Follow TV Tropes


Film / Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

Go To

Good guys finish last. Meet the winners.

A 1988 comedy about con artists, directed by Frank Oz and starring Michael Caine and Steve Martin.

Lawrence Jamieson (Caine) is a sophisticated, cultured con artist who preys on rich women visiting the French Riviera, extracting large sums from them voluntarily by masquerading as an exiled prince who needs help to regain his throne. One day, he meets a less ambitious — and far less polished — con artist, Freddy Benson (Martin), who is conning women out of money for lunch and train tickets by masquerading as an impoverished charity worker. Worried that Freddy may interfere with his work after he sees a newspaper article describing the con-work of "The Jackal", and after attempting to train him in culture and conning, Lawrence makes a bet with him: The first of them to con a selected mark out of $50,000 can stay in the area, while the other must leave. The two decide the mark is to be the apparently wealthy socialite Janet Colgate (Glenne Headly). Various complications and hilarities ensue.

A remake of the 1964 film Bedtime Story, which starred Marlon Brando and David Niven. Became a Broadway musical (starring John Lithgow, among others) in 2005. In 2019, the concept was adapted with a Gender Flip into The Hustle starring Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson.

This film provides examples of:

  • Adaptation Expansion:
    • The Musical is extremely faithful to the movie, and one of the only changes that it makes are to give Andre and Ms Eubanks more character development.
    • The movie is very faithful to Bedtime Story, except for adding a new ending. The screenwriters of Bedtime Story even received credit as co-writers of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels because so much of their material was re-used.
  • Adaptation Title Change: Dirty Rotten Scoundrels was adapted from Bedtime Story.
  • And the Adventure Continues: Of a sort. Janet returns to Lawrence and Freddy with a gaggle of rich morons in tow, and tells them she had so much fun conning them that she's decided to let them in on her newest scam. She then takes both their arms and leads them smiling over to the crowd as the credits roll.
  • The Bad Guy Wins: Well, all of the cast are bad guys, but this is a case where the antagonist wins, having Out-Gambitted both the protagonists. (Still, Lawrence is a Graceful Loser).
  • Bastard Understudy: Freddy becomes Lawrence's student at sophisticated con tricks partway through the film.
  • Batman Gambit: Lawrence and Freddy use these extensively in their duel of bastardry, to see who can get $50,000 out of Janet first.
  • The Barnum: Lawrence is this, or at least thinks he is. His introductory song in The Musical is titled "Givin' 'Em What They Want."
  • Between My Legs: When Janet is talking Freddy out of his "suicide attempt" as he's crawling on the beach.
  • Casanova Wannabe: The initial impression that Lawrence and Andre have of Freddy.
    Andre: To be with another woman, that is French. To get caught, that is American.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: A brief mention is made on the train radio of a skilled young con-artist called "The Jackal". Lawrence initially suspects that Freddy is the guy, but he isn't. As it turns out, Janet is The Jackal, and out-smarts both men while getting away scot-free.
  • Chekhov's Skill: Subverted. After demonstrating the skills that Lawrence taught him in the Training Montage, Freddy never uses them again. Justified in that, after that point, they are in competition with each other over whose technique works better.
  • The Con: Lawrence's main scam is a variation on Spanish Prisoner; he plays the Prince himself, and is in exile already (though in desperate needs of funds to finance La Résistance back home) when he meets the mark (usually an unsophisticated, rich, female American tourist). When Steve Martin comes on, Martin takes on the role of the Prince's "special" brother to drive the mark away of her own volition once the money has been obtained. Thus, any unseemly violence (fake though it would be) is avoided entirely. (Caine is almost caught in one scene in the movie where he is recognized by a former mark while working on another one, using another identity, and has to use some fast thinking to prevent both from getting suspicious.)
  • Con Man: Lawrence Jamieson, Freddy Benson, and "Janet Colgate" herself!
