Sunday, November 16, 2014

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988)

One of the real delights to come out of Hollywood screen comedy in the past 30 years has been the collaborations of comedian Steve Martin and director Frank Oz. Their finest film -- certainly my favorite, anyway -- is this 1988 comic crime caper, about two con men: one a dapper English gentleman-thief (played to perfection by Michael Caine), the other a rather loutish and crude American (Martin) who find themselves as rivals working their confidence schemes in the town of Beaumont-sur-Mer, on the French Riviera. Trying to outwit each other, the men make a bet that whichever one can successfully scam the fortune of a newly-arrived, naive young woman from the Midwest (Glenne Headley) will have complete run of the territory, although this task turns out to be far more complicated than either of them had anticipated.

The film feels like a throwback to those continental heist pictures of the '60s, filled with impossibly sophisticated characters and exotic locations. There are also very funny moments of low humor, especially involving Martin's unforgettable impersonation of "Ruprecht the monkey-boy". Although Martin is at his comic peak here, Michael Caine very nearly steals the film from him, as the suave, elegant crook -- the kind of role that David Niven specialized in years earlier.* It's great fun watching them match wits, trying to one-up each other in surprising and unexpected ways. Oz has to be given much credit for keeping the proceedings reined in enough that they never go too far, never disrupting the tone or style he has achieved so well. His impeccable gift for directing comedy has never been better served than it is here. Certainly one of the best comedies of the decade.

*Upon further research, I learned that this film was indeed a remake of a 1964 Universal comedy, THE BEDTIME STORY, which indeed starred David Niven in the role played by Michael Caine here.

No comments: