Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982)

Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982)

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It's what all gumshoes did in them days. Honest.
It’s what all gumshoes did in them days. Honest.

Twitter Plot Summary: An homage to film noir, mixing archive film footage with Steve Martin’s private eye who’s investigating a mysterious death.

Genre: Comedy/Crime/Mystery/Thriller

Director: Carl Reiner

Key Cast: Steve Martin, Rachel Ward, Carl Reiner, George Gaynes.

Five Point Summary:

1. Mixing archive footage with Steve Martin? Win.
2. Every film noir cliche is out in force, and delightfully spoofed.
3. How many times has Steve Martin been shot now? Still funny every time.
4. The archive footage thing is starting to wear thin now. Hey ho.
5. Vincent Price! Sweet.

After working together on The Jerk, Steve Martin reunited with director Carl Reiner for this spoof of Hollywood’s film noir movies of the 1940s, shot in black and white to maintain that style. Steve Martin even has black hair for the role, later repeated when he appeared in Little Shop of Horrors. The twist here is that Steve Martin’s amusing antics are intercut with footage from old classics from the same time period, with Martin appearing as though he’s sharing the screen with Hollywood greats such as Cary Grant and Humphrey Bogart. The latter is actually involved with one of the funnier gags about wearing ties. Yeah, ties. I know.

The material works because the archive footage is from serious film noir movies, juxtaposed with some strong jokes and improvisation from writers Carl Reiner, Steve Martin and George Gipe. It’s also a very cheap way to make a film – if half of the footage is from old classics then you only need to spend half the usual amount of time making it. The problem is that, whilst a fun idea at the start, the archive footage conceit starts to grate after the first 45 minutes. Whilst it remains funny from start to finish, you’re left wishing for a wholly original story rather than seeing constant clips from old Hollywood films. That or less clips are used to reach the comparatively insane finale where it turns out Nazis are to blame. It’s a great idea but narratively it’s hamstrung by being forced down certain paths just because they insisted on using archive footage. Used sparingly this technique can work very well, and again the first half of the film is a perfect mix of new footage and archive clips. It’s when it starts pushing towards a resolution that it gets hoisted by its own petard.

There was something deeply disturbing about that bird.
There was something deeply disturbing about that bird.

The “modern” performances are typical of the era, specifically that they’re very good. Martin in particular is incredibly funny, hardboiled ironic voiceover mixed with some simple yet effective gags. Rachel Ward is the archetype femme fatale, although she’s never quite sure of her own accent – is she English or American? Or both?! It’s not important. There’s an air of Kathleen Turner’s husky voice to her performance. Carl Reiner also shows up as a distinctly Germanic butler, but to say any more would give the whole thing away (even though I’ve already said that Nazis are involved at the finale). Also if you see the trailer it’s all spoiled there too. So it goes. Reiner is superbly funny despite only having a limited screen presence. Probably sensible given that he was also in the director’s chair.

Then of course there are the stars of yesteryear, their performances made comedic from having played it straight in the original movies. Of course it’s the writing from Martin, Reiner and Gipe that make it work, without some sharp-minded writing at work it could’ve fallen terribly flat. A satisfying entry in Steve Martin’s career, far better than the low points (cough, Pink Panther) but not necessarily his finest hour.

Favourite scene: Steve Martin making a cup of java.

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

Silly Moment: Every time Steve Martin gets shot in the arm.

Score: 3/5

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