An Alternative Guide to Great Movies: Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982)

Steve Martin as private eye Rigby Reardon in the film noir homage Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid. Picture

Steve Martin as private eye Rigby Reardon in the film noir homage Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid. Picture: CONTRIBUTED - Credit: Archant

With blockbusters clammering for our attention at every turn it’s easy for some of the smaller, quirkier films to slip passed, unnoticed. Arts editor Andrew Clarke presents a series of idiosyncratic suggestions for movies, both old and new, that may entertain if you are in the mood for something different.

Steve Martin as private eye Rigby Reardon and Rachel Ward as Juliet Forrest in the film noir homage

Steve Martin as private eye Rigby Reardon and Rachel Ward as Juliet Forrest in the film noir homage Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid. Picture: CONTRIBUTED - Credit: Archant

Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, Dir: Carl Reiner; Starring: Steve Martin, Rachel Ward, Carl Reiner with Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, Cary Grant, Bette Davis, Ray Milland, Barbara Stanwyck, Kirk Douglas, Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake, Ava Gardner, Burt Lancaster, Charles Laughton and Vincent Price. Cert: PG

For 20 years Steve Martin, the hyper-active white-haired comedian from America’s Saturday Night Live sketch show, was one of Hollywood’s funniest, most reliable comic talents.

During the 1980s and ‘90s he gave the world The Jerk, The Man with Two Brains, Roxanne and Bowfinger – a string of acknowledged classics which showcased his manic take on the world and it’s endlessly optimistic, if rather bizarre, citizens.

Steve Martin and Carl Reiner in the film noir homage Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid. Picture: CONTRIBUTED

Steve Martin and Carl Reiner in the film noir homage Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid. Picture: CONTRIBUTED - Credit: Archant

Then something happened. Writer-actor Martin lost his comedy mojo. As the 21st century dawned he started to turn out groan-inducing American family fare such as Cheaper By The Dozen and then committed the cardinal sin of trying to step into the shoes of comic icons like Inspector Clouseau from The Pink Panther movies and Sergeant Bilko.


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The results were so spectacularly unfunny that they virtually killed his movie career – at least on this side of the Atlantic – which is a huge shame because at the height of his powers he was a brilliant writer and performer.

Nowhere is this better demonstrated than in his 1982 movie Dead Man Don’t Wear Plaid, the affectionate send-up of 1940s film noir he co-wrote with old pal Carl Reiner. Not only is the film shot in glorious, shadow-filled, black and white, but Martin stars alongside some of Hollywood’s greatest stars of the era.

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Thanks to clever plotting and even cleverer editing and cinematography, Martin not only gets to share screen time with Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney and Bette Davis, among others, he also gets to swap dialogue with them.

Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, is for intents and purposes, the most-star-filled movies of all time. But, it’s not just a technical exercise and it’s certainly not a gimmick, it’s a brilliantly funny film and a forgotten gem.

It’s a loving homage to a lost era of film-making. An era of small scale crime pictures, which were churned out, almost as routine, but along the way they became classics. Today, films like these are given the blockbuster treatment and made to tell epic tales and sold as must-see movie events.

Film noir made a virtue of its small scale and down-at-heel characters. These stories were full of dark deeds being carried out in dimly lit back alleys. This was partly to boost atmosphere but also to hide cheap sets.

This is the world that Martin and Reiner pay loving tribute to. Martin plays down-on-his luck private eye Rigby Reardon who is hired by wealthy Juliet Forrest, played with sexy elegance by Thorn Birds star Rachel Ward, to track down the killers of her father. Dr Forrest is an eminent scientist who experiments with creating new types of cheese as a sideline. It is this research which has attracted attention from the underworld.

In a wonderful piece of tongue-in-cheek, self-aggrandisement, Martin’s Rigby Reardon has Humphrey Bogart as famous private eye Phillip Marlowe do all his donkey work, checking the backgrounds of the suspects and so keeps popping up throughout the movie.

Although this is an out and out comedy, Martin, Ward and Reiner play it relatively straight, so that their performances don’t appear out of place when they encounter their iconic co-stars. The matching of old and new footage is seamlessly done and the mingling of dialogue is hilarious. Martin even manages to strangle Bette Davis which is later seen to be a key plot point in the story.

As the action takes place in the 1940s, it is no surprise that the Nazi’s figure heavily in the plot but to reveal any more would spoil the brilliantly ridiculous denouement.

Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid – one of Marlowe’s favourite sayings it turns out – was clearly a labour of love. It shows an amazing in-depth knowledge of the films raided for clips and these are seamlessly woven into the narrative but more than that it is a wonderful, inventive character-driven movie that still produces huge laughs with each re-viewing.

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