Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982)

Imagine a 40s Hollywood movie shot in gorgeous black and white, backed by a swelling Miklos Rozsa score and costumed by Edith Head. Add a dream cast featuring Humphrey Bogart, Bette Davis, James Cagney, Barbara Stanwyck, Burt Lancaster, Lana Turner, Vincent Price, Joan Crawford, Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake. Shake well, add a dash of postmodern irony and what you have is Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, a zany comedy that is to Film Noir what Woody Allen’s Zelig (1983) is to the historical docudrama.

The following review is offered as part of the Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme hosted by Todd Mason over at his Sweet Freedom blog and you should head over there to see the many other fascinating titles that have been selected.

“He was staying at the Hotel Ward on 5th Street. It used to be on 8th Street but they’d taken so many rubber cheques it bounced all the way across town.”

While reading David Ashton’s Trick of the Light (reviewed here), I pondered on its combination of real people and events within a fictional story, that now seemingly inevitable aspect of the historical mystery. Because the novel was spun-off from a radio series, I got to thinking how this might also apply to other media, specifically movies. My train of though being what it sometimes is (i.e a bit all over the place!), this consideration led me to think how pioneering novels like the ‘Toby Peters’ series by Stuart Kaminsky and the ‘celebrity sleuth’ books by George Baxt, as well as Theodore Roszak’s Flicker (1991), created mystery fiction from the lives and careers of genuine filmmakers and movie stars. This then took me back (in my mind) to David Thomson’s Suspects (1985), an entertaining if very self-consciously clever book that creates a (meta) narrative entirely derived from Film Noir characters. It suddenly struck me that the cinematic launchpad for this kind of mash-up, where old and new movies are combined to create new narratives, probably started with the release and modest success of the Steve Martin comedy, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid.

It also struck me that the same number of years now separate the release of this film and some of those classic Noirs being featured in the comedy. How time flies … The real trigger in my mind though (funny how one’s brain works, or not) was when recently writing my review of Keeper of the Flame, I remembered that spectacular opening car crash sequence was also used (but uncredited since its is used as stock footage while the main archival clips are all listed by reference to their respective stars during the end titles) for the Martin film. This homage to Film Noir was shot in black and white by the great Michael Chapman (of Raging Bull fame) and released in cinema in 1982 and was the follow-up by Martin and writer-director Carl Reiner to their hit comedy The Jerk. Its basic premise is very simple: in 1946 Los Angeles, hardboiled PI Rigby Reardon (Martin) is hired by the voluptuous Juliet Forrest (Ward) to find out who killed her father. Rigby goes through Forrest’s office and finds two lists, one headed ‘Friends of Carlotta’ and the other ‘Enemies of Carlotta’.  He decides to track down the names on the list and eventually uncovers a Neo-Nazi conspiracy to use one of Forrest’s inventions to destroy the US and create a Fourth Reich. But as with most comedies the plot really isn’t the thing here, rather this is a peg to hang a series of jokes and vignettes which include interjecting the characters into the scenes of real Hollywood movies of the 1940s.

The names on the list will ring a bell with Noir fans of course, such as ‘Swede’ and ‘Kitty Collins’ from The Killers. While Rigby is rifling through Forrest’s office he gets shot in the arm by a hired killer, who turns out to be Alan Ladd, in a clip from This Gun For Hire which has been intercut very successfully with the new footage. The effect is mostly created by shooting Martin in sets dressed to look like those from movies and editing him in though very occasionally he is also added optically into older movies, which is less effective and is only done a couple of times. Technically speaking the results are none the less fairly impressive, though not in the same class as Allen’s Zelig in which the ‘join’ between new and old footage is virtually indistinguishable.

“Cleaning woman!!”

