Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Fresh Tales of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

Why do we all enjoy rogues so much—except when they’re taking advantage of us? Over the weekend I finally caught up with an oldie but goodie: the 1988 comedy, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. In this droll farce set along the sun-kissed beaches of the French Riviera, Michael Caine plays what is essentially the David Niven part. (Niven took on a highly similar role in the highly similar Bedtime Story, from 1964.) Caine plays a suave English “gentleman” who, with help from the local constable and hotel concierge, lures wealthy female tourists into entrusting him with their money and valuables. In the eyes of his selected pigeons, he’s a prince in exile, quietly trying to finance the popular uprising that will help him reclaim his throne, and they flock to press their jewels into his waiting hands.

Enter a rival of sorts, one who threatens to beat him at his own game. He’s Steve Martin, playing a brash American who uses tales of a dying grandmother to extract money from vulnerable women. When he discovers the elaborate con that Caine has going, he becomes an instant disciple, leading to some ludicrous scenes in which Martin (posing as Caine’s idiot brother) can only be said to emulate Jerry Lewis at his most exasperating. Obviously, this is my least favorite part of the film. But soon the men’s relationship turns into a lively battle of wits, with the two of them vying to see who can be first to extract $50,000 from a bubbly young American soap queen (Glenne Headley). Naturally a twist ending brings the proceedings to a satisfying close.

Of course Hollywood has given us many notable movies about con men (and con women – let’s not forget Barbara Stanwyck in the 1941 Preston Sturges classic, The Lady Eve.)  Among everyone’s favorites is the 1973 Oscar winner, The Sting, in which Paul Newman and Robert Redford pull off a magnificent con via a phony high-stakes betting parlor. I’m also partial to 1990’s The Grifters, which introduced me to the slippery talents of director Stephen Frears and actress  Annette Bening. Lawrence Turman, soon to produce the classic The Graduate, got his start as a solo producer with The Flim-Flam Man, a 1967 comedy starring George C. Scott as a con artist plying his trade in the byways of the American South. Tom Hanks’ straight-arrow FBI man chases down Leonardo DiCaprio’s gifted grifter in another favorite of mine, Spielberg’s 2002 Catch Me if You Can.

Like Catch Me If You Can, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels found additional success as a Broadway musical. An even more famous musical about a con man is an American classic, The Music Man, in which a Midwestern traveling salesman lines his pockets while claiming to be assembling boys’ marching bands. When caught, Professor Harold Hill admits that even he is fooled by his own high-flown rhetoric: “I always think there’s a band, kid.” This sense of a liar caught up in his own lies seems to fit the swindler who’s at the center of Dean Jobb’s rollicking work of historical nonfiction,  Empire of Deception. In 1922, Chicago financial whiz Leo Koretz was being feted by the socially-prominent investors in his Bayano Syndicate, which proposed to extract great sums of oil from a cache he’d discovered deep in the jungles of Panama. Only problem: oil had never been found in this out-of-the-way location. Eventually, Koretz left town, changing names and occupations as he skipped back and forth across the Canadian border. Jobb, a Canadian professor of journalist, has tracked down the whole lively story What a movie it would make!


  1. Now we're watching HBO's The Inventor, about Elizabeth Holmes: Con Game 101, High Tech version. Plenty of suckers out there yet to fleece...

  2. Thanks for bringing this up, Christine. That HBO trailer is powerful stuff, and I love the subtitle: "Out for Blood in Silicon Valley"