  • Dirty Cop: Andre is pretty corrupt; he invades the privacy of visiting tourists, keeps a prostitute on retainer (Claudette, who keeps Freddy on the train), arrests foreigners without cause, and gets a healthy cut from Lawrence's work. He also suggests responding to Freddy's blackmail attempt by having him murdered, promising that he'll arrange for the investigation to be very slipshod.
  • Double Meaning: When Janet gives the briefcase of money back to Lawrence, she tells him "I can't take this. It doesn't belong to me. And I'll always have something from you that means much more". Little does he know that she's speaking the literal truth: the briefcase actually contains Freddie's clothes (which don't belong to her), and she has his money.
  • The Dreaded: Judge Renoux, apparently. It's never said or shown why, but one can guess.
  • Driven to Suicide: Freddy pretends to be suicidal to earn Janet's sympathy.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: Ostensibly, at least. Lawrence Jamieson claims to only target wealthy and corrupt women (and only bilks them out of amounts they could easily afford), and we never see him do anything to the contrary. He is also appalled by Freddy's suggestion that they change the bet to whoever can bed Janet first (though he is willing to bet that Freddy fails in his own bid to do so).
  • Eviler than Thou: Both Lawrence and Freddy think the other is inept as a con-man and attempt to prove they're the better hustler. Once Janet arrives on the scene, she proceeds to show them both how it's done.
  • Evil vs. Evil: A smaller-scale example than most. It starts as a turf-war of sorts between Lawrence and Freddy when Freddy starts plying his trade on Lawrence's traditional stomping grounds, then escalates into a full-blown contest of skill where they both try to see who can con $50,000 out of a wealthy young woman, Janet Colgate, when she shows up. She then turns it into a full-blown Mêlée à Trois by misdirecting both of them and getting away with the same sum of money out of which they were trying to con her.
  • Freudian Trio: Freddie is the id, Janet is the ego and Lawrence is the superego.
  • Funny Background Event: In the first teaser trailer, which contains specially filmed footage not found in the movie. Freddy and Lawrence are slowly strolling down a riverside boulevard. The viewer is likely to notice Freddy pushing the old lady into the water. The viewer is less likely to notice Lawrence pushing a tube of cotton candy into a kid's face.
  • Gentleman Thief: Lawrence may rob these rich women blind (sort of), but he spends it on rare art, ancient wine, and French legacy gardens.
  • Graceful Loser: Lawrence intends to be this when it looks like Freddy has won their wager. He later is this when it turns out that Janet has played them both. Freddy, not so much.
  • Herr Doktor: Lawrence assumes the persona of an Austrian psychiatrist in his attempt to outwit Freddy and trick Janet.
  • The Ingenue: Janet, which is why she's chosen as the mark. Very much Subverted.
  • Kansas City Shuffle: While Freddy and Lawrence are trying to con Janet, she plays along, taking them both for suckers at the climax.
  • Karma Houdini: Neither Lawrence nor Freddy face punishment for their con tricks. Nor, it turns out, does Janet.
  • Meaningless Villain Victory: Lawrence technically wins the bet with Freddy, but lets him stay because, in effect, they both lost.
  • Never Trust a Trailer: Both Lawrence and Freddy are Affably Evil at best, not like they are in the trailer (where they act downright cruel).
  • Noble Male, Roguish Male: Lawrence and Freddy. When Janet enters the picture, it turns into a form of The Gentleman or the Scoundrel.
  • Nonindicative Name: Lawrence and Freddy are both crooks, but neither is really a "dirty rotten scoundrel" at all.
  • Noodle Incident: Just how did Freddy break the butler's VCR?
  • Obfuscating Disability: Freddy poses as a psychosomatically crippled U.S. Navy veteran who needs $50,000 for treatment by the celebrated (fictional) Liechtenstein psychiatrist Dr. Emil Schuffhausen.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: Janet Colgate comes off as a rather dim rich girl. That's before she turns out to be a conwoman who's one step ahead of our two "heroes".
  • Out-Gambitted: Janet plays Lawrence and Freddy against each other, walks away with their money and leaves a semi-gloating letter behind revealing she's the mysterious Jackal.
  • Pair the Spares: Andre and Ms. Eubanks in The Musical.
  • Pragmatic Villainy: Lawrence considers getting rid of Freddy at the start of the film because "A petty poacher shooting at rabbits might scare the big game away." In other words, he doesn't consider Freddy competition, he's just protecting his turf.
