Remakes are usually very controversial. I remember a few years ago an intense discussion on a screenwriters message board where we concluded the only good reason for doing a remake is when the original film isn’t that great but has a strong basic premise.
Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is exactly that kind of remake. The 1964 film starring David Niven and Marlon Brando it was based on, Bedtime Story, has been pretty much forgotten. The 1988 film, starring Michael Caine and Steve Martin, was modestly successful when it opened in theaters, but over time has become regarded as one of the better comedies of the 1980s. It’s certainly one of my favorites.
The plot is basically the same as the original (except for a neat twist that I will not reveal). Lawrence Jameson (Caine) is a debonair con man who bilks rich American women visiting the French Riviera. He has heard of another successful con artist working around Europe known as “The Jackal” and worries about being supplanted.
When he encounters another con man, the inept Freddy Benson (Steve Martin), he tries to have him run out of town. Instead, Freddy insists that Lawrence teach him the tricks of the trade. Together they have a great deal of success conning women into believing they are deposed royalty who need to raise money to arm rebels and retake their country.
When Freddy wants to strike out on his own, Lawrence insists he leave town. Freddy proposes a competition to see who has to leave. They agree the first to get $50,000 from an American heiress named Janet Colgate (Glenn Headley) gets to stay.
I don’t want to reveal too much of the plot, as it’s delightful to watch the two con artists try to outdo each other. Lawrence feels some unusual pangs of guilt because unlike most of his previous marks, Janet is young and naïve. Instead, he tries mostly to keep Freddy from conning Janet.
I was stunned to find out that Michael Caine was not the first choice to play Lawrence. In fact, the film came about because Mick Jagger and David Bowie were looking for a project to star in together. It was screenwriter Dale Launer who suggested the remake of Bedtime Story, However, both stars went on to do other projects. The part of Lawrence was offered to John Cleese, then his Monty Python co-star Michael Palin, who both turned down the role. Caine was actually late in the running for the part. (Bizarrely, Richard Dreyfuss was briefly considered for Lawrence.)
It now seems a no-brainer to cast Caine as the suave Lawrence. He’s perfect as a man who cultivated a cultured persona in order to bilk corrupt women out of their money. Steve Martin is also a perfect foil. (I’ve seen clips of Bedtime Story and, honestly, watching Brando play Freddy is kind of painful.) It’s a shame they never found another project to do together because I love their chemistry. The late and lamented Headley rounds out the trio of main characters and also gets to show comedic range in what initially seems like a cliched role.
Frank Oz, who is best known as the voice of Cookie Monster and Yoda, is in my opinion a very underrated director. Using the breathtaking French Riviera location to full advantage, he allows his actors to shine in the comedic scenes.
Somehow Oz and the actors found a way to make what was originally kind of cringe-worthy into something delightful to watch. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is a triumph of perfect casting, most of all Caine as the urbane con artist.