A mildly funny comedy that would probably seem even funnier today if it hadn't been remade so much more effectively as DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS two decades later. Marlon Brando and David Niven star in the roles played by Steve Martin and Michael Caine, respectively, in the remake. After seeing the later film, one of the best comedies of its decade, it's a rather uncanny experience to see this original version. With the exception of the opening sequences setting up the Freddy Benson character, and the concluding sequence, it matches the plot of the remake virtually scene-for-scene (and often line-for-line). The highlights here are the same as those in the later version: Brando's turn as "Ruprecht", Niven testing the supposedly-paralyzed Brando's legs for any sign of feeling by whipping them mercilessly, their constant scheming to outwit each other, etc.
Yet the best moments from this film can't help feeling like something of a dry run for the remake, where the writers had the benefit of hindsight and were able to mine this earlier film for all of the comic potential that it missed the first time around. A good example of this occurs in the scene where the character of Freddy Benson is jailed on false pretenses and tries to remember the name of Lawrence Jameson, a prominent local resident whom he met earlier on the train. In the original film, Brando (as Benson) recalls the name with only a moment's thought, which serves the plot just fine but completely misses the potential for any laughs. Contrast this with the remake, where Steve Martin turns this scene into one of the comic highlights of the film, as he struggles frantically to remember the name.
Nonetheless, Brando acquits himself surprisingly well in such a silly comic turn, and it's a testament to his versatility that he could so successfully pull off the kind of zany, nutty "jerk" humor that Steve Martin would make so distinctively his own in the coming decades. David Niven was, of course, born to play roles like the suave, elegant gentleman-thief Lawrence Jameson, and practically made a career out of playing such types, especially in these kind of continental comedy capers (see: THE PINK PANTHER). Perhaps because of this, he comes across as rather bored in the role at times, lacking the spirited energy of Michael Caine in the remake. Still, it's a "David Niven role" if ever there was one.
Special mention should be made of Shirley Jones, who shows up about halfway through the film as Janet Walker, the "American Soap Queen" and target of the crooks' scheme. She works quite well with Brando and Niven, bringing the right amount of naivete and charm to the role. Character actress Dody Goodman also has a nice supporting part as "Fanny Eubank of Omaha", one of Niven's unsuspecting victims.
Overall, it's an often amusing and funny little comedy, but is primarily of interest for having inspired a much funnier and successful remake.
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