Saturday, March 03, 2007

Films of Michael Caine #56: Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

Cast: Steve Martin (Freddie Benson), Michael Caine (Lawrence Jamieson), Glenne Headly (Janet Colgate), Anton Rodgers (Inspector Andre), Barbara Harris (Fanny Eubanks), Ian McDiarmid (Arthur), Dana Ivey (Mrs Reed), Meagen Fay (Lady from Oklahoma), Frances Conroy (Lady from Palm Beach).

Crew: Frank Oz (director), Bernard Williams (producer), Dale Launer and Stanley Shapiro & Paul Henning (writers), Miles Goodman (music), Michael Ballhaus (cinematography), Stephen A Rotter and William Scharf (editors), Roy Walker (production designer).

Synopsis: Lawrence Jamieson is a high class con-man in the South of France who poses as an exiled prince to take money from rich women. A boorish, small-time American grifter called Freddie Benson arrives in town and threatens to spoil Lawrence’s operation. Newspapers mention a clever young American con-artist called the Jackal whom Lawrence believes is Freddie. After failing in attempts to get rid of Freddie, Lawrence agrees to tutor him, hoping to drive the interloper away. They make a wager – whoever is first to con $50,000 from a rich young American woman called Janet Colgate can stay, but the other must leave. When Lawrence discovers Janet is not rich, the bet is changed. Now the wager is whether Freddie can get Janet into bed with him. Janet leaves before Freddie can succeed, but she also takes $50,000 of Lawrence’s money. The two men realise Janet is the Jackal. Several days later she reappears, inviting them to join her latest scam. They agree…


Bedtime Story (1964) was a comedy about two con-men competing with each other on the French Riviera. The film was a flop, with one review calling it the most vulgar, embarrassing film of the year. Nearly quarter of a century later the original script by Stanley Shapiro and Paul Henning was updated by Dale Launer for Frank Oz to direct. US comedian Steve Martin was attached to play the younger con-man, Marlon Brando’s role in the original.

Oz was uncertain about casting Caine as the character originally played by David Niven. ‘I saw Michael as a great dramatic actor,’ Oz says on the film’s DVD commentary. ‘He volunteered to read for the part. It worked out just perfectly.’ Caine’s on-screen appearance was inspired by Niven’s look. ‘Michael and I agreed his hair should be slicked back,’ Oz recalls, ‘not like Michel Caine is usually seen – and he should have a little moustache.’

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels was shot between June and August 1988 at locations in the South of France, and at La Victorine Cote D’Azur Studios in Nice. Oz says he wanted the film to look and feel like a 1950s movie. ‘I needed to create a world with a 1950s sheen where you’d believe these two characters would live up to their bargain over $50,000.’ The director and Martin did a lot of work on the script during production, particularly the final scene at the airport. ‘We had no idea of how to end this movie. We shot for two months with no ending.’ Oz and Martin wrote the finale, with help from Caine.

‘That’s probably the most fun I’ve ever had doing a film,’ Caine told Venice magazine in 2002. ‘It’s funny, Steve is such a serious guy. People would come on the set and expect Steve to be wild and crazy, when in fact I was the nutty one and he was the serious one. We’re exactly the opposite of what each of us was on-screen. But it was one of those films where everyone was giggling. Glenne Headly especially was a big giggler.’

Caine said the comedy in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels was much harder to carry off than his role in Get Carter (1971). ‘Get Carter required such a controlled performance. It was all about the stillness … like a room with minimalist furniture. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels was not quite over-the-top Victorian, but it came close. Slightly over-furnished. You have to time comedy to silence, you see. The crew can’t laugh. So comedy is much more difficult.’

The film was released in America in December 1988, rated PG. It was critically praised and proved popular with audiences too, grossing more than $40 million in the US. Caine was nominated as best actor in a comedy or musical at the Golden Globe awards, losing to Tom Hanks’ performance in Big (1988). Dirty Rotten Scoundrels reached UK cinemas as a PG in June 1989 and grossed more than $4 million. It was released on VHS later that year and remains available. The film was issued on DVD in 2001, but the US version is superior. It includes Oz’s audio commentary and other extras. In 2000 Caine talked about his hopes of making a sequel but said efforts had been stalled by the bankruptcy of Orion Pictures, the studio behind Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.

An April 2003 poll of Blockbuster Video store customers named the duo of Caine and Martin as the top film comedy pairing of all time, just ahead of Laurel and Hardy. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels was later turned into a hit Broadway musical.

Reviews: ‘Though Caine doesn’t quite have the sophistication of Niven, his skill and technique convince you he does… It’s a subtle, beautifully controlled performance.’ – Sunday Express
‘Martin is an acknowledged comic talent, but Caine too is well up to the task … between them the film becomes a compulsively watchable exercise in refined vulgarity ’ – Daily Telegraph

Verdict: Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is a thoroughly enjoyable comedy that keeps you guessing until the end. Even if you deduce the identity of the Jackal before the finale, the film is executed with such panache it doesn’t matter. Martin’s physical comedy skills run riot while Caine provides the perfect foil, elegance and charm contrasted with brash and bluster. The supporting cast is just as good, not one performance out of place. The music is playful and wry, the production design sumptuous, the lensing a joy to the eye. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is a little gem and proof, if proof were needed, of Caine’s comedy prowess.


Mary Poppins said...

I enjoyed reading your blog about my favourite comedy of all time. Michael Caine showed his unique talent and versatility, and the locations were divine.

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