Synopsis: As the private eye of private eyes, Steve Martin is Rigby Reardon. He’s tough, rough and ready to take on anything when Juliet Forrest appears on the scene with a case: her father, a noted scientist, philanthropist and chesemaker, has died mysteriously. Reardon immediately smells a rat and follows a complex maze of clues that lead him to the “Carlotta Lists.”
With a little help from his “friends” Reardon gets his man. An exciting action-fun packed film the way ’40s films used to be!
‘Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid’ is a great concept: it’s a comedic film noir rooted in the classics of Hollywood cinema. The way it works is that the main character, played by Steve Martin, interacts with actors in older films through the magic of editing – thus, the film becomes part-pastiche and part original material.
However, the end result is wholly original: Martin and director Carl Reiner wrote a story that, through various hilarious contrivances, incorporates completely unrelated material into new contexts. And so, Edward Arnold, Ingrid Bergman, Humphrey Bogart, Wally Brown, James Cagney, William Conrad, Jeff Corey, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Brian Donlevy, Kirk Douglas, Ava Gardner, Cary Grant, Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake, Charles Laughton,Fred MacMurray, Charles McGraw, Ray Milland, Edmond O’Brien, Vincent Price, Barbara Stanwyck and Lana Turner, all find themselves in silly situations despite themselves.
And it actually works.
Of course, it’s almost always obvious that old footage was used: the quality of the films don’t often match each other (DMDWP was made before the digital age, after all!). But it’s a minor detail when you consider the amount of work that must have gone into watching all these films over and over again, taking down notes and trying to fit all the various pieces together. Simply from a writer’s perspective, it must have been both a challenge and a sheer pleasure to make this happen.
Unfortunately, the film starts off with a joke a second but tapers off about halfway through. If I were to compare both halves, I’d say the first part is an 8.5 vs 7.0 for the second part (to which math geniuses will immediately point out doesn’t add up to an 8.0. Agreed, but my rating aren’t mathematically accurate – it takes a LOT to get an 8.5 or a 9.0). Oh, don’t get me wrong: the second half is still good – but it’s hardly as funny.
Overall, the writing is inspired here, and it’s amongst Martin’s best work. Granted, it gets a little ludicrous at times – but that’s part of its charm (especially when you consider the ways in which he and Reiner twisted all these unrelated parts to fit). The acting also has its over-the-top moments, but it’s nothing out of the ordinary for this type of comedy or Martin’s films in general.
Between ‘Dead Mean Don’t Wear Plaid’, ‘Pennies From Heaven’, ‘The Lonely Guy’ and ‘The Man With Two Brains’, I’d have to say that this was Steve Martin’s best streak. It’s a shame that only a few years later he’d be trawling comedy’s pits, because, had he continued with material like this I think that his star wouldn’t have faded as it did by the time the ’90s rolled.
Still, with home video, we can revisit his greatest moments anytime now – and ‘Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid’ certainly is a great one for a slow Saturday night. Basically, it’s perfect for fans of Steve Martin, comedies in general, satire, film noir, and old Hollywood; there’s a little bit fun for almost everyone.