Friday, January 28, 2011

CHARADE: Wish I'd Gotten to Know Him Before I Fell in Love

“I wish I’d gotten to know her before I fell in love...I could say who’s to blame, say who’s the man in this cautionary tale...."  (From "Out of Jail" by They Might Be Giants)  I’ve always affectionately joked that Charade was the best Hitchcock movie that Hitchcock never made, as those who know me well can attest. Brimming with piquant romance, sophisticated comedy, and stylish suspense—including a soupçon of graphic-for-its-era violence and gore—Stanley Donen’s 1963 romantic comedy-thriller is a thoroughly entertaining object lesson in why it’s so important for people to really get to know their sweeties before marrying them. Case in point: Charade’s heroine Regina “Reggie” Lampert (Audrey Hepburn). Reggie, a beautiful young American simultaneous translator in Paris, quit her job at E.U.R.E.S.C.O. after marrying the rich and mysterious Charles Lampert—but he’s turning out to be too mysterious for comfort. When we meet Reggie, she’s vacationing in Megeve’s lovely French Alps resort, but it’s no pleasure trip. She’s suffering from buyer’s remorse — or more accurately, bridal remorse — and seriously contemplating divorce. As she sadly admits to her friend Sylvie (Dominique Minot), “I’ve tried to make it work, really I have.…But with Charles, everything is secrecy and lies. He’s hiding something from me, Sylvie, something terrible — and it frightens me.” Witty byplay with a handsome older gent who introduces himself as Peter Joshua (Cary Grant) perks things up before Reggie returns home to Paris

Reggie in disguise, with glasses!
But her homecoming is a rude awakening: Reggie is utterly gobsmacked to find their apartment is completely bare, and Charles has been murdered! On top of that, three men unknown to her turn up at Charles’s very sparsely-attended funeral. One of them, Tex Penthollow (James Coburn), holds a mirror to Charles’s open casket to see if he’s breathing. The second, Leopold W. Gideon (Ned Glass, who also played opposite Grant in North by Northwest as the suspicious Grand Central Terminal ticket agent) sneezes violently over Charles’s casket. (Sylvie dryly notes, “He must have known Charles pretty well…he’s allergic to him.”) The third mourner is an angry, imposing fella named Herman Scobie (George Kennedy) with a bad attitude and a metal prosthetic claw. He storms into the church and confirms Charles’s deceased state by plunging a pin into his corpse, to the shock of both Reggie and Sylvie.  

Reggie's a Truthful Whitefoot, with a white dress to match!
"Is this the party to whom I am speaking?"
With oranges like these, who needs apples?
Turns out Charles was living a double life—a quadruple life, really, considering he had 4 passports under 4 different names. But that’s only the beginning; self-described American Embassy “desk jockey” Hamilton Bartholomew (Walter Matthau) reveals that Charles was a wanted man! He and the other “mourners” had fought in World War 2 together, going behind enemy lines to deliver $250,000 in gold to the French underground. Instead, they stole the gold but got ambushed by the Nazis, which is how Scobie got a claw where his hand used to be. Charles escaped with the $250 grand and had managed to elude his former comrades until now. The bewildered, vulnerable yet determined Reggie is the gang’s only lead, if they don’t get fed up and kill her first. There’s one scene where Tex corners Reggie in a phone booth at the Black Sheep Club (oranges never looked so sexy or funny!), torturing our hapless heroine by dropping lit matches on her dress as she brushes them off, screaming and sobbing. It’s always made me want to write a scene (if someone hasn’t beat me to it) in which the heroine has just enough room to knee her tormentor in the groin, snapping, “I saw that movie, too!” Peter catches up with Reggie in Paris and offers to help her out with the fix she’s in. His playful hard-to-get routine is catnip to her, and she’s falling in love…until she finds out the guy has as many aliases as Charles did. Boy, Reggie sure can pick ’em!  Bartholomew wants to take advantage of Reggie’s mystery man by encouraging her to play nice with Peter — or is it Alex? Adam? — and see what he’s up to. Who can she trust, and how can she keep all those names straight? Her life becomes a case of “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer” as the crooks and Peter/Alex/Adam/Whatever His Name Is moves into Reggie’s small hotel, where comedy, suspense, murder, and paranoid gallows humor also set up light housekeeping.

