MOVIE REVIEW : Touring With Two ‘Scoundrels’

Times Film Critic

“Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” (citywide) is a pleasant enough way to tour the South of France in December. Blithe, reasonably witty, with as many story twists as a Riviera roadway, its greatest assets are its glorious look (courtesy of Michael Ballhaus’ exceptional camera work) and Michael Caine, his hair full of Dippety-Doo, his heart full of larceny.

As Lawrence Jamison, con man extraordinaire , Caine has turned the knack of refusing enormous cash gifts from anxious heiresses into an art form. It’s all in the firmness with which this “deposed prince” turns them down--it seems to send them into a giving frenzy. Finally, and with a discretion bordering on the exquisite, he allows them to force money, pearls, gambling chips or what-have-you on him, only for the widows and orphans of his stricken homeland, you understand.

It’s the droll snap with which Caine executes these maneuvers that makes watching him such pleasure. Without it, this parade of lady chumps could become enervating, even though their number includes Barbara Harris and Dana Ivey, both in quarter-carat size roles.


Caine, who’s been top dog in his resort town of Beaumont-sur-Mer for decades, is deeply unamused when Freddy Benson (Steve Martin), an American con artist lacking class, style, flair and a single clean shirt, announces his intention of crashing Caine’s very back yard. The camaraderie of a shared profession does not apply here. This is warfare.

Blackmailed into it, Caine makes Martin into something like his own image, in what becomes one of the picture’s high points. It’s a wordless sequence highlighting Martin’s gift for physical comedy as he changes, gestures and all, from slob to suave before our eyes (and with a lovely Jazz-Age version of “Puttin’ on the Ritz” in the background).

This is the film at its classiest. A step down from that are Martin’s appearances as Caine’s “special” brother, Ruprecht, a cross between Jerry Lewis at his most cross-eyed and slobbery, and something last seen in a mist with Sigourney Weaver.

There’s also a bet: Whoever extracts $50,000 from an unsuspecting mark next may stay in Beaumont-sur-Mer; loser leaves. Next face on the scene is a naive Cleveland soap queen, played dexterously by Glenne Headly. The race is on.

At one point in their one-upmanship, Martin takes to a wheelchair, the victim of mental trauma, needing money enough to visit the one psychiatrist who could make those nimble feet dance again. Ferret-quick, Caine appears on the scene as that doctor himself, Dr. Emil Schauffhausen, to retain the upper hand. Caine’s impeccable Prussian accent and hand gestures, and the inventiveness of these quick scenes, thrust and parry, move and countermove, are very funny indeed.

However, there is one problem that director Frank Oz and the picture’s layers of writers-- Dale Launer and the team of Stanley Shapiro and Paul Henning--haven’t quite solved: Freddy Benson is a thoroughgoing snake. Martin does him deliciously; not even Dan Aykroyd can smarm up fake sincerity like Martin, cadging money to visit his dying Gram-Gram. But his Freddy has no redeeming features. Life to him is one long, ruthless scam, and something about that finally begins to lose its wonderfulness.


(“Scoundrels” is a resuscitation of an old and not very funny vehicle for Marlon Brando and David Niven, the 1964 “Bedtime Story,” which was called in a review of its English debut “the most vulgar and embarrassing film of the year.” It does make you wonder why one particular corpse is chosen from so many to be given the kiss of life.)

In any case, “Scoundrels” is MPAA-rated PG.

Ah well. You could watch Caine, whose ineffable cool never flags and whose character has both edge and humanity. (You could brood about why he says to Martin, “Let the best man win,” if he is supposed to be such a stickler for things said and done properly, but that’s only if you’re feeling snarly.) You could cast a wary eye on Martin, to whom director Oz may have given a leeetle too much rein. Or you could stare at the Riviera and these improbably luscious hotels, casinos, drawing rooms or terraces. It couldn’t hurt.


An Orion Pictures release. Producer Bernard Williams. Executive producers Dale Launer, Charles Hirschorn. Director Frank Oz. Screenplay Launer, Stanley Shapiro & Paul Henning. Camera Michael Ballhaus. Production design Roy Walker. Editor Stephen A. Rotter, William Scharf. Costumes Marit Allen. Music Miles Goodman. Art directors Steve Spence, Damien Lafranchi; set decorator Rosalind Shingleton. Sound Ivan Sharrock. With Michael Caine, Steve Martin, Glenne Headly, Anton Rodgers, Barbara Harris, Ian McDiarmid, Dana Ivey, Meagen Fay, Frances Conroy, Nicole Calfan.

Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.

MPAA-rated: PG (parental guidance suggested).