Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988): A Tale of Two Thieves

In 1964, a most unusual film was released. Starring the improbable duo of David Niven and Marlon Brando, Bedtime Story is a comedy about rival con men who fight for territory by placing a bet on who can extract $25,000 from Shirley Jones's heiress first. Twenty-four years later, Bedtime Story was remade as Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, a riotous film that boasts the talents of Michael Caine and Steve Martin.


Surprisingly, the similarities between the two movies are many. The script is kept largely intact, right down to the French Riviera setting and the characters' names. The largest difference, of course, is the cast. The appearance of Brando in such an outrageous comedy doing such outlandish, hilarious things is the main reason why I find Bedtime Story so odd. I mean, this is a role that comedic legend Steve Martin would reprise! And they're doing practically the same schtick! It's just too wild.

Lawrence Jamieson (Niven/Caine) is an elegant, cultured thief who steals money from wealthy women by pretending to be a prince from a war-torn country. Freddy Benson (Brando/Martin) is a small-time con man with sex on the brain and a perpetually ill "grandmother" who needs an expensive operation. When Benson starts to move in on Jamieson's territory of the French Riviera town Beaumont-sur-Mer, Jamieson devises a way to get rid of him. Unfortunately, Benson finds out what the older man's game is and realizes just how prosperous his scamming could be. He blackmails Jamieson into taking him on as an apprentice, but his role in Jamieson's cons is less than glamorous as he pretends to be Ruprecht, Jamieson's crude, bizarre, and mentally challenged brother.


Although he succeeds at scaring off Jamieson's conquests after they've scored their money, Benson isn't given a cut of the profits. Upset, he threatens to stick around Beaumont-sur-Mer, so Jamieson makes him a deal: whoever can get a certain amount of money out of a mutual target first gets to stay. Their mark? Janet (Jones/Glenne Headley), a beautiful heiress with a heart of gold.

To win over Janet, Benson pretends to be a heartbroken soldier confined to a wheelchair after experiencing the mental trauma of seeing his fiancée with another man. When he claims that the only person who could cure him is the pricey psychiatrist Dr. Shauffhausen, Jamieson steps in as the doctor, giving him plenty of opportunities to torture Benson. Which thief will triumph?

Although the 1964 film is intriguing and funny, I must say that the 1988 version takes the cake. It's great to see Niven and Brando battle it out as smooth criminals, but it's incredibly delicious to watch Caine and Martin cleverly and endlessly one-up each other. Jamieson and Benson couldn't be more different and the actors wholly embody that. Benson is silly, vulgar, and unscrupulous. All he cares about is money and sex. ("Don't you ever have an emotion that originates above the waist?" "No!") Jamieson, however, has more of a heart. He definitely enjoys his dishonest work, but he still has a moral compass. "Freddy, the women I deal with are carefully screened," he remarks. "They're wealthy and corrupt. I never take advantage of the poor or the virtuous."

Like their characters, Caine and Martin are distinctly dissimilar. Whereas Caine is a stylish, classy holdover from the last days of classic Hollywood, Martin is a madcap oddball with a brilliant, creative brain. Together, they make the script feel sharper and funnier. They're doing and saying the same things as Niven and Brando, but they bring a freshness and a spontaneity to the film that can't be ignored.

Caine relished playing Jamieson and you can tell. The
glee he takes in making Benson miserable is hilarious, but he also has this soft, chewy center that reminds you he is still a good person. If I was getting tricked out of my fortune, I'd want Lawrence Jamieson to be the one to do it. (Actually, I'd really want Cary Grant from To Catch a Thief, but you know what I mean.)

Martin, on the other hand, takes Benson to the extreme and the character is all the better for it. This guy is slimy, greedy, and unafraid to look foolish to get what
he wants, even if it is just a $20 bill. You understand why Jamieson does his best to get him out of town. However, as a viewer and not someone who has to personally deal with him, Benson's actions are pure gold, whether it's wearing an eye patch and carrying a trident as Ruprecht or lying about his dear, dying grandmother. Simply put, Martin sells the hell out of Freddy Benson.


Aside from Caine and Martin, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels has one other major advantage over Bedtime Story: its ending. (Spoilers for both films in this paragraph!) In the original version, Freddy reforms and marries Janet. He doesn't seem pleased about it at all and the script leans into the "nagging wife" stereotype almost immediately. It's a weak finish and it ultimately makes Janet seem like a fool. I mean, she actually forgives this guy? DRS corrects this wonderfully by revealing that Janet is an exceptional con artist, too. She outsmarts everyone, steals $50,000 from the men, and in the final scene, she shows up to include the guys in her latest scheme, which they're all too happy to be a part of. It's a marvelous move, one that gives Glenne Headley's fabulous performance an extra layer and makes the men's sleazy actions easier to take.

The screenplay for Bedtime Story was by none other than Stanley Shapiro (Lover Come Back, Pillow Talk) and Paul Henning (Lover Come Back, creator of The Beverly Hillbillies). To update the script for DRS, Dale Launer (My Cousin Vinny) was brought in. The finished product is exactly what a remake should be: faithful to the original, but able to stand on its own two feet, too. With its impeccable cast and fine direction from Miss Piggy himself, Frank Oz, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is excellent, vivid fun that has no problem stealing laughs.


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This is my entry to the "It Takes a Thief" Blogathon, hosted by Moon in Gemini. Slink on over there and check out the goods here.

Also, if you want to see Bedtime Story (which I do recommend!), you can find it on YouTube here. The quality isn't the best, but it's still watchable. It's also the only way you can see the movie, unless you have a device that can play region 2 DVDs.

Comments

  1. There you go! If you are going to remake an older film, do it right.

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    Replies
    1. Agreed! I just read that there's currently a remake of this film in production with women in the roles of the con men. Fingers crossed it's a success!

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  2. I like what you said about the remake being faithful to the original, but being able to stand on its own two feet. I LOVE the ending of the remake – when I first saw this film, I didn't see that ending coming. It was a delightful surprise.

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    Replies
    1. It surprised me, too. That ending is just so perfect for this film. It really makes me wish that the original had thought of doing it. Thanks for reading, Ruth!

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  3. I ADORE this movie. I never saw it in a theater, but did see the Broadway musical it was based on and was amazed by the reaction by the audience to the big reveal at the end! Yes, it's a far superior ending to the story than the original.

    Thanks so much for contributing to the blogathon!

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    Replies
    1. Thanks for hosting! I love this movie, too. The musical version definitely intrigues me. I think I'm going to have to go snoop around YouTube and see what bits of it I can find.

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