is the movie that made me a fan of both Donen and screenwriter Peter Stone. In fact, I actually saw Charade long before I ever saw any of Donen’s classic musicals. He has fun with Charade’s Hitchcockian aspects, such as the clever corpse-eye-view shot involving a morgue drawer. Every other line of Stone’s screenplay is sparklingly quotable, and Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn are among my favorite screen couples. It’s a pity they didn’t have more opportunities to team up onscreen together during their long careers. My family and I have always loved the wry way that Grant, then 59, and Hepburn, then 34, kidded the age difference between them. That was more or less Grant’s idea, according to Donen and Stone on the superb Criterion Collection DVD’s delightful, anecdote-rich commentary track. Grant was concerned that it would be unseemly for a man his age to be chasing a beautiful woman so much younger than him, so he convinced the filmmakers to make Hepburn’s character the romantic aggressor. Personally, I found this gambit to be quite charming, and it makes sense for Reggie’s trusting, romantic, impulsive personality. 

Will Reggie and Peter/Alex/Adam
live happily and frivolously ever after?
In fact, Audrey Hepburn had the most remarkable knack for being glamorous yet approachable; she was one of the most endearing glamour-pusses in movie history. James Coburn, George Kennedy, and Walter Matthau are in top form in their early pre-Oscar screen roles. Both Hepburn and Paris look their sophisticated best here; let’s face it, Audrey was born to wear Givenchy!  Charade’s driving opening theme is my favorite piece of Henry Mancini music (the Pink Panther theme comes a very close second). In fact, the whole score reflects the film’s many moods perfectly. Without giving too much away, I love the clever MacGuffin, too; those who aren’t as into philately as my stepdad may have a new respect for stamp-collecting after watching Charade!

Thursday, January 20, 2011

NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN: Tell Mother I Love Her

Danger! Blood, Guts, and Spoilers Ahead!

Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin): “I’m fixing to do something dumber than hell, but I’m going anyways. If I don’t come back, you tell Mother I love her.”

Carla Jean Moss (Kelly Macdonald): “Your mother’s dead, Llewelyn.”

Llewelyn: “Well, then I’ll tell her myself.”

Those of you who’ve been enjoying my playful natterings about classic movies ranging from the 1930s to the 1970s might be surprised to see a bleak, bloodily violent, gallows-humored 2007 Western noir like No Country for Old Men (NCfOM) here on TotED. But you see, this thriller, written and directed by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen based on Cormac McCarthy’s 2005 novel, just happened to be my beloved mother’s absolute favorite film during the final two years of her life. On January 22nd, 2011, this very weekend, it would have been Mom’s 84th  birthday. Now Mom was multifaceted, to say the least. The "Cherry Girl" side of our family affectionately nicknamed her "Auntie Mame" -- oh, and Cherry was Mom’s maiden name. Mom and her sister, my Auntie Joy (who died of pulmonary fibrosis just a few months after Mom did) told us many hilarious anecdotes about the boys’ reactions to the Cherry sisters’ surname in high school.  

Mom in New York City at Auntie Joy's NYC pad in the early Aughties.

Mom and I talked on the phone almost every day, and when she moved to Florida over 20 years ago, we visited her each summer. She was an unfailing champion to all who needed a champion, and a scold to those who richly deserved scolding. She had a great sense of humor and a loving heart, while still providing witty yet no-nonsense advice. She was glamorous, yet down to earth; a talented painter and sculptor and an avid reader as well as an excellent swimmer and tennis player; a lover of all things swanky and soignée. One of Mom’s most endearing quirks was that for all her smarts and sophistication, she was the Mistress of Unwitting Movie-Title Malaprops. For instance, she automatically referred to Roxanne, Steve Martin’s comedic update of Cyrano de Bergerac, as “Pinocchio.” She was also a fan of the Tom Hanks-directed comedy about a 1960s rock band, “That Noise You Make!” as well as Danny Boyle’s Oscar-winner “Slumlord Millionaire.” 


They shoot dogs, don't they?
Hell yeah, when the dogs are trying to kill you!
Mom was a big fan of Mel Brooks, The Marx Brothers, and the Coen Brothersespecially NCfOM. Mom loved the intelligence and offbeat humor of the Coen Brothers’ films as much as I did, whether they were comedies, dramas, or thrillers like Blood Simple, Fargo (our family loves Frances McDormand, too) and, of course, NCfOM. Although Mom and I weren’t able to see NCfOM together in the same theater since we lived in two different states, we did happen to see it on the same day. When we caught up with each other by phone, we talked excitedly about the movie for an hour! Soon Mom and I were recommending it to other friends and loved ones. Each of us saw it at least three times in our respective local theaters, usually taking others who we knew would love it (even I admit that NCfOM isn’t for all tastes, what with its relentless violence and abrupt downbeat ending). I wish I had a dollar for every time Mom called to ask me to explain the complex plot to one of her many admirers. Yes, even in her 70s and early 80s, and even when her health went downhill, Mom had more male admirers than James Bond had hottie honeys, dear little minx that she was!   

