Dirty Rotten Scoundrels manages to have a full, three act plot–with all the twists necessary for a confidence picture–but it also is constantly funny. Oz juggles his two leads but mostly relies on Steve Martin for the more immediate humor. With Michael Caine, Oz and the screenwriters tend to be a lot quieter… letting the humor build. Martin gets the gags.
Deciding the better performance–between Caine and Martin–is difficult. Caine has a lot more to do in terms of range, but Martin has to be doing something almost every frame of film.
I’ve seen Scoundrels before, but I never fully appreciated the film’s successes. For example, Oz uses montages a couple times to hurry the plot along and each scene in the montage is hilarious, but the film never pauses to laugh at itself. It never loses momentum, even during the more outrageous gags.
And Scoundrels has a lot of potential speed bumps. The first act alone has a micro-three act structure built into it, as the focus transitions from Caine to Martin (it shifts throughout the film). Then there’s the appearance of Glenne Headly, who arrives during the second act. She’s an essential player and is absent during the first act. Actually, Headly probably gives the film’s best performance.
Anton Rodgers and Ian McDiarmid, who both have big parts at the start, slowly fade away. Rodgers in particular has some fantastic scenes. Barbara Harris is great in a small part too.
Scoundrels is outstanding.
Directed by Frank Oz; written by Dale Launer, Stanley Shapiro and Paul Henning; director of photography, Michael Ballhaus; edited by Stephen A. Rotter and William S. Scharf; music by Miles Goodman; production designer, Roy Walker; produced by Bernard Williams; released by Orion Pictures.
Starring Steve Martin (Freddy Benson), Michael Caine (Lawrence Jamieson), Glenne Headly (Janet Colgate), Anton Rodgers (Inspector Andre), Barbara Harris (Fanny Eubanks), Ian McDiarmid (Arthur), Dana Ivey (Mrs. Reed), Meagen Fay (Lady from Oklahoma), Frances Conroy (Lady from Palm Beach), Nicole Calfan (Lady in Dining Car) and Aïna Walle (Miss Krista Knudsen).