing paths with Janet Colgate, an unassuming American beauty (Glenne Headly).

Frank Oz made such a particular type of comedy that hasn’t quite been re-created. He specifically focused on characters that shouldn’t be the protagonists, people who are very unlikable, but somehow found the heart and made them endearing. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, What About Bob?, even Little Shop of Horrors and Death at a Funeral all showcase characters that we shouldn’t like but do. Caine and Martin are perfect picks to play the titular Scoundrels because both actors effortless exude charm and charisma. I always feel unable to stop from just smiling while watching them play off of each other.

The film sinks or swims on the chemistry between these two lead actors. It’s a combination that no one would have thought of up till this movie but ends up working remarkably well. Within the film, there is a cultural conflict beyond the personal one. Lawrence represents the refined tastes of the European people while Freddy is just like the loudmouth American you would expect. They both believe their own philosophy to be superior, the irony being that the title shows they are the same person at the end of the day and that this is simply a battle of style.

The expectation may be that Steve Martin pulls off the best comedy in the picture, but it’s stolen by Caine and Headley. Caine is mostly playing the straight man but pulls off some hilarious reaction moments. He’s at the roulette table going through his routine of losing the few chips he has followed by some whispered allusions to his made up royalty. Instead of losing he keeps winning, round after round of betting. The look of frustration on his face while still trying to maintain his composure is fantastic. Afterward, as he collects his thousands in winnings, he remarks to one of his partners that this evening was a disaster.

Glenne Headley has a tricky role to pull off, balancing this sweet and naive persona with the secrets her character is hiding. When that reveal is made in the final scene of the film she sort of steals the thing from Caine and Martin. And Caine portrays Lawrence’s awe and crush as a result of her reveal so beautifully.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels has become a film I can revisit time and time again and still find things to laugh about. There’s almost a timeless quality to its aesthetics, and despite a few incidental music cues, doesn’t feel dated. While there are many modern comedies I enjoy, I find myself getting burnt out on the improvised Judd Apatow films where yelling takes the place of measured, crafted comedy. There’s definitely a place for both, and after rewatching Scoundrels, I wish there was more of this kind out there.

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