There’s a scene in the opening act of Frank Oz’s 1988 comedy, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, that I think about probably once a week.
Steve Martin’s character, the American con man Freddy Benson, is stuck in jail on the French Riviera after being caught scamming a wealthy woman for thousands of dollars. What he doesn’t know is that the police inspector who nabbed him didn’t do so in the name of the law, but rather as the accomplice of the town’s resident scam artist, the dashing Lawrence Jamieson (played by Michael Caine at his most suave). The two hustlers had become acquainted on an earlier train ride, and Jamieson, threatened by the presence of new competition in town, arranged for Benson’s arrest.
The inspector reminds Freddy that, as a vagrant, his prospects for release are quite slim. But Freddy is not a total stranger in town. He insists, “I know somebody here! I met him on a train!” Steve Martin then commences one of the funniest minutes of acting I’ve ever seen: Freddy trying to remember Lawrence’s name. He throws himself around the cell, wringing the bars as if he could fling the memory out of his brain by sheer force. But despite the many bizarre variations he desperately throws out there, he just can’t find the one he’s looking for.
Of course, the police inspector knows exactly the name Freddy is trying to recall the entire time, but he lets the poor man go on for a bit before finally putting him out of his misery. And honestly, I think the payoff from this pause probably gave him more joy than all the bribes he’d taken from Lawrence combined.
As mean as it may sound, I could happily watch Freddy in this agony for another ten minutes — and it’s precisely this permission to delight in his misery that fuels what I have always thought to be one of Steve Martin’s absolute best performances. Since the actor’s 75th birthday took place in August of 2020 (a year when birthdays famously did not count), I took this August as an opportunity to give Steve’s diamond jubilee a celebratory re-do the best way I know how: by revisiting the glitzy shores of Beaumont-sur-Mer and her cast of dirty, rotten inhabitants.
It seems like every acclaimed film or series today centers on an antihero. Now, I have nothing against the Arabellas, Mares, and Fleabags of the world — these characters’ complexities are what make them so engaging and enduring. But sometimes I just want to watch someone with no redeeming qualities, doing bad things. Perhaps the closest option we have today is the RRCU (Ryan Reynolds Cinematic Universe), but even Deadpool is noble in his pursuits from time to time. Fortunately, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels had just the scumbag I was looking for.
Now, that’s not to say that Oz’s comedy never explores a redemption arc — but it’s only for one of its titular scoundrels. Once Freddy gets out of jail, he manages to convince Lawrence to let him stay in France and to teach him his conniving ways. Over their many lessons in hustling, we learn more about the Brit. Yes, Lawrence is a con man, but he is a con man with a code of ethics. He scams with purpose, telling Freddy, “The women I deal with are carefully screened. They’re wealthy and corrupt. I never take advantage of the poor or the virtuous.”
When the two men form a competition to be the quickest one to steal $50,000 from American soap queen Janet Colgate (played by the delightful Glenne Headly), Lawrence’s inner morals begin to get the best of him. He is taken in by Janet’s kindness and integrity — and so shows a bit of his own.
Freddy, on the other hand, couldn’t care less about Janet’s kindness and integrity. The only things motivating him seem to be money and (even more so) the need to be insufferably obnoxious at all times. He knows he’s a jerk, and he takes pleasure in being a jerk — so who better to play him than The Jerk himself?
It is truly a testament to Steve Martin’s charisma that we can handle the depths to which Freddy sinks for a buck and a thrill. From lying to multiple women about his poor, sick, nonexistent grandmother, to posing as a veteran using a wheelchair after losing the use of his legs, the con man engages gleefully in one despicable act after another. But from his very first scene, when he uses a stranger’s charity money to cheerfully order multiple courses and a beer, he seems to be inviting us to hate him for these actions — while making it SO FUN.
Let’s double back on the legs for a second. This is one of the moments where Freddy’s enjoyment of the con really breaks through, letting us laugh at even his most immoral choices. After having gone through the trouble to procure a military uniform and a wheelchair, it would seem that the fraudster is planning to use a tragic battle wound to gain sympathy. But this would be too easy, and not enough fun for our scoundrel. Instead, Freddy fully sobs through telling an utterly unhinged story about the reason for his legs’ numbness. A story that takes place on a televised dance competition, involves Deney Terrio, and has the energy of one of Stefon’s nightclubs.
You simply must admire his commitment to a bit. And not only does Freddy cry at the sight of any dancing couple and maintain his composure when being whacked in the supposedly numb legs, he also brings this same dedication to all of his scams.
Most iconic of these would have to be Ruprecht. In exchange for being reshaped in Lawrence’s dapper image (in the greatest movie makeover scene of all time — sorry, Princess Diaries), Freddy must act the part of the Englishman’s creepy, misbehaved brother. Locked in his own basement cell, Ruprecht’s charge is to frighten away the many women trying to marry Lawrence and whisk him away to Oklahoma or Idaho.
This scene comes close to being disturbing — the premise alone is quite dicey. But again, Steve Martin shapes the performance deftly, with an almost dance-like quality to the havoc he wreaks. You may discover you’re not laughing at Ruprecht, but rather with Freddy as he finds himself free to unleash his inner demon child. I don’t think it would be far-fetched to say that a bit of Ruprecht was injected into the DNA of frequent Steve Martin collaborator Martin Short’s chaotic turn as a diabolical ten-year-old in Clifford.
Unlike Lawrence, Freddy shows absolutely no personal growth after their encounter with Janet. He’s the same louse in the final scene as he was when he first stepped foot on the shores of Beaumont-sur-Mer. But I honestly don’t believe redeeming qualities would be a good look on him — he’s truly at his best when he’s being bad.
As Freddy himself says: “I love me here!” And you know what? So do we.
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