Saturday, December 14, 2013

Cinematic Sleight of Hand

"I think it's time she met ... ze prince."

Michael Caine ("Dirty Rotten Scoundrels")

Most of humanity, I suppose, falls into one of two categories — those who are naive and trusting and those who take advantage of the ones who are naive and trusting.

I believe there are degrees of both of these conditions. No one is either all bad or all good. Well, maybe a few are, but not many.

Most of the folks who are naive and trusting do manage to balance those tendencies with a healthy share of skepticism, but there are some who, like Charlie Brown, will always try to kick the football, knowing full well that Lucy will pull it away at the last minute.

And, while most of the people who take advantage of others don't do so routinely and often feel guilty when they do, there are the Lucys of the world who seize upon such opportunities virtually as a reflex action — and with no more remorse than one typically shows when swatting flies.

"Dirty Rotten Scoundrels," which premiered 25 years ago today, was about the extremes.

There was the ongoing struggle for local supremacy between two con artists, the urbane con man Michael Caine and the arrogant and a bit rough–around–the–edges hustler played by Steve Martin. In the seemingly gullible category was Glenne Headly, ostensibly a prize winner on a once–in–a–lifetime international vacation — set against the backdrop of the French Riviera, which did lend it a kind of "To Catch a Thief" aura.

But Cary Grant and Grace Kelly were never as funny.

For awhile, Caine was cast as a teacher, guiding Martin in the subtle ways of sophisticated con artistry. But he struck out on his own when he realized that Caine and the rest of his merry band were benefiting while he was doing all the work and receiving none of the profits from it.

That was a conclusion that wasn't hard to reach. His performances as, primarily, Ruprecht (the mentally challenged "Monkey Boy," as Martin sneeringly called the character) were intended to frighten off the wealthy marks that Caine targeted once their money had been taken; after that mission was accomplished, the money was divided between Caine and his associates. Martin received nothing — but knowledge.

There was a third unseen con artist known only as "the Jackal." The Jackal was said to have been preying on wealthy folks in the area. He was regarded, to put it mildly, as unwelcome competition.

Initially, Caine mistook Martin for the Jackal. That was why Caine tried to scare Martin away from his corner of the Riviera, and he was briefly successful.

But it eventually occurred to Caine that there simply wasn't enough room in his corner of the Riviera for both of them so the two of them devised a bet. The first to con Headly (believed to be a wealthy heiress) out of $50,000 could stay. The other had to leave permanently.

And the race was on.

Near the end of the movie, the con artists discovered that Headly was really the Jackal — after she had conned the two of them — and, most likely, the rest of the audience. It was probably the best sleight of hand I've seen at the movies since "The Sting."

It was neatly done.