Few films have as accurate a title as director Frank Oz’s 1988 comedy Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. It’s such a crisp, evocative title that concisely gives the audience all the information they need to know about the two lead characters played by Steve Martin and Michael Caine. Nearly 30 years after the film first debuted, it arrives on Blu-ray in a new collector’s edition from Shout! Factory featuring a magnificent new 2K transfer of the film. All these years later Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is still a practically perfect comedy, brimming from scene to scene with outrageous behavior amidst the gorgeous scenery of the French Riviera.
Lawrence Jamieson (Caine) is a suave conman operating in the south of France. He often poses as royalty with the help of his manservant Arthur (Ian McDiarmid) and the corrupt police officer Inspector Andre (Anton Rodgers), defrauding lonely women of immense wealth with outlandish tales of political persecution of his subjects and the need for donations to keep the fictional fight going. Caine is perfectly suited for the role with his perfectly slicked back hair and calm, affable demeanor that brims with class even if it is nothing more than a façade for fraud. Lawrence’s insulated world of a lavish lifestyle funded by deceit is threatened when he reads reports of a new con artist in town known as “The Jackal.” A chance encounter on a train with an American, Freddy Benson (Martin), makes Lawrence think that he’s in the presence of his competition. After a few hiccups, the two con artists enter into a partnership with Laurence mentoring his American counterpart.
One thing that’s remarkable about Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is just how long the film takes in getting to its plot. The first half of the film is really dedicated to establishing the style of Freddy and Lawrence’s cons. Not only do we get hilarious scenes of Steve Martin and Michael Caine diving head first into fraudulent schemes, the film firmly establishes the rivalry between the two that leads to an eventual rift where they split. It’s only then that Dirty Rotten Scoundrels starts with its conventional plotting. At the same casino on the riviera, Lawrence is playing cards alongside a beautiful American woman, Janet Colgate (Glenne Headly), when Freddy rolls besides her in a wheelchair. Freddy claims to be psychosomatically paralyzed and needs $50,000 to see the acclaimed psychiatrist Dr. Emil Schaffhausen. Thinking he has sympathetic mark, Freddy has set his sights on her wealth only to be thrown for a loop when Lawrence poses as the fictional psychiatrist. Now the two conmen are engaged in wager to see who can defraud Janet first, with the winner walking away with $50,000 and the loser leaving the lush beauty of the riviera forever.
Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is a remake of a 1964 comedy starring Marlon Brando and David Niven, Bedtime Story. The remake was developed to star David Bowie and Mick Jagger following the success of their “Dancing in the Streets” collaboration. Screenwriter Dale Launer pitched the idea to the two rockstars who were receptive, though they fell out of the project when it seemed there might a snag with the rights. However, Launer was able to discover that the rights reverted back to the original screenwriters Stanley Shapiro and Paul Henning. Dale Launer gets into the extensive backstory of Dirty Rotten Scoundrel’s development in a new interview which is just one of the special features on the Shout! Factory Blu-ray, which also includes a vintage featurette, trailers, as well as audio commentary by director Frank Oz.
Though it’s easy to fantasize about what Dirty Rotten Scoundrels would’ve looked like with two rock ‘n’ roll icons in the leading roles, the reality is that everything worked out regardless. It’s a perfectly cast film. The dynamic between Martin and Caine is electric on the screen. Caine is able to bring a sense of class to his conman while Martin is able to go bigger and louder, maximizing the comedy through the force of his obnoxiousness. And yet the best performance in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels belongs to the late great Glenne Headly. As Janet Colgate she brings a vulnerability to her trusting character, a soft-spoken and sympathetic mark for our eponymous scoundrels. Of course, those who have seen the film know about its glorious twist, one that makes Headly’s performance earlier in the film even better as all the layers to her own façade are revealed.
Dirty Rotten Scoundrels endures because it’s such a perfect mixture of impeccable casting, deft direction, and absurd scenarios. A remake entitled The Hustle is slated to come out later this year, and the cast and crew behind that project have their work cut out for them as Steve Martin, Michael Caine, and Glenne Headly each left an indelible mark on their characters. This is the second superb edition of a classic comedy starring Steve Martin to be released by Shout! Factory in recent months following their equally spectacular edition of The Jerk. Here’s hoping that Shout! has a third Steve Martin edition in the works as his collaboration with Frank Oz on Bowfinger is just dying for a glossy new special edition. For the time being I’ll happily settle for the devious games on display in the comedy classic Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.
Dirty Rotten Scoundrels
A comedy classic of conmen on the French Riviera, Shout! Factory unleashes the comedy hijinks of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels on Blu-ray with a collector’s edition boasting a gorgeous new transfer of the devious film starring Steve Martin and Michael Caine.