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Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988)

by on 2011/04/06

“As a younger man, I was a sculptor, a painter, and a musician. There was just one problem: I wasn’t very good. As a matter of fact, I was dreadful. I finally came to the frustrating conclusion that I had taste and style, but not talent. I knew my limitations.”

* * * * *

In cinema studies I learned that rain is difficult to photograph. Many natural phenomena captured by a camera appear artificial to an audience. Thus special visual effects are brought to bear.

Years later, in radio production, I learned that listeners put less faith in a cleanly recorded traffic report. Without the sound of helicopter blades, a whining engine, and an effort to speak up, it doesn’t seem as “real”.

Which brings me to Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. A masterpiece of the subtle and the gross, its players and portrayers are not truthful so much as convincing . . . both to their marks and themselves.

An update of the little known Bedtime Story, Michael Caine (Inception) assumes the David Niven role as Lawrence Jamieson, with Steve Martin (Roxanne) standing in for Marlon Brando as Freddy Benson. Jamieson is a cultured Brit living in Beaumont-sur-Mer, carefully fleecing the corrupt of their wealth. Benson is a brash, showy Yank, conning hand to mouth, passing through the south of France.

When their paths collide, a choice must be made: cooperate despite a clash of ideals, or compete to eliminate a rival? The path is a twisted, shifting one, involving a corrupt official (Anton Rodgers), a long-suffering servant (Ian McDiarmid), and the gullible American “soap queen” Janet Colgate (Glenne Headly).

It’s less the comedy of manners than a heist gone right off the rails. Or perhaps it’s a bit of both. Although con games hold a special place in my heart, the chemistry between Caine and Martin makes their sparring its own reward. There is no true superior between them. You might condemn the Mad magazine antics of Benson, but Jamieson’s culture and compassion are weaknesses in their own right.

Initially I’d hoped to illustrate the characters with selected bits of dialogue. Twenty minutes in, however, I was rapidly filling my first page. I had to abandon the attempt when I realized the strength of the script. Some lines are obvious standouts — “a poacher who shoots at rabbits may scare big game away” — but even the banalities are cleverly nuanced.

  • “You can tell?” (While Jamieson is unmarried, he allows Benson to believe he is.)
  • “I’m afraid it’s a bit out of my class.” (Poker-faced irony.)
  • “Come stay with me. You can go to Portofino later.” (Reverse psychology.)

The brilliance lies in more than (just) ambiguously phrased dialogue. Caine and Martin play their roles with unflappable certainty. The former’s character is cool and perhaps overconfident, and yet the latter’s proves less idiotic than unwise. The moment when Benson meets “Lady Fanny of Omaha” is nearly as sublime as it is significant.

I’ll say little more. Still, I shouldn’t wrap things up without a word about the late Miles Goodman’s music. Having seen this feature in its day, I’ll vouch for not liking the score. As time has passed, however, my feelings have not mellowed so much as grown fond. What began as an irritable violin syndrome has evolved with experience and exposure.

Besides, even if I weren’t now able to conjure up “Stephane Grappelli sitting in with Danny Elfman”, I’m sure an association with this favourite has helped. For the truth is, I’m still in love with this film, over twenty years on.

I could easily conclude by saying “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is The Mechanic for thinkers”. However it would be more accurate to say it led me to revisit my criteria for a five-star evaluation. If those criteria include not being able to think of a single significant criticism, then this piece deserves such a score, without a doubt.

* * * * *

Rated PG for adult situations and language

110 minutes

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