Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid

Ring a Ding Ding

Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid (1982)

     Although made in 1982, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid could be claimed as 50% classic film. The Steve Martin spoof on old detective dramas uses footage from about a dozen black-and-white movies spliced in with new footage. I first saw this movie in an Intro to Film course and fell in love. It’s full of Martin’s early stupid humor while also showing a real appreciation for old Hollywood.

     Martin is Detective Rigby Reardon, who is approached by Rachel Ward‘s Juliet Forrest to investigate the murder of her father, a scientist and cheese enthusiast. The plot that follows is inconsequential as it is as complex as The Big Sleep –clips of which are used throughout– and is neatly summed up by both the villain and Reardon at the end of the picture, ala The Thin Man and other mysteries.

     Rigby’s mentor is Marlowe, with whom the protagonist consults primarily via telephone, and who is played by Humphrey Bogart in segments from three of his films. The detective also pays visits to several familiar faces, such as Ray Milland in a snippet from The Lost Weekend, Bette Davis in Deception, Cary Grant in Suspicion, Ingrid Bergman in Notorious and Joan Crawford in Humoresque, among others. Martin also dresses in drag to attract the attention of Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity. The unsettling part is, from behind, there is little difference between Martin and Barbara Stanwyck from the original clips. Martin again dons a dress to masquerade as James Cagney’s mother from White Heat.

     Writers on the movie George Gipe, Director Carl Reiner and Martin developed the story based on the classic clips. The idea came from one designed by Martin that proposed the use of a classic movie clip. That concept transformed into doing an entire movie using such pieces. After watching old films and pulling particular over-the-shoulder shots and appealing dialogue, the writers then merely juxtaposed the dialogue until they came up with a suitable story. Some clips were clearly used just as an excuse to insert them and do not actually further the plot, but are funny nonetheless.

     Although the cinematographer consulted the filming styles from the old flicks, Martin avoided them altogether. He said he did not want to give a performance reflective of Bogart but something of his own. The result was great as I do not think Martin would have been as funny if he had taken himself more seriously.

     As someone who enjoys both Steve Martin humor and classic films, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid is just the epitome of fun for me. I was not familiar with all of the movies featured therein, but I certainly enjoyed figuring out the ones I did know. Thankfully the end credits spell it out for the viewer.

Source: Universal Studios

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