Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982)

“My plan was to kiss her with every lip on my face.”

Dead Men Poster

Synopsis:
A private detective (Steve Martin) interacts with a host of iconic Hollywood characters while helping a sexy female client (Rachel Ward) investigate the mysterious disappearance of her father.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary argues that this “ridiculous noir parody” — about a “forties detective” who “says a lot of… stupid things, shaves his tongue, strangles anybody who says ‘cleaning lady’, makes java with about 1000 beans per cup, and dresses like a lot of women” — is, when “taken a scene at a time”, “quite amusing (and often hilarious) and genuinely clever”; but he posits that “without breaks… the novel concept becomes tiresome.” Time Out’s reviewer similarly argues that while “some amusement is derived from watching a film that so obviously had to be worked out backwards”, it occasionally feels like merely a “fairly amusing, clever exercise in editing”. However, I believe the film deserves a bit more credit than this. Given that it was made at a time when splicing “vintage footage from forties melodramas” with “newly shot black-and-white footage” was a purely mechanical (rather than digital) feat, one can’t help marveling at how masterfully this is done, with nearly every scene carefully plotted and blocked; film fanatics will be in trivia heaven as they attempt to determine which classic movie each clip is taken from, and how director Carl Reiner will manage to integrate pre-existing dialogue into the new (connective) storyline.

Meanwhile, Edith Head (in her final cinematic credit) does marvelous work crafting and matching outfits across films, and Miklos Rozsa was an inspired choice to write the appropriately atmospheric score. My main complaint is that the humor occasionally feels a bit forced and/or juvenile. For instance, the cited scene involving Martin’s inept attempt to make coffee goes on for about three times too long, and Martin’s obsession with “readjusting” Ward’s breasts simply makes one sigh. But for every groaner, there’s a clever line or interaction up ahead — and both Martin and Ward (“surprisingly funny and a good sport as Martin’s comic foil”) remain appropriately invested in their roles, never letting on that they’re actually in a parody. This one is definitely worth a look by all film fanatics.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Remarkably seamless screenwriting and editing
    Dead Men Editing
    Dead Men Editing2
  • Michael Chapman’s b&w cinematography
    Dead Cinematography
  • Edith Head’s impressive “costume-matching” work
    Dead Men Costumes
  • Miklos Rozsa’s classically “generic” score

Must See?
Yes, for its obvious film fanatic appeal.

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One Response to “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982)”

  1. Must-see for all real film fanatics, who will simply eat it up – a real treat!

    Sometimes I read negative criticisms – like those noted by Peary and the Time Out reviewer here – and I just shake my head, in a bit of disgust. I think, a lot of times, that critics think too much of themselves and their own opinions. (How often do they honestly think that serious artists set out to make bad or inferior movies? Why do they often fail to realize when people are genuinely working well on all cylinders?) Granted, humor can be relative – and not all of us find the same things funny. But, in the case of this film, the noted comments by other critics still seem harsh.

    This is one of Reiner’s best films, quite frankly – and I can find nothing harsh to say about it. In the credits at the end, Reiner states that the film is “affectionately dedicated” to all those responsible for making the types of classic b&w suspense/noir films that ‘Dead Men…’ sends up. And the film does, indeed, overflow with affection for its subject. There is nothing cheap about the presentation here: Reiner made sure to assemble the best possible artists necessary (i.e., Rozsa, Head, Chapman – not to mention all of the stars seen in vintage clips) in order to pull this one off – and it’s a class act all around, brilliant in its execution. Martin, Ward and Reiner (even Reni Santoni, in s small role) all turn in delightful performances and they are all clearly having a blast. (It’s a particularly wonderful ‘in-joke’ when, near the end, Martin and Reiner fight over – and through – which of their characters has the right to wrap up the plot.)

    The device of narration throughout a film often irks me – mainly because it is sometimes used when it isn’t really necessary; watching a film is not the same as reading a novel and it can be annoying when the two are mixed. However, narration – as is the case here – is a treat when it’s a parody of Marlowe, and when it’s done by Martin with an endless amount of laugh lines.

    And it’s not just in the narration; the script is actually a joy from start to finish – most noticeably in the sequences which utilize classic clips (one of my favorites being the sequence taken from ‘Deception’ – it’s pretty damn funny!).

    I’m not a huge Martin fan (especially when it comes to a lot of his work in the latter part of his career, when it often seems he just doesn’t give a shit about what he’s in or what he’s doing there). But I have to give the man his due when it comes to his work with Reiner. Their last film together (‘All of Me’) is rather a disappointment – but even though I’m also a fan of both ‘The Jerk’ and ‘The Man with Two Brains’, it could very well be that ‘Dead Men…’ is the most cinematically satisfying of everything they worked on together, perhaps because the film has a very solid hook that it hinges on. And because it is so much in love with classic film – something most film fanatics can easily relate to.

    Much underrated, I think – but a genuine comedic gem!

    Unusually sad note: George Gipe is credited as co-writer, along with Martin and Reiner. Little seems known about him – his credits are only this film and ‘The Man with Two Brains’ (also with Martin and Reiner). Shortly after ‘TMWTB’, Gipe died at age 53, the result of an allergic reaction to a bee sting (according to IMDb).

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