This a very goofy movie that, once you get past its central conceit and the technical cleverness involved in achieving it, depends largely on its success on your enjoyment of Steve Martin’s particular brand of schtick. Me, I love it, so there are plenty of great silly moments, such as Rigby repeatedly getting shot in exactly the same place in his arm (“This is never going to heal” he exclaims), with Juliet having to always suck the bullet out (she apparently learned this at camp). Or his retort when dragged by some hoods to meet their boss (actually a clip from I Walk Alone featuring Kirk Douglas), in which he tries to get out of it by making a proposal that always seemed sensible to me, saying to the men “What’s he paying you boys? I’ll double it and then we’ll beat the s***t out of him”).

Or Rigby’s concern that after Juliet fainted, her bosom may have, “shifted all outta whack”(she gets her own back at the end though making sure his willy is still in position). And then of course there’s Rigby going berserk at the mere mention of the word ‘cleaning woman’ following a childhood trauma. All deliriously silly and very funny if you’re in the right mood. And then there are all the terrific clips. Some are very brief (such as those featuring Veronica Lake and Joan Crawford) but others are surprisingly substantial, such as the large sections from Hitchcock’s Notorious and the less well-known Noir, The Bribe (recently reviewed by Colin over at Riding the High Country), which alone makes up big chunks of the film’s climax. This also has this wonderful pithy exchange while Rigby and his Nazi nemesis compete to explain the plot to a baffled Juliet:

Field Marshal Von Kluck: “Schweinhund!”
Rigby Reardon: “Jerk!”

The full list of movies excerpted in Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid is as follows:

  • Johnny Eager (1941)
  • Suspicion (1941)
  • The Glass Key (1942)
  • This Gun for Hire (1942)
  • Keeper of the Flame (1943)
  • Double Indemnity (1944)
  • The Lost Weekend (1945)
  • Deception (1946)
  • Humoresque (1946)
  • The Killers (1946)
  • Notorious (1946)
  • The Big Sleep (1946)
  • The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)
  • Dark Passage (1947)
  • I Walk Alone (1947)
  • Sorry, Wrong Number (1948)
  • The Bribe (1949)
  • White Heat (1949)
  • In a Lonely Place (1950)

Rachel Ward strikes an appropriately sultry pose for ‘Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid’ (Universal, 1982).

DVD Availability: The bare bones release available from Universal includes the fairly amusing trailer, narrated by Martin (‘The people who brought you The Jerk try and make it up to you.’) and an excellent print with very sharp and clean images. Frustratingly, it is widescreen but not anamorphic. Given that all the clips used are from movies shot in the 4:3 Academy aspect ratio, one really wishes that the DVD offered the image ‘Open Matte’ (i.e. virtually square) so as to not crop the older movies. This would have been necessary for a cinema release in 1982 but on home video one wishes that this alternative had been explored. It would be great to have this on Blu-ray with extras to discuss the movie clips used and maybe a commentary from Reiner, Martin and Ward. Also, some extra material has been used for TV versions, which at one point incidentally uses music taken from John Barry’s score for that wonderful Neo-Noir, Body Heat (1982). It would be great to have that too of course. Well, one can dream …

Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982)
Director: Carl Reiner
Producer: David Picker, William E. McEuen, Richard McWhorter
Screenplay: Carl Reiner, George Gipe, Steve Martin
Cinematography: Michael Chapman
Art Direction: John DeCuir
Music: Miklos Rozsa
Cast: Steve Martin, Rachel Ward, Reni Santoni, Carl Reiner

***** (3.5 fedora tips out of 5)

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This entry was posted in Film Noir, James M. Cain, Los Angeles, Noir on Tuesday, Philip Marlowe, Private Eye, Raymond Chandler, Scene of the crime, Tuesday's Overlooked Film. Bookmark the permalink.