Anton Chigurh likes his work a LITTLE too much!
When Mom’s health deteriorated from pulmonary fibrosis to the point that she rarely left the house, I sent her the NCfOM DVD. When my daughter Siobhan and I visited Mom several times over the last 18 months of her life, she had it on more often than not, almost like cinematic wallpaper. I wonder if the Coens would have appreciated Mom cheerfully doing the little chores she was still capable of, sitting in her elegant lounging pajamas and drinking a cup of tea with her oxygen tube on like it was just another of her fashionable accessories, all while watching and commenting on what was going on in the film. (Siobhan, as a then-13-year-old animation fan, preferred to watch her beloved cartoon DVDs until NCfOM was over, or at least had come to a stopping point.) Mom and I had always felt there was a Sam Peckinpah vibe to this gripping thriller, set in 1980.  It’s a morality play and a tense suspense story rolled into one, like the leaner, meaner, more vicious brother of the Coens’ previous thrillers. NCfOM’s protagonist is Vietnam vet Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin in a brooding, laconic, star-making performance), who goes hunting near the Rio Grande and finds himself embroiled in nightmarish mayhem and violence, West Texas prairie style. Instead of bagging wild game, Llewelyn bags $2 million in drug money after stumbling across the aftermath of a drug deal gone wrong, complete with human and canine carcasses.  (It’s chilling to see the bodies in the process of decaying as others happen upon the scene over the course of the movie.) Llewelyn thinks he can just take off with the money, dodge whoever might come after it, and live happily ever after with his sweet young wife Carla Jean, played with a letter-perfect Texas accent by winsome Scottish actress Kelly Macdonald.  Brolin and Macdonald make a wryly endearing couple. The rare times Llewelyn smiles, it’s usually when he’s talking with Carla Jean. 

This definitely wasn't the kind of room service Llewelyn had in mind!
But to his peril, Llewelyn doesn’t figure on being pursued by merciless bounty hunter Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), a mysterious figure with a pneumatic cattle gun, a penchant for using a coin toss to decide whether someone should live or die, and a voice that sounds like it’s coming not from a human being, but from the bowels of Hell itself. Chigurh relentlessly pursues the equally dogged Llewelyn through Texas as the compassionate, sad-eyed Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (the great Tommy Lee Jones as the film’s voice of reason) tries to catch up, but he can't help feeling overmatched by the sheer implacable evil of the “ghost” that is Chigurh.The film’s pacing is deliberate, but for me that simply increased the suspense as I wondered what Chigurh would do next, and whether Llewelyn had a chance in hell of ever eluding him for good, especially with both men’s ever-increasing number of injuries. The suspense scenes are real nail-biters. There’s a thrilling night-into-dawn chase where Llewelyn is pursued first by a monster truck, then into the rapids by dogs. Pit bulls don’t stand a chance against bullets!  One of my favorite scenes finds Llewelyn in his motel room in the dark. The only lights are the glowing tracking transmitter he finds in the satchel of drug money, and the light under the door from the hall outside—until a pair of feet appear on the hall side. All we hear is the transmitter…and the sound of a light bulb in the hall being unscrewed, resulting in more darkness…and I can say no more without ruining a classically terrifying moment! 

In McCarthy’s world as seen through the Coen lens darkly, fate’s gonna catch up with you no matter how smart you think you are. In NCfOM’s particular setting, 1980 seems to be a time in the West when it was easier to victimize people. You get the feeling Chigurh was able to get close to his hapless victims simply because his sheer unnerving strangeness caught them off-guard. It’s a tribute to the power of Bardem’s portrayal of Chigurh that his comically unflattering Beatles moptop-cum-Prince Valiant pageboy haircut doesn’t prevent him from being one of the most horrifying villains in movie history. It got so that every time Chigurh showed up, I’d watch the rest of the scene between the fingers covering my face, because I knew Very Bad Things Were About To Happen. Bardem’s Chigurh is all the scarier because he can seem utterly calm and casual even as he blows people’s brains out with that pneumatic cattle gun of his. The damn thing can blow out locks as well as brains; its versatility certainly makes up for its cumbersomeness. My favorite black-humored sight gag:  after Chigurh launches a protracted, agonizing attack in which a cop is killed, the camera pulls back to show that the floor is completely covered with scuff marks from the dead man’s shoes flailing and scraping against the floor during the struggle. There’s low-key, matter-of-fact humor in the dialogue (taken mostly from the novel). My favorite is this exchange between deputy Wendell (Garret Dillahunt) and Sheriff Bell: 
Wendell: “It’s a mess, ain’t it, Sheriff?” 

