Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid (1982)

reviewed by
Shane Burridge

Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid (1982) 89m.

It helps if you're both a Steve Martin fan and an old Hollywood movie buff to get the most out of this fastidiously engineered conceit. Martin, who co-wrote with George Gipe and director Carl Reiner, plays a private eye who is approached by slinky Rachel Ward (who brings her own performance to what might have otherwise just been a mock bombshell role) to find her missing father. The first-person narration, black and white photography, art deco titles, and opening score by Miklos Rosza establish within moments that this is going to be spoof on Raymond Chandler crime thrillers, but if you were to enter this film without knowing its central joke, then you'd no doubt be surprised to suddenly see Alan Ladd walking down a corridor while Martin rummages through an office. What DEAD MEN DON'T WEAR PLAID sets out to do - and it makes my head spin to think how many viewing hours must have been spent in order to knit this story together - is to seamlessly insert clips from classic Hollywood pictures into Martin's investigation. Among his many encounters he has telephone conversations with Bogart, shares a train compartment with Cary Grant, and makes a date with Ingrid Bergman. All in all, 18 different films and 18 different Hollywood players (some of them interweaving in and out of the same films) are edited effectively into the story. It's the visual equivalent of David Thomson's one-of-a-kind novel 'Suspects' - fortunately all the stars and their films are listed in the final credits so you don't have to drive yourself crazy trying to figure them out afterwards. The mixture of material makes it hard to determine what era DEAD MEN DON'T WEAR PLAID is supposed to be set in - Martin's reference to the Kinsey Report would place it somewhere in the 50s, which seems a bit out of place considering that all but one of the contributing films were made in the 40s.

I admire the effort that's been made with the matching. Not only the photography, but the sets, props and costumes (by no less than Edith Head!) are also tailored in service of the original footage. For the most part, the clips have also been well selected. The more familiar moments (e.g. Burt Lancaster getting plugged in THE KILLERS, James Cagney performing a casual execution in WHITE HEAT) don't work nearly as well - in fact it's annoying to see the Cagney scene, which was effectively chilling in the original, lifted out of context. Contrast this to Veronica Lake's bit, which is funny even though she says only two words. DEAD MEN DON'T WEAR PLAID was never meant to be a laugh riot - it's more an affectionate pastiche, if anything else - but some of Martin's hardboiled dialogue is hysterical. There's a few in-jokes (the 'You know how to whistle' line from TO HAVE OR HAVE NOT; a reference to Charles Laughton's star turn as THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME) but the fun comes mainly from watching Martin delivering offbeat lines to Hollywood stars who are playing their scenes straight. It should be noted that unlike many other comedies that integrate found footage, the tone of Reiner's film is never campy or patronizing to its older source material. Finally, and most importantly, DEAD MEN DON'T WEAR PLAID has one rare distinction: it includes the only scene with an actor in drag that I've actually ever found funny. Poor Fred MacMurray just didn't know what hit him.

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