Toronto has been the Gobi Desert for this classic movie lover. No Turner Classic Movies on cable, and a paucity of revival houses. I don't think a week-long film festival once a year makes up for no Film Forum and no TCM.
Their public channel does show some good movies, however (largely uncut, too, so thank you, Canadian government), and last night Dirty Rotten Scoundrels was on. I don't think I have seen this one since it was released in 1988. The 80s will not be remembered as a golden (or even a bronze) decade for moviemaking, but time has been good to this film. Glenne Headley's outfits no longer seem adorably chic, but that happens with movies when less than a couple of decades have elapsed since their release. In ten years perhaps those shoulder pads won't seize me with the urge to balance tea trays on them.
Despite Hannah and Her Sisters, the 1980s weren't Michael Caine's best decade. Some of his movies (The Hand! why, Michael? why?) are so bad they can't even be watched for their camp value. There were exceptions, though, like Mona Lisa, and he gives a wonderful performance as a high-end con man in Scoundrels. He has superb timing and reactions. When Steve Martin is doing one of his flashy comic turns, watch Caine go along with it. The famous scene comes when Martin, having joined forces with Caine to fleece a rich lady mark, plays a spectacularly insane man-child named Ruprecht. Martin gets the huge laughs here, but Caine sets up the moments perfectly. And Caine has one of the most delicious lines in the film's celebrated conclusion.
Scoundrels owes a lot to Ernst Lubitsch's masterpiece Trouble in Paradise, with a sleek European setting, haute sophisticate dialogue ("To be with another woman, that is French. To be caught, that is American") and a similar story of two criminals competing to rip off a wealthy American. The movie that Scoundrels remakes, however, is Bedtime Story, a 1964 comedy starring Marlon Brando and David Niven. I haven't seen the original, but a glance at various sources convinces me I haven't missed much.
That brings up remakes, and whether they should be allowed to happen, or outlawed by the Geneva Conventions. In his autobiography, John Huston says the ideal subjects for remakes are not classics, but movies that had good elements (engaging source material, great story and setting) that didn't work on screen. Huston cited his own Roots of Heaven (where, among other catastrophes, he had to cast Darryl Zanuck's mistress in a pivotal role) as a good remake candidate. Scoundrels fits these criteria nicely.
Others have noted that in the days before movies were shown on television or available on video, it made some sense to remake even a classic film for a new audience. Now we can see any number of great films when we please (and here the Siren genuflects toward the Criterion Collection and Ted Turner). So is there any remaining justification for remakes?
Obviously, if the idea is "Let's cast that L.A. Law chick in the Harlow Dinner at Eight part!" the answer is "For the love of God, NO." Ditto any story conferences that begin, "Hey, you know who reminds me of Cary Grant? Mark Wahlberg, that's who."
There have been some brilliant remakes of good movies, however, so I can't bring myself to plead for their extinction. The 1959 version of Imitation of Life, for instance. The 1934 version is beautiful and touching, but Douglas Sirk's remake is the one that scalds us with its take on American hypocrisy about race. Gosford Park isn't an outright remake of Rules of the Game, but it probably wouldn't exist without that illustrious ancestor, and the Altman movie has great merit in its own right. I have no definitive answer to the remake quandary, then, except perhaps "Cast Michael Caine, not Mark Wahlberg."
One last note about Scoundrels. I spent a lot of time working behind a vintage store's jewelry and accessory counter in the 80s, and I sold Glenne Headley a couple of items that were used in the film. I report happily that the accessories still look darling.