Retro Review: Dirty Rotten Scoundrels
Glenne Headly passed away this month. We bid her adieu with a retrospective on one of her biggest films, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. It also happens to be one of the best comedies ever made.
When I heard that Glenne Headly had passed, I went to the website to go re-share our retro review of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels with you all as a tribute. It was then that I realized we had never done a review for this classic comedy. Today we fix that egregious error.
Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988)
Lawrence Jamieson (Micheal Caine) is a confidence man with a lot to be confident about. Set up in the French Riviera, Lawrence has spent years greasing the right palms and setting up the right cons. He enjoys living in the lap of luxury while siphoning money off the rich women who visit the paradise port of call. His only concern: the Jackal, a master matchstick man that is rumored to be keen to set up shop on his turf.
When gutsy gigolo Freddy Benson (Steve Martin) begins pulling scams in his backyard, Lawrence believes he has the Jackal in his sights. Using his corrupt cop allies, he gets Freddy nabbed and ridden out on a rail. But not before Freddy meets “Lady Fanny of Omaha” and realizes that Lawrence is a fellow flim-flam artist. He returns to town, threatening to expose Lawrence if he doesn’t get his cut. They settle on a bet: the first to extricate $50 thousand dollars from a visiting American tourist (Glenne Headly) gets to stay. A duel of delightfully despicable deeds ensues.
High Brow meets Low Brow
Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is a quintessential straight man/buffoon comedy. You couldn’t ask for a better duo than Caine and Martin. Both are capable of immense charm, elevating their vaudevillian antics. Caine’s notoriety at the time was for serious roles (well, except one movie), and his affectations of British congeniality contrast hilariously with Martin’s crass and unsophisticated character. He gives the proceedings a constant veneer of class, even when he takes the piss out of Freddy by having him play the man-child Ruprecht in his scams.
Martin is at the top of his game here as well. If you liked the Jerk, or Three Amigos, or well, any damn thing he’s ever done (well, except one movie); you won’t be disappointed. He swings from clever to crude like a comedic pendulum. Lawrence is intelligent and patient; Freddy is a myopic fast-talker with preternatural luck. It sets up the jokes perfectly. They go about in a waltz of trying to get the drop on each other. Freddy can’t deal with Lawrence’s smarts while Lawrence is constantly foiled by Freddy’s ability to get out of a pinch in the most patently absurd ways.
Trifecta (Spoilers) (Seriously, go see this movie first)
Glenne Headly caps the nonsense off with a clever twist. We know that Lawrence and Freddy are con men. Most of the time the film wants you to feel sorry for this poor, lost lamb as the wolves fight over who gets to eat her. The twist is that Headly’s character Janet knows they are phonies as well. Because as the film reaches its crescendo, we learn that Janet is in fact the Jackal, and she takes both Lawrence and Freddy to the cleaners. When she returns to do a victory lap in their faces, they accede to being accomplices in the Jackal’s latest scam, but now they know who’s boss. It’s delicious.
It’s all fun and games…
Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is consistently ranked in the top 25 comedies of all time. It deserves to be there. It is a consistently amusing movie. The acting is perfect. The jokes are all over the place, but they all find their mark. The plot is clever, and the twist is fun. Pull up a chair and watch the grifters go, but keep an eye on your wallet. These people are dirty rotten scoundrels, after all.