Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is a 1988 comedy about a pair of con-men with decidedly different styles who collide in a European city, only to end up working together. Sort of.
There have been a lot of great names in cinema comedy that seem like perfect fits. You’ve got your Abbott and your Costello. Your Carrey and your Daniels. Your Martin and your Caine. Your Martin and your Caine? Wait a minute. Steve Martin and Michael Caine? Yeah, sure, Martin’s easy to understand. The guy’s a comedy genius. One of the all-time greatest physical funnymen in the business. But Caine? He’s a celebrated, two-time Oscar-winning thespian, a renowned British actor with an impressive filmography of some of the most defining drama of his time. How is he a comedian?
Enter Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, a slick, hi-brow comedy that is also shamelessly screwball and absurd. Guess which one Caine is. A remake of the 1964 Ralph Levy film Bedtime Stories, starring Marlon Brando and David Niven, this update, directed by Frank Oz, was a critical favorite, earning high praise for its direction and performances. And those performances are all about the chemistry, of which there is loads. These men are incredibly funny.
The story is set in the French Riviera, where suave and debonair con man Lawrence Jamieson (Caine) is seducing wealthy corrupt women and stealing their money, but learns there is another trickster at work in his little corner of paradise named the “The Jackel.” Shortly after, he meets rough American amateur hustler Freddy Benson (Martin) who catches on that Jamieson and a local corrupt cop are working together. Blackmailing him, he forces Jamieson into teaming up so Benson can learn to be a pro … and make gobs of money. But Jamieson isn’t without a plan of his own.
After some finessing, and an amusing montage, the two decide it’s not working out and so go off on their own, with one caveat, they will place a bet on one last con, choosing a woman as their target. Whomever gets $50,000 from her first wins and the other has to leave town. The woman? Janet Colgate (Glenne Headly), the naive “soap queen” of America. So the two set about to lure her to their own sides, each conniving to sabotage the other. And each are in for a big surprise.
Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is an often laugh-out-loud funny movie that continually finds ways to spin great humor from the premise, with Caine effortlessly charming and Martin sometimes hysterical. The two are an amazing balance of suave and silly, and as a team, make for a remarkably effective pair that begs the question: Why didn’t they do more together? Either way, this is a film full of great twists … and like every movie, has one great moment.
Jamieson isn’t so pleased with the idea of having Benson around, thinking his petty cons will scare away the bigger game. He simply wants nothing more than to have him give up and leave. But he is also under the impression that Benson is more skilled than he really is and can’t underestimate the consequences of the American exposing who he is and who he is involved with. His plan is to take the younger man as his protégé and ultimately force him to see that he is ill-equipped for such high stakes. What could go wrong?
Having added Benson to his scheme in an attempt to teach the gruff underling about high culture, Jamieson poses as a wealthy socialite who woos extravagantly rich women with his sophisticated charms, conning them out of money with promises of marriage before introducing them to his brother Ruprecht. Who is Ruprecht? That is Benson playing a mentally challenged and socially awkward fellow who lives in a locked room, banging on pots and pans and eating applesauce with a fork made “safe” with a wine bottle cork. There is literally nothing I can add to that to make it funnier. But I’ll try.
The sequence begins with a familiar look as we witness Jamieson con a rich, corrupt woman again, this one from Oklahoma, convincing her to marry him and take him home, and she, believing she is bringing back a heroic prince trying to save his country, agrees. That is until she meets Ruprecht, who utterly overwhelms her with lunacy.
Hair slicked down, suit ill-fitting, and shoulders hunched up, Ruperecht is a tightly-wound spring coiled to snap. Safely unstable, he bangs on pots while prancing about and is also a little indignant, looking to test authority, knocking over breakables with a veil of contempt. He is impulsive and clingy, and we come to learn, deathly afraid of something called a “genital cuff.” That goes double for me. Notice what Martin does when he hears that threat though, leaping into the air like a pronking springbok before settling across the room, legs folded. That’s funny stuff.
Martin is no stranger to pratfalls on screen, kicking it off in his debut, The Jerk, a minor masterpiece in the genre itself, and one that might be said to have reinvented it as well. His tour de force turn in All Of Me proved even further his almost limitless talent for the work, and while he tones it down a bit in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, he is nonetheless very funny as Ruprecht. Refined and much more subtle, even at it’s zaniest, this is one of his most memorable characters.
But it’s not just Martin who makes this work. Caine is crucial to the scene, reeling in Ruprecht like a circus handler, a comparison fleetingly confirmed when he guides Ruprecht off the bed, with Ruprecht walking like a chimpanzee for a few steps toward the camera. It’s bits like this that knock this movie out of the park. Watch how well Caine and Martin interact, Caine’s refined composure throughout selling this moment from the start, something he would carry later in other comedies, such as Miss Congenitally (2000) and Austin Powers in Goldmember (2002).
After Ruprecht gets cozy with a rubber glove and a tube of lubricant, then a squirm-inducing hug, the action shifts to some time later, now with a new target, a woman sitting at a large diner table with Ruprecht beside her, a plate of applesauce in front of him. He is wearing an eyepatch and holding a trident. For real, which leads to what is easily the funniest line in the entire movie when the butler approaches. Why does this one line he says absolutely crack me up every time? Then, to cap it all off, when Ruprecht asks to go to the bathroom, well … you can guess what happens and then understand why the woman doesn’t stick around.
Martin is almost unnervingly funny here, and while Ruprecht is but a small part of the film and Martin goes on to take up a different character for his rouse, the abnormal little brother is a delicious piece of comedy that has come to define the film. It’s rare to find a movie so satisfying, so able to find its footing and stomp with big strides onward without a misstep, even as moments threaten to teeter at every turn. It’s that very sense of imbalance that helps to keep Dirty Rotten Scoundrels so entertaining, and meeting Ruprecht is reason why. It’s a great cinematic moment.