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 FordhamUniversity 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 extraordinaireEdith 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!