44 Responses to Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982)

  1. Mike says:

    ‘My plan was to kiss her with every lip on my face’

    Bloody love this film and, to me, it isn’t overlooked at all, but that’s just me and I guess in the general sweep of people thinking Steve Martin isn’t funny anymore a slick little title like this gets lost. Whether it’s the seamless, and occasionally quite knowing effort by the film to splice in old noir footage, the clear affection for the genre, Martin’s playing (he’s hilarious) or just how outrageously sexy Rachel Ward was in it, it’s always worth a watch. Great review that’s done enough to warrant another viewing. Cleaning woman…

    • Well obviously I agree Mike, but I don’t think there’s enough of us! Ward doesn’t get enough credit actually as she has a great deadpan delivery in this film. As usual she looks so glamorous that people overlook the humour in her playing. Love that bit when Reardon dresses up as Barbara Stanwyck/Phyllis Dietrichson to entice Walter Neff/Fred Macmurray and he asks her if he looks like a dame, and she replies, “Not as much as I do”. And sadly there was never the promised sequel with a possible nude scene from Juliet …

  2. curtis evans says:

    I saw this whenit came out, when I was in high school, and I haven’t seen it since, but the first thing I remembered about it, before I read your article, were those dread words, “cleaning woman.” I don’t think I’d seen a single one of the films in the film at the time, but I still enjoyed it.

    • Hi Curt – one of the things that is interesting about the original trailer is the extent to which it soft-pedals the premise of the movie – there is one clip with Bogart and a really quick shot with Bette Davis which you probably wouldn’t recognise unless you knew it was there and that’s it. Nowadays, after the success of Forrest Gump and that Diet Coke campaign with Elton John singing along to (previously dead) stars like Bogart and Louis Armstrong it’s the stuff of every other advertisment (my favourite, because it manipulates the image least, is probably the car advert featuring Steve McQueen which you can view here). How many of the films included have you seen now? I’ve seen them all but admit to having pretty fuzzy memories about Johnny Eager!

  3. Colin says:

    Count me in as another one who loves this film. Steve Martin was amazingly good at one time, which tends to be forgotten, and his acting in this movie is great. I agree with Mike’s comment about the affection for the old movies featured. That is one its strengths: the film is no cruel or cheap lampoon, but the work of fans who can see the potential for comedy in movies they clearly like and respect.

    When I first saw this I was familiar with a number of the old films it featured, but not all. I decided then to make sure I saw all of them sooner or later. Now, thirty years later, the only one I’ve yet to get round to is I Walk Alone.

    • Cheers Colin. Martin does, especially with his hair dyed black, have somethign of the old style movie star look about him so he’s perfect casting and as you say, it is pretty reverentional to the general tone. It’s Rigby who’s the loose cannon here. As is so foten the case with satires / pastiches, I do think that the film might have benefitted from having a stronger plotline. Certainly, apart from the ‘guest cast’, there are in fact only four other speaking roles in the film which can make it seem claustrophobic. A lot of effort went in to finding and integrating the clips, but although I really like the film it can feel a bit like a series of interconnected sketches on a theme sometimes, though I still laugh everytime Martin clutches his arm and says “This is never going to heal’ after getting shot in the same spot for the third time.

  4. Todd Mason says:

    Whereas I’d suggest that this and PENNIES FROM HEAVEN were the first actually good Martin films…though the quality has certainly wavered since…

    • Hi Todd – I’m completely partisan about Martin’s work and find it easier to pick the few that really didn’t make me laugh (My Blue Heaven …) than the other way round. I also think he did very well in his serious roles in Mamet’s The Spanish Prisoner and Shopgirl, from his novella.

  5. katelaity says:

    I love this film and it’s been far too long since I’ve been able to see it.

    • Thanks for stopping by Kate – I hadn’t seen it in ages and then I watched Keeper of the Flame and as soon as I saw the pening car crash sequence it all came back!

  6. michael says:

    Great review. I really enjoyed the list of films within the film.

    I’d rate this around what you did, but I had some problems with it. There has been parodies of PIs since there have been PIs and this one, for me, didn’t cover any new ground. And there were times the movie seemed too self-aware, as if it was knew it was a movie.

    I like Steve Martin in his early stand-up days, but he reached a point when he seemed to be a parody of himself. If I had to pick my favorite movie of his it would be “L.A. Story.”

