Review: Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid

Blu-ray & DVD: Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982)

DMDWPCoverWhen beautiful Juliet Forrest (Rachel Ward) turns up at Private Investigator Rigby Reardon’s (Steve Martin) office asking for his help to find out who killed her father, Reardon remembers the advice his partner Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) gave him ‘Never fall in love with a client’.

Sometimes on re-watching an old favourite I cringe, and was worried that this film, made when Steve Martin was ‘funny’ (he’s ALWAYS been funny damn it!) might not stand the test of time. It does, with bells on.
Now I must mention a podcast I urge those of you who haven’t heard it, to stop reading this right now, and download it before you go any further. Adam Roches’ Secret History of Hollywood. Now Adam has garnered a lot of well-deserved attention lately because of his fabulous podcast, and really it’s thanks to him that that my love for ‘old’ movies, classics of Hollywood, has been renewed, causing me to seek out films such as ‘White Heat’ and ‘Suspicion’ again, and enabled me to watch with fresh eyes, as an adult, while thinking of the story behind these movies.
The reason I mentioned The Secret History of Hollywood is because this particular film, somewhat like Woody Allen’s Zelig, utilises other films, in this case Film Noirs.

I thought perhaps that watching on Blu-ray after all my previous viewings on VHS would cause some problems that the inserted scenes wouldn’t work and they would appear too grainy alongside the newly filmed scenes, but no, this really is a revelation in filmmaking for its time! Way before digital effects, the film owes its top-notch presentation not only to the editing, but to the clever camera techniques employed in production. The film relied on specific camera vantage points and precise perspective filming. Luckily for director Carl Reiner, most films of the forties and fifties liked to shoot over the shoulder of characters, and this is the main reason Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid works, Reiner could effortlessly replicate the set-up of the shot, and using a stand-in posing as the original actor from the 40s Noir, seeing only the back of their head, the camera gives us Martin in full view.

It seems that Reiner managed to get some of the ORIGINAL people who worked on the films included to work on this film, notably wonderful costumer Edith Head who dressed literally every star of the 40s and 50s. Music was by Miklos Rozsa who was also from the studio ‘stable’ and does an amazing job of ensuring the score in Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid mixes perfectly with the music from the master versions of the snippets of classic films.
Production designer John DeCuir had eighty-five sets made in order to make the film/story itself seamless. Apparently during his research and scouting DeCuir found the actual train compartment used in Suspicion with Cary Grant, and this set piece was used in the scenes featuring Martin interacting with Grant. Cinematographer Michael Chapman invested over six months of research to ensure that the new film being used was a close match with the classic film stock, and the person responsible for putting all these elements together was Bud Molin, Reiner’s longtime editor and what an amazing job he did.

So, after this magical movie making, what about the film itself?
Well… one of the opening scenes is Martin massaging Ward’s breasts, because they ‘fell outta whack’ and on seeing this, I did think “Hell, this would never get put in a film now because it’s not very ‘PC’“, but wow, this is one funny and CLEVER film.
The language and actual story is perfect and is a snug fit with all the other film clips, which is quite strange because although it’s a perfect and believable fit, it’s also got that ‘Steve Martin crazy, zany’ humour in it, with added boob/willy fondling. Not only does it seamlessly include clips from 19 vintage films, the way Martin acts with these old movie stars and how it’s been assembled to give rise to some cracking one liners is just brilliant.
Martin plays the film more or less straight, to great effect (He IS funny), he’s also rather handsome in his amazing 40s suits and silk ties. I would love to see some colour stills from this film. Ward is great as the ballsy (yet fainting) heroine, who can suck a bullet out of a wound like a rabid hoover, and looks like she herself just walked out of a 40s Noir in her diaphanous billowing Edith Head chemise.
Among the actors who appear from classic films are Ingrid Bergman, Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Brian Donlevy, Kirk Douglas, Ava Gardner, Cary Grant, Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake, Burt Lancaster, Charles Laughton, Fred MacMurray, Ray Milland, Edmond O’Brien, Vincent Price, Barbara Stanwyck, and Lana Turner.
Bottom line – Reiner made 4 films with Martin, and each one is a stone cold classic. Including this one.
It’s a shame there are no extras on the disc but, heigh ho, a fabulous film release once again from Fabulous Films.

So now you’ve downloaded The Secret History of Hollywood, why not watch some of the ORIGINAL films included in Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid? Here’s a list, please do Google them (so Dave doesn’t have to link them all!), all of them are truly great films, and a couple of them are pretty darn sexy too.

  • Johnny Eager (1941)
  • Suspicion (1941)
  • This Gun for Hire (1942)
  • The Glass Key (1942)
  • Double Indemnity (1944)
  • The Lost Weekend (1945)
  • Deception (1946)
  • Humoresque (1946)
  • The Big Sleep (1946)
  • The Killers (1946)
  • Notorious (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)

Review by Tina (co-host of 60 Minutes With) from a disc kindly supplied by Fabulous Films.