Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988)
Image Entertainment
Cast: Steve Martin, Michael Caine, Glenne Headly

"Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" is a gem of a comedy movie, far one of the most hilarious comedies I have seen in my entire life. We all know that Steve Martin and Michael Caine have a funny moment or two, but teamed up together with director Frank Oz and the movie’s clever script, this team is unbeatable. Lawrence Jamison (Michael Caine) is a stylish, upper-class con man who poses as an exiled prince, raising funds for the freedom fighters of his stricken homelands. Pressing hard on wealthy women’s sentiments, he runs the ultimate scam and takes anything the women are willing to part with for his "noble" cause – cash, checks, jewelry or gambling chips.

One day he meets Freddy Benson (Steve Martin), another scam artist on the way to Jamison’s home turf on the French Riviera to make a few easy bucks. While not afraid of the contender himself, Jamison is afraid the obvious small-time fraud might get caught, cause some fuss within the rich society, and ultimately make his own work considerably harder. Thus he quickly plans to lure Freddy away to Italy. But before long, the pretender is back – and with new information about his "friend", he now poses a real thread to Jamison’s royal cover.

Jamison gives in and decides to educate Freddy, to make him "safe", at least, by teaching him all the details of his profession, hoping to keep Freddy from getting busted. Soon, however, Freddy grows overly confident and decides to try his newly learned lessons in practice… much to Jamison’s dismay. They agree that there is not enough room for both of them in the small holiday resort of the rich and so they strike a wager. The first one to extract $50,000 from their chosen target, wins. The loser has to bite the bullet and leave. They settle on Janet Colgate (Glenne Headly) as their victim, an American "soap queen", supposedly an easy target for both of them. What follows is a determined duel over the naïve woman’s money, one that quickly breaks every ethical and moral rule and escalates into a private war between the contenders.

"Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" bases its humor mostly on the interaction of the two main characters, Jamison and Freddy. "Counteraction" might be the better word to fit it, because every time one of them pulls ahead, the other will desperately try his utmost to regain ground – not necessarily by coming closer to his own goal, but also by attempting to destroy his opponent’s success and damage his credibility. The men set up traps, blatantly take advantage of each other’s weaknesses, sometimes with only sheer luck that comes to their aid. This kind of comedy is completely different from movies such as "Liar, Liar" or Monty Python’s black humor, which mostly rely on funny and/or dumb characters and puns. In "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" the characters themselves are not necessarily funny. They are exceedingly clever, focused, and absolutely serious within the story itself. Seen in the story’s context, with the constant shift in power between the two, they become wickedly funny; the knowledge of their mischief, and the viewer’s malicious pleasure over their misfortune, is what finally makes this movie so brilliant.

It takes a lot of skill to create a comedy that walks the line as well as this one, and I cannot think of a single scene in the movie that did not work. This is partly due to the excellent script and Frank Oz’s purposeful direction, but mostly through Steve Martin’s and Michael Caine’s sizzling chemistry and their convincing and charming portrayal of the two rivaling characters.

Image Entertainment picked up the rights to release "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" from Orion Home Video and they gave the movie a very nice treatment for the DVD transfer. While a little thin on the extras, as many Image titles are, due to the restrictions of their license agreements, the movie’s video transfer is excellent. The picture is sharp with lots of detail and doesn’t exhibit any noise or digital artifacts. The colors are rich and saturated with warm and natural fleshtones throughout, making Michael Ballhaus’ gorgeously captivating photography of the French Riviera jump off the screen; it comes to life to such an extent that you can almost smell the salty, and uniquely spicy air of the Mediterranean. Miles Goodman contributed a stylish and comic music score to this movie, a work that nicely fits in the overall atmosphere of mischief and deceit, yet without giving away hints or overly exaggerating certain scenes. It is very well balanced and perfectly matches the film. It is presented in a <$DS,Dolby Surround> soundtrack on this disc, with only an English language track and English captions. A French or Spanish soundtrack and subtitles are sorely missing on this disc, which I personally think will be a big drawback to the release’s otherwise huge appeal. I think it is inexcusable to release any DVD in the North American territory without either French or Spanish soundtracks and at least some subtitles. If it is a license problem, please, Image, re-negotiate your contracts for the future to make sure that everyone can enjoy jewels like this movie.

Well, what can I say? I have had a great time watching "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" and I am sure you will too. The movie is a riot, made me chuckle and smile through every one of its 110minutes and the well-produced DVD makes it an even more attractive movie. Take some vivid colors and a beautiful landscape, capture them with the eyes of one of the world’s best cinematographers, throw in a gorgeous soundtrack, and top it off with a team of serious comedians, and you might end up with an exceedingly stylish and funny comedy that easily knocks out the competition… "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels"