Author Jim Thompson created some of the darkest pulp crime fiction ever to land between the covers of greasy paperbacks left in two bit diners on dark rain soaked nights. He was a writer whose tales were filled with sleazy grifters and psychopaths. An alcoholic himself, Thompson’s works featured characters that drank too much booze, like it were a life saving device or a device to run away from life.
The screen opens with the old Universal logo switching to a rain soaked dark Los Angeles night as the credits begin to roll. In the first scene, a car is speeding out of control; it suddenly swerves and goes crashing off the road. We cut to the messy office of private eye Rigby Reardon (Steve Martin) who is reading the morning newspaper. The headlines scream about the disappearance of cheese maker king John Hay Forest.
There is a knock at his door; a beautiful mysterious alluring woman dressed to the nines in 1940’s fashion enters. She is Juliet Forest (Rachel Ward) the daughter of the missing big cheese. She wants to hire Reardon to find her father. Reardon is always willing to help a beautiful lady, (even willing to adjust her breasts when she faints, explaining to her after she woke, they had shifted all outta whack)… he takes the job.
Add to this mood and ambiance, the orchestra sound of Miklos Rozsa’s soundtrack, a perfect dead pan voice over by Martin and we are transported back to 1946 and those dark rain filled streets of film noir. Well sorta, after all that is Steve Martin sitting in the detective chair and it is Carl Reiner in the director’s seat. “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid” is an affectionate and technically inspired tribute to the murky cinema of gats, dames and mean darkly lit streets.
Written by Carl Reiner, Steve Martin and George Gipe, they are obviously a group that loves old movies and are a talented lot when it comes to comedy. Reiner’s career goes back as far as Sid Caesars “Your Show of Shows.” He also interviewed the 2000 Year Old Man, Mel Brooks on one of the first comedy albums ever recorded and was the creative source behind the classic 1960’s sit-com, “The Dick Van Dyke Show.” He previously directed Steve Martin in “The Jerk” and would do two more films with him, the underrated “The Man with Two Brains” and along with “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid”, one of my favorite Martin films “All of Me.” Reiner even appears here in a couple of scenes spoofing Otto Preminger’s screen Nazi roles.
In 1982 when this was made Martin was still an adventurous comedy maverick willing to take chances with films like “Pennies From Heaven” and “Roxanne” among others instead of the series of tepid “Pink Panther” and “Cheaper By the Dozen” remakes of recent years (Though I have to admit “Shopgirl”, based on his own short novel was a surprising nice trip back to those more adventurous days).
The highest accolades for this film though are saved for film editor John DeCuir, director of photography Michael Chapman, sound editor James J. Klinger and many other techies for the flawless matter in which they matched the many classic clips used here with the new material. Well over twenty actors from the classic era “co-star” with Martin. They include Kirk Douglas, Barbara Stanwyck, Ingrid Bergman, Joan Crawford, Charles Laughton, Alan Ladd, Burt Lancaster, James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart who as Marlowe, works for Reardon as his legman and is continually picked on by Reardon for the way he dresses. There are also some of the great character actors of noir popping up in the clips like William Conrad, Jeff Corey and Edward Arnold. Rachel Ward’s wardrobe was by the legendary Edith Head. This would turn out to be Ms. Head’s last film.
Some of the dialogue are take offs on classic lines from Hollywood films. When Juliet Forest leaves Reardon’s office she looks back seductively as she departs saying, “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.”
And while Reardon is in many ways a homage to Marlowe, Spade and other hard boiled screen P.I.’s he does have his own unique quirks, for example whenever someone says “cleaning lady” it turns Reardon into a murdering out of control maniac. Think Abbott and Costello and their “Niagara Falls” routine. Another scene have Reardon dressed up as a woman, specifically as Barbara Stanwyck’s Phyllis Dietrichson from “Double Indemnity,” blonde wig and white sweater included. He also witnesses “Swede” Anderson’s murder in “The Killers”.
Beside the technical aspects, what makes this all work so well is the over the shoulder shooting style many of the 1940’s filmmakers used back then. As an example, we see Reardon talking to someone who is dressed up like Ingrid Bergman in “Notorious.” In the shot, the camera is shooting over “Bergman’s” shoulder, as we watch Martin speaking. The camera then cuts to the real Bergman speaking in a scene from the Hitchcock film and we view Reardon only from over his shoulder. In most instances this works very well, though in this particular scene if one looks closely at Bergman’s hairstyle in the “Notorious” clip you will notice her ears are exposed and would be visible when shooting an over the shoulder shot. In this instance the Bergman stand-in’s hair covers her ears. As they cut back and forth a few times in this scene the mismatch becomes very obvious. Happily in most scenes this is not the case, the matches are very well done. Additionally, there is one scene where Martin appears in the same shot with Cary Grant. The scene is from “Suspicion”, which takes place in a train compartment, Grant asks Martin if he smokes, to which he answers, “No, I have tuberculosis.” Grants replies, “oh, thank heaven for that.”
Reiner and company have to be given credit for doing all this one year before Woody Allen did in the celebrated “Zelig” and twenty years or so before Robert Zemeckis had Forest Gump meet JFK! Overall, the film is funny, silly at times but always affectionate toward its subjects.