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.
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)
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