Movie review: ‘Dirty Rotten Scoundrels’

drsI really enjoy “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” not only because of the quality and work of the actors, but also because it is a wonderful example of how a film can have few profanities, basically no violence and a nice reliance on characters to be successful. Comedy does not always have to have puerile antics spiced with naughty behavior to be a winner – although such films have a lot going for them. So, with “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” you get a story is solid and, while contrived, doesn’t make you feel you have to suspend all your disbelief to accept it. As I’ve written before: see it if you haven’t; see it again if you have.

‘Dirty Rotten Scoundrels’
(1988; 110 minutes; rated PG; directed by Frank Oz and starring Steve Martin, Michael Caine and Gleanne Headley)


(NOTE: I updated this review with expanded opinion; fixed some typos; and updated links on Jan. 3, 2015.)

It’s not always easy for top-shelf stars to share a spotlight. Individually Steve Martin and Michael Caine have long proven they can carry a film. Put both together? It turned out to be no problem for these two pros as they play off each other perfectly in “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.”


Although the opposites attract here for a different reason than the old Paula Abdul song, Martin as “Freddy Benson” and two-time Oscar winner Caine as “Lawrence Jamieson” wind up with their fates intrinsically linked after each discovers the other is a con man. Martin wants to poach some of Caine’s territory in southern France; Caine wants to keep him out; and it winds up with Martin in competition with Caine for the right to keep the territory.

At the same time, an anonymous con artist known only as “The Jackal” is in the same vicinity. Then, Caine ostensibly begins to train Martin to sophisticated ways to better steal from women as a way to pay for keeping silent to authorities about Caine’s ongoing hustles.

The film is a remake of 1964’s “Bedtime Story” with Marlon Brando and David Niven playing, respectively, the Martin and Caine roles. The names are basically the same (except the remake insert’s an “i” in Caine’s character’s name) but the plot has been tweaked a bit. The “Janet Colgate” character here was originally “Janet Walker” played by Shirley Jones.

If slapstick and over-the-top comedy is to your liking, then some of Martin’s work here will satisfy you. He is sharp, hilarious beyond funny and utterly convincing in each of the personas he adapts as a con man. He is especially funny in one scam (Caine specializes in fleecing rich women) where he plays “Ruprecht” the daft sidekick of Caine who scares the women away. Watch this scene a couple of times and you’ll be in stitches each one even more than the one before (“Oklahoma! Oklahoma! Oklahoma!”).

Although he hasn’t won (or been nominated for) an Oscar, Martin has had a glorious career including in no particular order: “The Man With Two Brains” (“Into the mud, scum queen,” he tells Kathleen Turner), “Cheaper By the Dozen” and its sequel (click here my review of the sequel) and, possibly most recognized from “Father of the Bride” (click here for my review) and its sequel.

At 12 years older than Martin, Caine cannot keep up with the physical comedy – besides, such work has never been Caine’s forte. However, he’s simply terrific here and is his usual suave, smooth and sophisticated self and seemingly remains one step ahead of Martin at all times. He’s got something of a conscience in his character and, like Martin, can change persona in a split second. Caine’s best scene is when Martin, who’s pretending to be a paraplegic, seeks an elite psychiatrist. Caine overhears and becomes the “psychiatrist.” His “stringent” test to make sure Martin is wheelchair-bound is just as funny as the “Ruprecht” scene.

Caine is very comfortable in playing within duo roles such as “The Man Who Would Be King” with Sean Connery and “Secondhand Lions” with Robert Duvall. He has also been in “The Dark Knight” as well as “The Eagle has Landed” (click here for my review), “A Bridge Too Far” (click here for my review) to branching out in roles in films such as “Miss Congeniality” and “Austin Powers in Goldmember.”

The center of the boys’ attention is Glenne Headly as “Janet Colgate,” who has won a prize on TV is vacationing in Europe. Martin and Caine, in order to settle their dispute, agree that they will fleece her out of $50,000: the one who does it stays and the other must leave the territory. So Headly becomes the object of their greed.

Headly, who recently a nice turn as “Capt. Stotlemeyer’s” wife in TV’s “Monk,” isn’t everything she appears: sweet, naïve and wonderful. Headly navigates her way through the role here with the ease of the acting veteran she is now but was just developing then. It’s a lot of fun watching her develop through the final reel. She’s quite an actor.

In her best role to date, Headly played “Susan Parish” in “2 Days in the Valley” (click here for my review) and has also been in “Dick Tracy” and a string of other TV roles. Although not an Oscar-winner, Headly has twice been nominated for an Emmy including for “Lonesome Dove” the year after “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.”

Director Frank Oz must get a lot of the credit as it would have been easy to fumble this one. Oz has the skill to manage two major stars as well as keep an intelligent script on tack. He is very versatile having directed “What About Bob?” and “Death at a Funeral” as well as having 118 acting credits including video game voices, voices on animated TV shows as well as in movies such as “Spies Like Us.”

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” has nice plot twists and turns and Martin and Caine working to one up each other at every turn is a delight and done with panache by Oz. The climax at an airport delivers a nice final twist and the denouement another nice surprise with its on funny secondary twist.

You just cannot go wrong here.

A very minor trivia note: The trailer for the film shows Martin pushing an elderly woman off a seawall into the water, but the scene doesn’t appear in the theatrical cut of the film (I haven’t seen if it was included in an extended cut – if an extended cut has ever been released).

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” was the 24th ranked film at the U.S. box office in 1988 with $42 million in receipts, according to Box Office Mojo. The No. 1 film of the year was “Rain Man” with $172.8 million. Films from that year that I have reviewed include “Betrayed” (No. 39 with $25.8 million – click here for my review) and “Twins” (No. 5 with $111.9 million – click here for my review) with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito.

Assorted cast notes (via

  • The Oscar-nominated Barbara Harris (for “Who is Harry Kellerman and Why is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me” with Dustin Hoffman) plays “Fanny Eubanks,” one of the victims. Harris does a competent job. She has also been in the original “Freaky Friday” as the mom and “Grosse Point Blank” in a much smaller role (click here for my review).
  • Casting choices are crucial and Eddie Murphy passed on the character played by Martin (it would have made an interesting difference), plus Martin at one point was going to be “Jamieson” and Kevin Kline was going to be “Benson.” Kline is remembered for “Silverado” (click here for my review) and “Dave” (click here for my review).
  • One casting choice that audiences should rejoice over is that Headly was selected over the wooden and basically talentless Sean Young, who turned it down to be in “The Boost.” Thanks, Sean, I’m glad you didn’t take the chance to spoil this one.
  • Finally and directly from “The scene where Steve Martin is posing with the bikini-clad women on the beach was shot twice. For the American release, the women all had their bikini tops on. For the European release, director Frank Oz filmed the same scene with the women topless. Oz states in the DVD commentary that when he commanded the women to remove their tops, he felt like the most powerful man in the world.”

© Chuck Curry and A Gator in Naples, 2014-2016.
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