For this edition of Scene Breakdown, we’re going to take a look at a masterful comedic scene: the confrontation of Freddy Benson and Dr. Emil Schaffhausen of the Schaffhausen Clinic in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.
Before we get to our scene, a little backstory:
First, meet Freddy Benson, played by Steve Martin. He’s a tacky American bottom feeder swindling ladies for lunch money on the train from Zurich. There he meets Michael Caine playing Lawrence Jamieson, a con man who has made a fortune by parting fools from their money in the sleepy, fictional Côte d’Azur town of Beaumont-Sur-Mer.
Of course, Freddy doesn’t know this.
Jamieson calls in a beautiful associate to lead Benson away from his hunting ground and send him to Portofino on the Italian Riviera, where he can be someone else’s problem.
But shortly thereafter, Benson rides back into town and must be dealt with.
Sufficiently scared of incarceration and possible castration, Benson tucks tail and runs to flee the country, but when he does he happens upon a wealthy socialite who believes Jamieson is royalty. Thus, Freddy’s eyes are opened. He realizes that Jamieson is a higher evolution of the species and begs to be acculturated in the finer points of the high-end grift.
In an effort to send him off gracefully, Jamieson agrees.
Decorum and culture prove to be a terrible fit for the gauche, brazen Benson, and in their scams he is often relegated to degrading roles, like that of “Ruprecht the Monkey Boy.”
This irks Benson. Though he is eager to score the type of fat cat marks that the stately Jamieson has, he soon tires of the rigidity of the elder man’s training and decides to go it on his own.
The two men strike a bargain: they will pick a mark from the local casino resort and the first one to steal fifty thousand dollars from her will get to keep the golden hunting ground of Beaumont-Sur-Mer as their own.
Enter the mark:
Ms. Janet Colgate, the “Soap Queen of America,” played by the delightful Glenne Headly, who, sadly, passed in 2017.
Martin’s Freddy Benson decides to use his only tool, bullshit, to steal fifty grand from Janet Colgate. He dresses up as an American naval officer in a wheelchair and sidles up to Janet at the roulette table where he proceeds to quickly and loudly lose everything he has.
The dealer informs him that the casino cannot advance him money for his medals, and Freddy blushes and leaves the table in despair, slamming his wheelchair into everyone and wailing at his terrible fate. Peak Steve Martin preposterousness.
Janet Colgate follows him.
Benson tells her that he has a rare psychological injury and that he needs fifty thousand dollars to hire the only person that can cure him: Dr. Emil Schaffhausen of the Schaffhausen Clinic.
That’s when things start to get fun.
Jamieson’s heavy, Andre, the police chief of Beaumont-Sur-Mer, overhears this conversation, and when Janet goes to mail Dr. Schaffhausen a letter…
…she is shocked to find that Dr. Emil Schaffhausen is a guest at the casino! The very man they need to cure Freddy Benson, right there in Beaumont-Sur-Mer! What are the odds?
Michael Caine, now as Schaffhausen, politely rebuffs her and assures her that he will read her letter when he returns to work, trying to chase her off with an auf wiedersehen. But the American Soap Queen won’t be turned away so easily. After much insistence, Schaffhausen agrees to meet Freddy Benson.
Martin’s Freddy, of course, has NO IDEA that his ploy has been intercepted. And thus begins the scene.
Freddy can’t believe it! He’s a genius.
What do we know? The audience knows that Freddy is a crook. The audience knows that Janet is a nice, if gullible person being swindled by Freddy. The audience knows that Jamieson has subverted Freddy’s plan, and best of all the audience knows that Freddy doesn’t know yet.
Now for the big reveal.
Janet returns to her suite where Freddy is busy casing the joint, and calls to him from the door. She tells him to cover his eyes and that she has a surprise for him.
“Who is the one person in the world you’d most like to see right at this moment?”
“I don’t know! I give up!” Says Freddy, smiling.
“Dr. Emil Schaffhausen!” Janet squeals.
And Freddy’s arch-nemesis turns the corner.
“Hello Freddy,” smiles Jamieson.
And then he leans in deep, away from Janet, where only Freddy can see. His eyes are hot with indignation. You thought you could poach on my land?
“I’m here to help you, my boy.” Shaffhausen says, staring daggers into the younger man.
But now comes the real fun.
Schaffhausen can foil this whole debacle just by proving that Freddy is a fraud in front of Janet. That’s the most efficient way to shut this whole thing down.
Thus begins his “examination.”
Schaffhausen removes the shoe and sock from Freddy’s left foot.
“So, you are numb from the waist down? Is that correct?” Schaffhausen confirms.
“Completely numb. No feeling whatsoever?”
“Then you won’t be feeling Mr. Piggy then?” Schaffhausen jokes, playing with Benson’s big toe.
“No.” Freddy laughs, good-natured, but resigned to the difficulty of his condition: This is prime Steve Martin in the zone.
“Tell me if you feel this.” Schaffhausen requests, tickling the bottom of his foot. “Tiggle tiggle tiggle.”
“No.” Freddy admits.
“No? We need to try something else, something a little more…stringent.”
Shauffhausen then rolls up Freddy’s pants to the knee, exposing Freddy’s shins.
And here’s where the great Michael Caine shines. He sets his spectacles on his nose and smiles down at Freddy. Now for the real show.
Freddy tries to cast a laugh toward Janet but he’s worried.
Shauffhausen approaches a tall vase from which he extracts a rapier-length faux-flower. Turning it over to palm the petals, he checks the stem for rigidity and starts to slash it in front of him, gauging the whip.
Whoot whoot! It cuts the air in front of Freddy. His eyes go wide. Oh shit.
This is magnificent. Just magnificent. The tension, the competing motivations, the preconceived notions, the ability to stay in character? They’re all just amazing. And they lead to this wonderful scene, which, by the way, is Michael Caine’s favorite scene in the movie. In one particular interview, years later, he started laughing just thinking about it.
Here it is, enjoy.
If you haven’t ever seen this classic, you’re in for a treat. And if you have, do you remember all of the amazing, inspired twists?
Did you know that the film was originally entitled King of the Mountain and was — this’ll kill you — written to star David Bowie and Mick Jagger to capitalize on the chemistry they showed in the “Dancin’ in the Streets” video? That video is somewhere between ultimate 80s zeitgeist and ultimate 80s cringe-fest but no matter how you slice it, it’s hard to make the mental leap from Mick Jagger’s blouse pockets to: these guys would kill in a grift comedy.
Here’s the afore-mentioned chemistry that led to the Dirty Rotten Scoundrels script:
Aaaaand if that wasn’t painful enough, here’s the same video sans music. Prepare yourselves.
But I can’t do David Bowie like that, so here’s a palette cleanser.
Aaaaah. That’s grand.
Where was I? Ah yes, Michael Caine.
Want more Michael Caine? Here’s what’s currently available for free on Plex. Some damn fine films here.
The Italian Job
The Holcroft Covenant
And there’s some Steve Martin too. It’s not quite Harris K. Telemacher in L.A. Story, but it’s Steve Martin.
Leap of Faith