Pretty Awesome Scoundrels

I recently watched a movie about a smart, lying, double-crossing, two-faced woman, and she was not called a bitch. This is such an incredible thing that it merits its own post.

The movie is Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, a Michael Caine/Steve Martin vehicle that plays to each of their strengths perfectly. Michael Caine gets to be a genteel know-it-all, and Steve Martin gets to be an obnoxious loudmouth. They are both con men, although Caine works only among the upper crust and does very well for himself, whereas Martin considers himself well off when he cons a woman out of twenty bucks. The entire movie consists of Caine trying to get Martin out of his small French Riviera town, so he can go back to working it by himself, conning rich women out of their jewels and pocketbooks by pretending to be a prince in need of funds to battle communists in his home country. Hilarity ensues. (No, really, it’s very funny.) The main plot unfolds when they bet that the first one to get $50,000 out of Glenne Headly, an American heiress, wins the rights to stay in Beaumont-sur-Mer, and the loser leaves town.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

Hide your valuables, ladies, the charm offensive is on

*SPOILER ALERT* The problem is, the heiress turns out not to be an heiress, but rather a woman who is touring Europe as the winner of a contest for a detergent company. She’s promised both men the $50,000, but has to bankrupt herself in order to get it. Caine turns out to have scruples and calls off the bet. Martin, unsurprisingly, has no scruples and wants to continue the bet, or at least amend it — the first man to bed her wins. Caine shows even more character when he says that he won’t try to woo her himself, but he’ll bet against Martin’s success. *NO REALLY, THIS IS THE FINAL TWIST OF THE FILM* Headly declares herself in love with Martin, and visits his bedroom. Caine hears of this and is ready to admit defeat, but then Headly shows up at his house, crying that Martin took her $50,000 and she has nothing now. Caine gives her $50,000 of his own money and takes her to the airport, where she thrusts the bag of his money back in his hands, declaring she can’t take it and running onto the plane. Only then does Martin appear, screaming that Headly took HIS money, and when Caine opens the bag, he finds instead a note from Headly that reveals she knew their con all along and played them the whole time.

Martin’s reaction: “Of all the lousy… She is disgusting! She is lying, deceitful, two-faced. She is conniving and she is dishonest!” Caine’s response: “Yes. Isn’t she wonderful?”

Now, in just about any other Hollywood film from the last fifty years, Martin’s reaction would’ve included “That bitch!” in there somewhere — we’d need to know that she is not just another player in the game, but that her gender makes her a particularly despicable one. She would not be a worthy opponent with individual skills to assess and combat, but a generic enemy in need of crushing. We would have had lingering shots of her legs and chest throughout the film. We probably would’ve seen her get naked in preparation for sleeping with Martin.

Not only that, but the other women Caine and Martin con would be bimbos, sluts, easy marks not just for being rich and stupid but for being rich and stupid in a gendered way. Instead, they are easy marks because, in Caine’s words, they’re “screened. They’re wealthy and corrupt.” His scams always involve women, yes, and they hinge on the need of these particular women for flattery, romance, and a distraction from the stultifying boredom of extreme wealth. But the scams don’t involve sexual humiliation, or dick-waving bragging afterward, or even stripping the women of all their material wealth. Caine takes a large amount of money, possibly after a mutually satisfying sexual liaison, and then slips away. And when things go badly, say, for example, when he is robbed of $50,000, he does not blame the woman who played him, or call her a bitch for outsmarting him, or plot revenge. No, he calls her wonderful, seeing her as an equal, a great challenger to his title as master con artist of the Riviera.

The movie even ends with Martin put firmly in place. Unlike Caine, he did try to degrade Headly by betting on his ability to conquer her sexually. The I-bet-I-can-screw-her-oh-wait-now-I-love-her-so-I-will-be-honorable-and-at-the-last-minute-not-continue-in-my-lie-and-take-her-clothes-off-but-it’s-cool-because-that-one-moment-of-restraint-is-enough-to-convince-her-of-my-love-so-she’ll-totally-screw-me-later-so-the-moral-of-the-story-is-I-get-laid-either-way trope is so tired, and it was refreshing to see it turned inside out here. Not only does Martin not get with Headly, and not only does she not fall in love with him, but she steals his money and leaves him naked in a hotel room. And at the end of the film, when she returns to the two men to pull them into working a con with her, she introduces Caine by name and has him talk as an integral part of the con, but then introduces Martin — “he’s a mute.” Caine was going to dupe her out of her money but not her dignity. Martin was going for whatever he could get, and what he got was shut the hell up. Fantastic.

The remarkable thing about Headly’s deception is that the movie is clear that she does this not because all women are evil, or cold-hearted, or only in it for the money, but because she is the same creature as these men, a brilliant liar who lives for the con. I don’t know how you feel about movies based on crooks swindling hard-earned money out of honest folks, but I love them. Con movies — Trouble in Paradise, The Sting, etc. — are delightful works of sparkling wit, fine-tuned plot, and great reaction shots. Morals shmorals, give me Paul Newman’s nose-scratching signal any day. This is one of the few films I know of that is so devoted to the wonder of the con that it lets women play too. And that’s pretty awesome.

3 thoughts on “Pretty Awesome Scoundrels

  1. I love this movie!! And the broadway version which stared John Lithgow.

    I think you should check out the British movie Peter’s Friends. It is a variation on the Big Chill, but in more of a play format. Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh. Totally not relevant to this post, but since we are discussing movies.

  2. Pingback: Total Recall: Total Badass Heroine « Stowaway

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