Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982) — Film noir spoofery

“If you need me, just call. You know how to dial, don’t you? You just put your finger in the hole and make tiny little circles.”

Al’s rating: Drop your roscoes and get out your sugar, ‘cause this little number is straight from the fridge! …I don’t know what that means.

Al’s review: I love old movies. Of course, the AFI demands that all film-type people love old movies under threat of a pelting with popcorn and Sno-caps, but, from time to time, I honestly enjoy unwinding with Captain Blood or Touch of Evil or Ben-Hur or something like that. After a bit of thinking on the subject, I’ve boiled down my enjoyment to what I’ve termed the “I Love You Madly” Factor.

Back in college, my old creative writing teacher used to tell our class “You can’t say ‘I love you madly’ anymore.” It was a reminder to us that we live in a postmodern world, and we can no longer use phrases like ‘I love you madly’ unless we are being referential or self-conscious. Try saying it, in earnest, to whichever man, woman, boy, girl, goat, or tree that you’ve currently attached yourself to and you will get response somewhere in between abject puzzlement and one of those smiles that says ‘I’m grinning because he clearly thinks he’s telling a joke.’

We in modern society can’t say these things seriously, and, in that same vein, Hollywood can no longer make a detective movie without including a Big Sleep shot or a western without homage to John Ford. Old movies don’t have this problem, though. When Humphrey Bogart acted tough, he wasn’t trying to be anyone other than Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade. When Errol Flynn fences Basil Rathbone out of frame and all we can see are their swordfighting shadows, they aren’t being clever; they just thought it was cool.

The point of this tangent (can you start a review on a tangent?) is that Steve Martin and Carl Reiner love old movies, too, and I suspect it’s for the same reason. Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid is the tremendously ambitious result of their desires to work with all the golden-age icons that can say that stuff seriously and make those movies so much fun to watch. Before Forrest Gump ever shook hands with Jack Kennedy or inspired John Lennon, Steve Martin was partnered with Bogie, got friendly with Bette Davis, and was shot at by Alan Ladd.

Using footage from eighteen different noir films of the 1940s (and one from the 1950s), Dead Men is the story of Detective Rigby Reardon (Martin), a P.I. hired by heiress Juliet Forrest (Rachel Ward) to look into the death of her father. The investigation leads him to a pair of lists, “Friends of Carlotta” and “Enemies of Carlotta,” and a group of names being crossed out one by one. In the course of unraveling the mystery, Reardon receives help (or grief) from the likes of Vincent Price, Ava Gardner, James Cagney, Joan Crawford, and a dozen other stars of yesteryear.

It’s sort of like a Scooby-Doo episode, but with more breast jokes.

The entire thing is preposterous, of course, and gets only more ridiculous by the end, culminating with secret cheese molds and a humanitarian group full of Nazis, but it’s all a perfect vehicle for Steve Martin’s satirical, off-kilter humor (think less Bringing Down the House, more The Man With Two Brains). I won’t spoil any more of the movie here, because too much of this deserves to be seen without my voice in your head, but I do want to comment on what an extraordinary production this must have been. Martin and Ward do a great job acting against very little as they are basically the only two actors in a fairly complex film, but director Carl Reiner and editor Bud Molin deserve real praise in their molding of so many different preexisting bits into a remarkably entertaining and coherent final product. It’s an admirable achievement and a shame that this movie has been so underappreciated, if not wholly forgotten, by the public at large.

Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid may not be for everyone, I guess; if you have no knowledge and no interest in film noir, the whole thing will likely just come off as weird. But for anyone who’s been wincing at Steve Martin since Father of the Bride, or anyone who’s ever found Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett to be unputdownable, or for those of us who still love to watch hardboiled private dicks smoke four packs a day and refuse to take lip from nosy dames, then, in Dead Men, you’ve found a place where it’s okay to say “I love you madly.”

Didja notice?

  • Lots of things getting thrown out of whack?
  • Juliet sucking the bullet out of Rigby’s shoulder? A man could fall in love with a woman like that.
  • The ingredients to Rigby’s famous java?
  • The date on the Nazis “Final Instructions?” It’s Steve Martin’s birthday.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s