Sheriff Bell: “If it ain’t, it’ll do till the mess gets here.” 
Be warned, NCfOM is not for the squeamish or for those who like endings neat, tidy and upbeat, with everyone getting what they deserve. Nevertheless, it haunts and grimly amuses me even now. No wonder this powerful film won 4 Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor for Bardem, and Best Adapted Screenplay for the Coen brothers.  I feel that NCfOM is not only one of the best films the Coens have ever made, but a modern classic all around!

Mom and Baby Siobhan, in late 1996
Dedicated to Jacqueline Tenore Kehoe, with love and laughter
January 22nd, 1927 — December 18th, 2009

Friday, January 14, 2011

NORTH BY NORTHWEST: Mad Men and Englishmen

It all began when composer Bernard Herrmann introduced his friend, screenwriter Ernest Lehman, to director Alfred Hitchcock. “I sat in my office,” Lehman explained in Destination: Hitchcock, one of the special features in the North By Northwest 2-disc DVD set, “trying to construct a story which began at
the United Nations…I said, ‘I want to make the Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures. Something that has wit, sophistication, glamour, action, and lots of changes in locale.’ And that’s when I started writing….” Well, Lehman did all that and then some! In the 1950s, Hitchcock was at the peak of his powers with Strangers on a Train; Dial M for Murder; Rear Window; The Trouble with Harry; the 1956 remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much; To Catch a Thief;  and Vertigo (even if the latter wasn’t fully appreciated until years later). But North By Northwest (NxNW) was truly the jewel in Hitchcock’s crown at that time. Originally, MGM wanted Hitchcock to film Hammond Innes’s The Wreck of the Mary Deare from a Lehman script, but both men soon realized they were way more interested in making NxNW. Slyboots that he was, Hitchcock devised a way to slip out of  …Mary Deare by colorfully describing the high points of NxNW to the MGM brass, leaving them thinking they’d get two Hitchcock pictures! ….Mary Deare was eventually filmed by Michael Anderson, and everyone got what they wanted—except James Stewart. According to the IMDb, while Stewart and Hitchcock filmed Vertigo, Hitch gave Stewart a taste of what he had in mind for NxNW. Stewart was hooked—but much as Hitchcock liked Stewart, he felt (rightly) that Cary Grant was the ideal choice for the lead. Rather than outright turn down his friend and frequent leading man, Hitchcock delayed production on NxNW until Stewart was committed to shooting Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder—and then he offered the role to Stewart, who of course had to turn down the offer. Oh, that Hitchcock—such a finagler, bless him!

Poor Hitchcock, a victim of NYC rush hour traffic!
The opening credits alone sweep us viewers into the action before the bad guys even show up. Saul Bass’s sleek opening credit sequence works beautifully with Bernard Herrmann’s fandango-like opening theme music swirling tempestuously as Manhattan’s bustling citizens rush into subways and taxis—except for that distinguished, imposing gent who just missed the Fifth Avenue bus. Yep, it’s Hitchcock himself, literally trying to catch up with the credits. Just as well his cameo came early, because our hero gets few opportunities to relax and enjoy the scenery with the wringer he’ll be put through! Talk about Mad Men—as Madison Avenue ad man turned-red-herring Roger O. Thornhill, Cary Grant’s romantic panache and flair for comedy perfectly suit our literally dashing hero. The “O” stands for nothing, much like Roger himself at first. He’s a charming, slick executive used to having his own way in business and the boudoir, judging from the fact that he’s been married twice and is currently wooing a new gal with “candy from Blum’s, each piece wrapped in gold paper. She’ll like that; she’ll think she’s eating money.” Indeed, those aforementioned opening credits move at a rapid-fire pace, almost like one of the screwball comedies Grant made with Howard Hawks in the 1930s and ‘40s. We see that Roger is a man of smooth confidence, always in charge—until that fateful day at The Plaza Hotel’s Oak Bar when the name “George Kaplan” is called out at the wrong time, turning our hero’s life upside down! Roger has barely had time to knock back his cocktail before he’s kidnapped by the coolly sinister henchmen of a suave gent calling himself Townsend (Suave Hall of Famer James Mason). Seems these jaspers are convinced that Roger is really Kaplan, a government agent, and they’re not playing on Kaplan’s team. The outraged, bewildered Roger’s insistence that “I’m not Kaplan!” falls on deaf ears. He gets bourbon forced down his throat in Townsend’s gorgeous Glen Cove home, thanks to reptilian henchman Leonard (Martin Landau before TV’s Mission: Impossible made him a star and his performance as Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood made him an Oscar-winner), and is nearly killed in a funny/scary drunk-driving frame-up.

