DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS (1988) *** 1/4
Michael Caine plays a suave, elegant gentleman who, with the complicity of police chief Anton Rodgers (a convincing Frenchman for a change), fleeces rich women in the French Riviera town where he resides in luxury. The tricks are so imaginative that they raise Caine from the level of con man to that of a veritable con artist.
Caine's territory is invaded by another scoundrel, small-timer Steve Martin. Martin is uncouth, looks like an unkempt "Europe on Ten Dollars a Day" tourist in sneakers and baggy chinos, acts like a parody of American not-so-innocents abroad. The contrast between the aristocratic, low-key Caine and loud vulgarian Martin is like that between The Prince and The Pauper. But appearances are deceiving: the yokel Martin is a real and present danger to Caine's business.So, when the Brit fails in his efforts to get rid of this menace, a "modus vivendi" must be found...
"DRS" has a wealth of clever situations and twists which keep going at a steady, clippety-clop pace, with nary a dead moment. From the start, the tone of a comic scam is immensely aided by having as Caine's first victim the terrific Barbara Harris. She was the con woman in Alfred Hitchcok's last picture, "Family Plot." Her presence here is a delightful homage to the Master.
There are many more fine in-jokes and references to other movies. You don't have to catch them all to enjoy this film, but connoisseurs could double their pleasure when those parts come up. Caine, while creating a new, original persona, is also obviously a Cary Grant figure ( notably that of "To Catch A Thief," which was also set on the French Riviera). He does an imitation of German-Swiss psychiatrist, a type familiar from older Hollywood farces including Marx Brothers and Hope/Crosby pictures.
Martin produces a simian Jerry Lewis number. The Caine-Martin relationship could remind you of those animated shorts where an indestructible Roadrunner keeps reappearing unexpectedly...
The casting of Caine and Martin was inspired. The chic Britisher is like an aging Don Juan; the dishevelled American, like an aging child. In the film's clever fundamental reversal -- which operates almost like a funny scam on the audience -- the typecast plebeian and Cockney Caine (Alfie, Harry Palmer, etc.) has been turned into a quiet, patrician gentleman.
The changes, however, are not methodical. Martin is still the same old Steve. He retains his familiar wild and crazy character, but at the same time he is made into such a loud, grating interloper, that in the Caine-Martin confrontation our sympathies are with classy Caine.
Since so much of the public's enjoyment hangs on the developments, twists and double-crossings of this movie, I will only mention that the basic plot principle (which works very well ) is that of multiple stings where the con men practice their scams both on outsiders and on each other. Few, if any, of those turns are predictable. You will, for instance, be lulled into the belief that American women (the scoundrels' customary targets) are all simple-minded, provincial an naive creatures, but just you wait!
Another surprise is that the movie is unexpectedly asexual and free of conventional romantic entanglements. It does not deal with men as males and women as females, it is no battle of the sexes but a battle of wits and of steadily escalating inventiveness.
"Dirty Rotten Dirty Scoundrels" has three scriptwriters, of whom two were the scenarists of "Bedtime Story." This fact alone should normally guarantee a pedestrian remake. Remarkably though, the way in which the 1964 text was rewritten is appealingly fresh. And while physically (with genuine location sets and crisp photography) the film is an update to the end of the 1980s, in spirit it is a return to the buoyant, airy and good-humored movies of the 1930s.