    Have you seen “The Man With Bogart’s Face”? Certainly not a great film, but a nice forgotten PI mystery-comedy.

    • Hello Michael, thanks very much for the feedback. I know what you mean about its knowingness – not really a big fan of The Man with Bogart’s Face, but it’s only a dim and distant memory so I’ll see about catching up with it again. I really like Woody Allen’s two detective story pastiches, Play it Again, Sam and especially Manhattan Murder Mystery – the latter, in particular, seems to find just the right balance between homage, ironic celebration and also working as a detective story in its own right.

  7. katelaity says:

    Oooh, Pennies from Heaven is pretty good, too — though I’m glad I saw it before the original version. L.A. Story is probably his best, but I have a fondness for Roxanne which, while it doesn’t compare to Ferrer’s or Diepardieu’s versions, for me may be his most fun film.

    • I do love Roxanne and there are some great moments in LA Story too (especially that moment when Richard E. Grant explains the bell ringing …), though for sheer unadulterated goofiness I would always have to pick his final two collaborations with Carl Reiner: The Man with Two Brains and All of Me, which both benefit from a pair of really strong leading ladies.

  8. katelaity says:

    If PfH had only had Christopher Walken’s dance number that would be enough to love it.

    • The original TV version is so special that the Hollywood version, for all its glitz and glamour, could ever seem like a pale imitation – it’s the same with the Rpobert Downey Jr. adaptation of that other great Dennis Potter masterpiece, The Singing Detective. Even though both works are in part reflections on Hollywood of the 30s and 40s (respectively), somehow making them part of the real thing just dilutes it. Reducing the running time by two thirds didn’t help either, despite the best of intentions …

      • katelaity says:

        Oooh, All of Me! How could I forget! Absolutely a delight. Lily Tomlin was so wonderful in it. I got to see her one stage — what a treat. I couldn’t bear to see the RDJr version of The Singing Detective. Just not right.

        • There is, in Martin’s work, a certain underlying sweetness and even innocence that I think in the best of his comedies really shines through. I love the slapstick but he can make his characters at heart very appealing – I thought that of Bowfinger, which managed not to be too cynical about moviemaking and even made Eddie Murphy seem like a nice guy! And All of Me always struck me as being particularly good from that point of view, though I realise this may not be anything like a consensus view on its merits …

          • Todd Mason says:

            ALL OF ME and LEAP OF FAITH might be my favorites of Martin’s films, though both have minor flaws for me. The original of PENNIES FROM HEAVEN is more fully-realized, to say the least, but the US film version retains much of the strength of the original, and Martin plays the unintentional cad better there than in anything else I’ve seen him in. The use of the tech in PLAID is certainly more deft than in ZELIG and grossly moreso than in GUMP…as well as earlier!

          • Always interesting to imagine what could have been in the movies after comparing Bob Hoskins and Martin in their respective versions of Pennies, which are so different. Leap of Faith I saw when it came out and it is certainly flawed but full of good things – it was originally going to star Michael Keaton apparently, while Martin was the original choice for the truly execrable Regarding Henry. Although I think Plaid is probably funnier, I think, technically at least, Zelig is actually far more sophisticated in its integration of real and mocked up footage and, in my view, is pretty seamless.

  9. Yvette says:

    I saw this ages ago and my only complaint then and now is that actors shown in the clips intermingling with Steve Martin and Rachel Ward are so much more interesting than either Martin or Ward that when they show up in the movie I wish for more of them and less of…well, you know. I think the only Steve Martins films I actually loved were the fabulously romantic ROXANNE and ALL OF ME with Lily Tomlin. At least that’s all I can remember. But as usual, I enjoyed reading your take on things, Sergio. :)

    P.S. I am a big fan of Stuart Kaminsky’s Toby Peters books and proud and pleased to say I’ve read every single one. I haven’t read any of the Baxt movie star books, just his Pharaoh Love stories which I liked very much.