Roger, didn't Mother tell you
never to pick up strange knives?
From there, things go from bad to worse as Roger’s visit to the U.N. to confront Townsend results in more mistaken identity and our hero being framed for murder. And so the chase begins, monitored by spymaster The Professor (Leo G. Carroll, looking remarkably like one or both of the Dulles brothers)! Considering that NxNW is considered Hitchcock's greatest American film, it's ironic that its director and several of its stars happen to be British. Well, America is a melting pot, after all!

Yikes! Well, at least our heroes can't get sneezed on!
NxNW is truly the Hitchcock film to end all Hitchcock films, with all his pet themes covered with maximum wit, panache, and suspense: a wrongly-accused hero on the run, mistaken identity, a romance between Roger and soignée spy Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint in a sexy-cool change of pace from her Oscar-winning role in On The Waterfront) that's tender, sensuous, and full of surprises, on a chase that takes our hero from New York to Chicago to Mount Rushmore. But as engaging and dashing as Grant is, the smoothly villainous James Mason nearly out-suaves him. My husband Vinnie and I have joked that if Mason had played Roger, the film would have been over in minutes. With all due respect to Grant, if the imperious, unshakably confident Mason asked the Glen Cove police, "Do you honestly believe that this happened the way you think it did?" they would immediately reply, "Er, no, sir, you must be right, you're free to go, sorry we bothered you." NxNW was nominated for Oscars for George Tomasini’s film editing, the art direction and set decoration of Robert F. Boyle (who you may remember from last year’s sterling documentary Something’s Gonna Live), Merrill Pye, William Horning, Henry Grace, and Frank McKelvy (but not Best Director or Best Score, alas). Best of all, NxNW was nominated for Lehman's screenplay; in fact, he borrowed from it liberally for his suspenseful, rollicking script for the film version of Irving Wallace’s The Prize, starring Paul Newman! 

My copy of Ernest Lehman's great North by Northwest screenplay from the Rutgers collection
Roger wanted to catch a plane, but now the plane's
trying to catch him!

Why, no, porter, I don't have any fugitive-from-justice stowaways
here in my top bunk...not me, nope!

Feel free to share your favorite North by Northwest lore and/or anecdotes! 

"She's the kind of blonde that gets into a man's blood -- even if she has to shoot her way in!"
"Oh, shoot, darling, I can't stay mad at you!"

Friday, January 7, 2011

DEAD MEN DON’T WEAR PLAID: “You Put on Your Black Dress, and I'll Go Shave My Tongue!"

Steve Martin’s comedy-mystery Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (DMDWP) is as loopy and hilarious as it is affectionate in its salute to the noir mysteries of the 1940s. There isn’t a moment in the film that doesn’t make me laugh out loud or put a big goofy grin on my face. Here at Team Bartilucci H.Q., it’s not uncommon for us to quote the running gags about our hero’s “famous java,” our heroine’s versatile snakebite/bullet-extraction technique, and of course, the dreaded “cleaning woman,” among others. Even better, most of these pay off plot-wise as well; now that’s good writing!

Written by director/co-star Carl Reiner, the late George Gipe, and Martin himself, DMDWP hit movie theaters in May 1982, near the end of my sophomore year at Fordham University in the Bronx. Unless my memory is hazier than I think it is (always a possibility!), I saw it at the (now-closed) Allerton Theater with Rosemarie DiCristo, my dear longtime pal and fellow Fordhamite and film aficionado. We were both Steve Martin fans as well as overall movie buffs, and we weren’t disappointed! DMDWP is not only great fun, it’s also a dazzling technical achievement. Reiner and Martin cleverly interspliced scenes from 18 classic detective thrillers into the 1940s mystery plot bedeviling our narrator hero, private investigator Rigby Reardon (Martin). No static talking heads here; the film hits the ground running—or rather, driving, as noted scientist and cheesemaker Dr. John Hay Forrest (George Gaynes) loses control of his car and hurtles off a cliff in uncredited footage from the noir-ish 1942 Tracy & Hepburn drama Keeper of the Flame.  

