Dirty Rotten Scoundrels opens with Michael Caine. We never see his face, only his waistline as he carries out a discussion with an also unseen lady acquaintance. The characters move back and forth with only the tone of their voice and the gesture of their arms, hands and body to do all the story telling. It’s a wonderful set up for his character in how dignified a manner he relieves luxurious ladies of their wealth.
His routine is then followed as we get to meet his accomplices in the persons of the local fuzz and a butler played by Ian McDiarmid (yep, Darth Sidious himself). The routine continues as he divides up his money between the group and heads off on a journey to the next stage in his game. Seated happily on the buffet carriage of train the camera glides past him as the credits music comes to a halt with the entrance of Steve Martin.
Yes, he’s a shabbier and much cheaper confidence man, but his dirty little tricks also work wonders on the ladies. Caine initially has the upper hand because he rumbles Martin’s game and spends the next 20 minutes trying to veer him off his turf and then eventually having him arrested.
All this time Caine is playing the British straight man to Martin’s loud and manic American. In his jail cell there is a hilarious moment where Martin is trying to remember the name of Caine’s character and brilliantly verbalises every possible brain fart of an idea as to what that name might be. It is a true testament to the man’s comedic powers, and Caine makes a beautiful straight man.
Soon after, though, Freddy Benson (Martin) is onto Lawrence Jamieson (Caine) and returns with the full intent of claiming his stake. Jamieson gamely entertains the idea of training Benson to become more professional which only leads to more Martin-esque tomfoolery. Even once the training is done and we are introduced to their double act: Martin again is mugging as “Ruprecht the Monkey boy.”
Don’t be fooled for a moment that just because Caine is playing the straighter, less manic role that he doesn’t get laughs. Once he has taken on the persona of Liechtenstein Psychiatrist Dr Emil Schauffhausen he is right in there delivering puns, quips and, in one scene, a hell of a lashing to Martin’s bare legs.
Yes, Caine is finally let loose with amusing voices, cheeky one-liners and physical comedy. Caine has pointed out in his biography, The Elephant to Hollywood, that this was the funniest film he has made and that the “leg lashing” scene always makes him laugh. My personal high moment in this scene is delivered in what I can only describe as the most sinister stare that Michael Caine has ever delivered to anyone. Pretending to be this doctor (that Benson incidentally made up) he stands in the hotel room carrying on the charade and at one point leans down to rest on Benson’s wheelchair so that his face is blocked from the onlooker (Janet – the one they have chosen to dupe) and his smile turns upside down and gives martin a “I mean business” look. It’s a great dark comic moment and never fails to make me laugh out loud as you know Martin is going to be in deep shit very shortly.
The lashing that follows we all know, and that fact that it ends with Caine taking a run and jump at the guy serves to literally thrash the point home. Martin carries the gag further with the “tears of joy” that roll down his face.
Caine gets to play evil behind Janet’s back again later when he is dancing with her and makes her kiss him in front of Martin. Even in his moment of triumph, when he thinks he has won the bet and he bids Benson “auf wiedersehen” before driving off laughing, is a great little moment. Caine is far too often remembered for his 60s and 70s cult hits. We forget how natural he is at comedy.
Glenne Headly as Janet the Jackal is game for the role of the woman each of them pursues. And the plot distracts us enough form the fact that she is actually the one playing them. You have to remember that this was back in the late 80s. Today we often look for twists and twists upon twists. This was a time when we weren’t as much on our toes.
By the end, the two dumbstruck men (although technically it is only pride that Martin’s Benson has lost; Caine actually lost a fat wad of cash) are stuck together and the final epilogue gets to see Caine try out a bit of an Aussie accent, and Martin stripped of his powers of speech before the newly formed trio head off on an even grander scheme together.
Frank Oz directed a film that hasn’t lost much of its charm and put together a bit of perfect casting for the leads. It may also be the last time (the odd joke here and there) that Caine was this hilarious.