    • Thanks very much Yvette (and welcome back to the blogosphere). I think you’re being a bit harsh on Martin and Ward, but on the other hand they did have pretty formidable cempetition in this movie! Kaminsky’s great and of course for me the perfect author – an actual movie professor who could also write and plot decent murder mysteries! Baxt’s plotting in the celebrity sleuth series seem much less firm (I’ve only read a few I admit) and do seem to have been built around Kamisky’s model to a certain extent, though I like the fact that Baxt’s book usually involved a famous pair of celebrities which I thought was a nice touch. Real softie, that’s me.

  10. Todd Mason says:

    Perhaps it’s the unearned bathos of ZELIG that has me put off. Certainly PLAID is much less ponderous. (And GUMP is simply unspeakable.)

    • That’s really interesting Todd. I think i know what you mean, though Zelig never struck mne that way epsecially as Allen is usually so tough on his characters. I am a big fan of his work and find his use of the quasi-documentary format (even in films as different as Take the Money and Run and Husbands & Wives) fascinating.

    • I do know what you mean about the Tom Hanks movie – on the one hand, there is a certain darkness to its depiction of the characters which is unexpected, but on the other hand it is often just the most reactionary hogwash. Zemeckis’ visual sophistication is never matched intellectually, that’s for sure.

  11. Todd Mason says:

    Allen is very hard on his characters, except for the stand-ins for himself, of whom he only pretends to be critical…most of the films by the time I gave up were basically, How stupid of you other characters, not to see the brilliance and wonderfulness behind my character’s ridiculousness. All the little Spielbergs are as shallow and mechanical as he is…or else they wouldn’t cluster around him as they have. Joe Dante occasionally shows genuine wit.

    • I do really like Dante’s work and I thought his two recent films made in collaboration with screenwriter Sam Hamm for the Masters of Horror series, The Homecoming and The Screwfly Solution (from the story by James Tiptreee Jr originally published under her other main pseudonym, Racoona Sheldon) are amazingly good, especially when compared with the other films made for the series. If you haven’t seen either of these, I really do reccomend them heartily as trenchant and very blackly humorous satires on life in America under the Bush administration.

      • Todd Mason says:

        “Racoona” was more Alice Sheldon’s personal nickname…her “cover” as Tiptree had been blown, iirc, by the time she published “Screwfly”…even where Dante is even closer to Spielbergian trivia, as with MATINEE, he manages some good with it, though his loose early adaptation of “It’s a *Good* Life” for THE TWILIGHT ZONE MOVIE is a real low point for anyone’s career.

        • Todd Mason says:

          Oops. “Raccoona.”

        • I guess you’re right Todd – it was around 1977 that the Sheldon / Tiptree pseudonym was revealed (well, everyone knew it was a pen name) as I recall. Dante has a much more subversive and anti-establishment vibe to his work. I agree that, apart from George Miller’s version of ‘Nightmare at 20.2000 feet’, Twilight Zone: The Movie was nobody’s finest hour (didn’t Robert Bloch do the novelisation?)

          • Todd Mason says:

            Bloch did. Did what he could with that pile. The big reveal, of course, was that Tiptree was a woman. And an ex-spy, part (though only a part) of why she wanted to use the pseud.

          • I’ve got this edition of ‘Warm Worlds and Otherwise’ in which in his intro Robert Silverberg speculates on Tiptree’s identity and ultimately decides that it is a man – Silverberg was/is an astute author and critic and in many ways that real drop-off in the quality of Tiptree’s work after her (non-CIA) cover was blown seemed to reflect the fact that she reaslly did seem to need that male persona to do her best work. She’s probably as well known now for her work as she is for the tragic euthanasia/suicide that ended her life.

          • Todd Mason says:

            Bixby was a good, not overwhelmingly prolific writer, both for print and screen, and an underappreciated magazine editor…helped make particularly PLANET STORIES and STARTLING STORIES/THRILLING WONDER STORIES the fine magazines they were in their last years. I believe he had a cup of coffee over at GALAXY at that time as well.