Rigby loves the smell of java
in the morning, and lots of it!
We meet Rigby in his P.I. milieu, narrating in fine tough-guy voiceover, considering closing his office for a few days since business is slow—but it picks up pronto when beautiful, smoky-voiced Juliet Forrest (Rachel Ward, after Sharky’s Machine made her a star) literally falls into his arms (lots of comic fainting, slipped mickeys, and other forms of entertainingly-rendered temporary unconsciousness, as befits any good detective flick!). After Juliet comes to, thanks to Rigby’s breast-adjustment technique, she hires him to investigate her father’s apparent murder, which seems to be tied in with two lists she’s found, identifying “Friends of Carlotta” and “Enemies of Carlotta.” (Any resemblance to Vertigo’s Carlotta Valdes, My Favorite Brunette’s Carlotta Montay, or Twitter’s own @carlotta_valdes is purely coincidental.)  

Don't mess with a "Cleaning Woman!"
Don't monkey with Rigby!
I remember seeing DMDWP director Carl Reiner on a talk show (The Tonight Show, I think), pointing out the joy of seeing footage of movie stars like Ingrid Bergman woven into the film’s scenes in their prime, when they were “young and juicy.” Reiner was so right; almost every character Rigby meets while investigating the Carlotta Conspiracy is played by a major 1940s movie star, thanks to the magic of film editing. Martin and Ward, who have smoldering yet sweet romantic chemistry, are almost literally playing opposite an all-star cast with Ms. Bergman, Ava Gardner, Alan Ladd, Bette Davis, Lana Turner (forgiving Rigby for abandoning her at Schwab’s while recruiting her in the case), Charles Laughton (as sly derelict: “Know who I am?”  Rigby: “The Hunchback of Notre Dame?”), Humphrey Bogart (as Rigby’s mentor, “Marlowe”!) and, as MGM used to say, more stars than there are in Heaven, aided and abetted by Oscar-nominee Michael Chapman’s atmospheric new black-and-white cinematography.  According to the TCM Web site, Chapman spent six months researching, making sure the new film stock would closely match the classic film stock. I was especially wowed by the scene with Rigby outfoxing a Hitchcockian stranger on a train—played by Cary Grant (not Robert Walker, sorry; that would have been a 1950s movie). 

Juliet and Rigby find fun ways to spend a rainy day
Rigby and Von Kluck play "Duelling Solutions"!
Bud Molin, who worked with Reiner for years on Your Show of Shows, seamlessly edited the old and new footage together; mind you, this was in the years before CGI, when editors had to cut and paste and splice everything by hand. Production Designer John DeCuir had his work cut out for him; 85 sets were required to replicate all the sets in all those scenes from all those wonderful films! Much work and care went into making sure the costumes and hair styles on the body doubles, who were cleverly shot from behind or over their shoulders, successfully created the illusion that Martin really was interacting with all those classic movie stars.Well-done though this gimmick is, it wouldn’t have worked nearly as well without the straight-faced, spot-on comic performances of Martin, veteran Reiner, co-star Reni Santoni, and Ward at her most luscious, all doing justice to the daffy, witty screenplay. 

As is the case with the best comedies of Mel Brooks or the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker team, if you took out the jokes, DMDWP would still be a solid genre film—always a sign of real quality! It certainly didn’t hurt to have talented veterans on hand, such as costumer extraordinaire Edith Head (it was her last film; there’s a touching dedication to her in the end credits) and one of my favorite composers, Miklos Rozsa (who composed many more superb scores until his death in 1995 at the age of 88).  If you’ve already seen any of the classic films used in DMDWP, the jokes are even funnier, but even if you haven’t seen them, this slyly wacky, winsome salute to the mysteries of yore is a fun way to spend an hour and a half of your time! I only wish that the extra footage I’ve seen in the film when it's shown on broadcast TV would turn up in some kind of special DVD edition; among other things, it explains just why dead men don’t wear plaid. Or maybe TCM might want to run a night of the films used in DMDWP, since most if not all of them are in the TCM library anyway!