1 Hr., 50 Mins.
Dirty Rotten Scoundrels February 11, 2019
n cinema, the French Riviera is often painted as a great venue for behaving badly. In Alfred Hitchcock’s glittering To Catch a Thief (1955), the area was overwhelmed by the presence of a slinky cat burglar who preyed on jewel-collecting middle-aged women. In Otto Preminger's Bonjour Tristesse (1957), a teenage waif fucks with her father’s romantic life out of spite. In Jacques Deray’s La Piscine (1969), it surrounded a battle of the sexes that
climaxed in a murder. In Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, a Steve Martin vehicle from 1988, it makes for the place where the latter and a criminal character played by Michael Caine try to swindle a socialite out of her savings. On the French Riviera, you probably won’t get away with your bad behavior, but you can’t have picked a better-looking place to conduct it.
Of the above-mentioned movies, let’s focus on Dirty Rotten Scoundrels for now. In it, Martin and Caine are grifters on opposite ends of the conning spectrum. Caine, playing a deceitful British glamourpuss named Lawrence, specializes in seducing and then stealing from well-off women. Martin is a less-refined American trickster named Freddy, who usually drains money from people by making up sappy but believable sob stories.
They meet by chance on a train, where they size each other up and then harshly split. Then, they meet again on the French Riviera, where Lawrence operates. Here, they try to be friendly peers and perhaps partners. But when Freddy decides that collaboration isn’t his forte, they separate once again. This time, though, the split is different. It comes with a shared goal.
When a callow American heiress, Janet (Glenn Headly), arrives in the area, Freddy and Lawrence decide to make her a target. A bet comes about: whoever fails to fleece Janet out of $50,000 first must leave the Riviera for good. Freddy masquerades as a Navy vet who’s paralyzed from the waist down as a result of neural turmoil; to undercut his rival, Lawrence appears in the guise of a psychiatrist who could help treat Freddy’s alter ego out of his immobility.
Dirty Rotten Scoundrels often evokes The Talented Mr. Ripley, a 1955 thriller by Patricia Highsmith. Similarly revolving around a criminal taking advantage of the naïve monied, the novel does a good job of getting us to want its anti-hero to get away with his wrongs. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels inspires a similar sensation. Lawrence and Freddy live up to the descriptions as read in the title, yet to watch them play confidence games is to be beguiled — we yearn to see the end results of their schemes, more out of curiosity than anything. Fortunately the movie has a twist of an ending that makes us feel semi-better about the fact that we’ve been rooting for guileless predators for a couple of hours.
To make a comedy about grifting is no easy feat. It’s not unheard of for comedy-movie leads to be unlikable, and it isn’t uncommon for a narrative to be steeped in immorality. But because so much suspense is embedded in the act of conning, and because of the regular presence of inner-conflict, a thrill seems more fitting than a laugh. But director Frank Oz, as well as the screenwriter trio Dale Launer, Stanley Shapiro, and Paul Henning, fashions a glinty farce, even if it is, admittedly, more a smile-inducing romp than a boisterously funny one. Caine and Martin, as the spry bad guys, excel, too. Martin, in particular, is a tornado of physical brio; two gags in the feature — one involving him pretending to have driven off a multi-flight staircase in his wheelchair, the other a feigned explosion of first steps — especially articulate this. Good for him and his co-stars for making wickedness subversively funny. B