          • I think I first became aware of his work through the original Twilight Zone adaptation with Bill Mumy – it’s certainly the story that seems to get anthologised the most often. I probably have it half a dozen times over on my shelves!

  12. John says:

    This was a lot of fun. Now that I have seen and know so many of the movies listed it would be a lot of fun to watch it again. And then huint down and watch all the movies in the list that I haven’t seen. I have always felt that ROXANNE is the epitome of Steve Martin’s comic film career (both writing and acting) even if he had to borrow the plot from Cyrano de Bergerac in order to showcase his talents. That movie is an all time favorite of mine. And he was so damn good in it and made everyone look so good also. I wonder if Schipisi had a lot to do with fine tuning the performances or if it was actually Martin in such an incredibly creative mode that served as inspiration to the whole cast. L.A. STORY is a good one in his more original movies. PENNIES FROM HEAVEN certainly showed Martin’s ability to do serious drama which he all too rarely dabbled in.

    • Hi John. Martin has worked with a number of very interesting collaborators, including multiple films with Carl Reiner, Herbert Ross and (perhaps best of all amongst his Hollywood comedies)) Frank Oz. He also can be said to have made even more interesting choices for his more personal projects, like the Scottish Gilles Mackinnon for A Simple Twist of Fate, his version of Eliot’s ‘Silas Marner’, the Australian Schepisi for his take on Cyrano, the British Mick Jackson for LA Story while Arnon Tucker, who directed Shopgirl, is of German and Indian descent. I do think Roxanne is a bit special, especially for its romantic, fairy tale atmosphere.

  13. Todd Mason says:

    Well, Alice Sheldon’s life was on a downward spiral after her “outing,” mostly due to her husband’s failing health, so that was also likely a factor in her work suffering…but I’m not sure that it’s altogether fair to suggest that her late work is all worse than her earlier; “Screwfly” being an example of the rather late work. (Harlan Ellison’s intro to her AGAIN, DANGEROUS VISIONS story also reads a bit silly in the light of her gender-exposure.)

    • Personally I do think that there is a noticeable drop-off in quality after 77 or so (which is to say written after then) though it would be facile, even by my standards, to imagine such a direct causal link. Her novels are less strong than the short stories and that emphasis had an impact too in terms of productivity. Sheldon was an extraordinary writer – I get the impression these days that she isn’t very well known outside of SF cognoscenti though. I made her name to several friends who would consider themselves well-read in terms of feminist literature and they didn’t know the name at all, so I’ve been doing a lot of lending and prosletysing of late.

  14. Todd Mason says:

    “The Holes Around Mars,” “The Young One,” and “Trace” are among the other popular Bixby stories, but he remains best known as the guy who wrote “It’s a *Good* Life…”…and the treatment for FANTASTIC VOYAGE…

    • I forgot about Fantastic Voyage! I always make the mistaken link to Asimov because he did the novelisation (as well as a sequel amongst a myriad of sequels / prequels / fix-ups etc. late in his career, along with those ‘collaborations’ with Rovbert Silverberg which I remember assidiously buying in harback but hard to imagine my re-reading them now …)

  15. iluvcinema says:

    Fond memories of watching this with my dad when I was a kid. He loved it principally for its sendup of noir, which he also loved. At the time I was too young to understand. But I so get it now.

    • Cheers Iba. I must admit, although my parents were (and still are thnakfully) very tolerant, I did tend to have to explain all the references to them and to my brother – he’s much smarter than I am but not really a film buff. But we both love Martin’s sensibility – we went to see LA Story at the cinema when it came out in the UK and literally were paralysed with laughter in some sequences but surrounded by a rather unimpressed audience. Humour, it’s a funny thing (or as the Vulcans say in Star Trek, “Humour, it is a difficult concept”).

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