  • Pretty in Mink: Janet has a mink that she claims Freddy stole from her, along with most of her possessions, at the end. That was just part of her story to get Lawrence to give her some money.
  • Punctuated Pounding: Lawrence whipping Freddie while acting like it's part of his therapy: "Or My Name Isn't... Doctor! Emil! Schuffhausen! *Beat* The Third!"
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Lawrence stealthily berates Freddy for his lack of sophistication:
    Lawrence: We all have our limitations, Freddy. Fortunately, I discovered that taste and style were commodities that people desired. Freddy, what I am saying is: know your limitations. You are a moron.
  • Red Oni, Blue Oni: Freddy is a hot-tempered Large Ham, and Lawrence is a proper gentleman.
  • Royally Screwed Up: When some heiresses get too close to Lawrence's princely con, he gets Freddie to play a mentally disturbed brother, Ruprecht, to scare them off.
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here: Freddy tries to do this at the very end of the film, but Lawrence and Janet physically drag him back to work on the new con she's cooked up.
  • Small Role, Big Impact: "Lady Fanny of Omaha" is one of Lawrence's many marks — and when Freddy happens to meet her on a plane, he goes back to Beaumont-sur-Mer and the rest of the movie plays out.
  • Snobby Hobbies: Lawrence drags his unwanted protege Freddy to an art show and a garden both to demonstrate how proper gentlemen are supposed to spend their wealth and to try and disgust the boorish Freddy in the hopes that he'll quit his apprenticeship and return to America.
  • Surpassed the Teacher: Lawrence says this of Freddy upon learning that he won the bet. Except he didn't.
  • Think of the Children!: The first mark of the movie uses this line to get Lawrence to accept her gift.
  • This Is Gonna Suck: Freddy's face as Lawrence prepares to run at him and smack his legs from across the room.
  • Throwing Off the Disability: Freddy pretends that Janet has cured his fake disability with The Power of Love.
  • Too Awesome to Use: Lawrence's wine collection which he will never drink because "they're too valuable" and never sell because "they mean too much" to him.
  • Training Montage: Involving upper-class etiquette, with an instrumental version of "Puttin' On The Ritz" playing in the background.
  • Undercover When Alone: Janet goes to mail a letter to Dr. Emil Schuffhausen. Since she knows she is being conned, there would be no reason for her to actually mail a letter to someone who does not exist. But by doing so, she encounters Lawrence who is posing as Schuffhausen.
  • Villainous Friendship: Lawrence and Freddy alternate between having this and being bitter rivals. When Janet comes back at the end of the film, complete with a bunch of new rich morons for the three of them to con together, they wind up having a three-way form of this.
    Janet: Last year I made three million dollars. But your fifty thousand was the most fun. Let's go get 'em.
  • Walking Spoiler: Janet Colgate, in case you didn't guess it, has a humdinger of a secret under wraps, which is the cause of all these spoiler marks. Namely, she is the mystery con-artist known as "The Jackal", and was only playing along with the schemes both Freddy and Lawrence were pulling on her, and walks away with thousands of dollars of their money while sacrificing none of hers.
  • Welcome to Hell: Even funnier when the line is delivered by Emperor Palpatine...
  • Wham Line: "Hello boys. It was fun. I'll miss you. Love, Janet, the Jackal."
  • Worthy Opponent: At the end, Lawrence acknowledges Janet as this.
    Freddy: She's two-faced, she's conniving, and she's dishonest!
    Lawrence: Yes. Isn't she wonderful?
  • Wounded Gazelle Gambit: Freddy's modus operandi. First, he pretends that he needs money for his ailing grandmother. He then plays the role of a paralyzed officer.
  • Xanatos Speed Chess: Both con men are constantly revising their plans, both from the snags that they keep running into and the other's attempt to sabotage their plans. Janet out-chesses them both.
  • You Have GOT to Be Kidding Me!:
    • Freddy's reaction when Lawrence shows him the fine wines and huge garden he spends his money on.
    • The look on Freddy's face whenever Lawrence gains the upper hand. Especially when he shows up as "Dr. Emil Schuffhausen".
    • Epically, Freddy's reaction when he finds out that Janet was the Jackal the whole time.