by Jenny Jones
Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid utilizes an innovative conceit. The plot of this hard boiled, classic-feeling noir was created through the intercutting of new black-and-white lensed scenes of detective Rigby Rearden (Steve Martin) with actual footage of noir movies from the 40s. The result is an affectionate homage to the distinctive and influential noir genre. Many of the best, model noirs are represented, such as The Big Sleep, Double Indemnity, and The Postman Always Rings Twice, and the most revered actors of the category are spotlighted, from the fast-talking Bette Davis to the iconic detective Humphrey Bogart. While a loving tribute to noir, the film also works on the level of a parody, spoofing elements of the genre.
Director: Carl Reiner
Producers: William E. McEuen, David V. Picker
Writers: Steve Martin, George Gipe, Carl Reiner
Cinematographer: Michael Chapman
Editor: Bud Molin
Music: Miklos Rozsa
Cast: Steve Martin, Rachel Ward, Alan Ladd, Carl Reiner, Barbara Stanwyk, Ray Milland, Ava Gardner, Burt Lancaster, Humphrey Bogart, Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, Bette Davis.
Genre: Comedy / Crime / Noir
US Theatrical Release: May 21, 1982
US Distributor: Universal Pictures
I imagine that The Jerk-famed writing/directing duo of Steve Martin and Carl Reiner had great fun making Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid: the makers’ adoration of noir is exhibited in the plot’s mostly smooth transitions—a feat particularly notable considering the technological era in which it was made. Kudos to the painstaking editing of Michael Chapman, who previously had devised the method of intercutting music in the penultimate scenes of violence in The Godfather.
But despite the obvious love of the genre, the movie isn’t fully effective. Martin, who so perfectly inhabits the main character in The Jerk with his wacky sensibility, twinkling eyes, and warm smile, fails here—for the very opposite reason. Noirs hinge on their darkness. These films, with their convoluted plots, gritty urban locales and unhappy endings—exude an acute aura of pessimism akin to no other genre. Martin, frankly, is too goofy and spastic to do this film justice, even with its level of parody. The role really requires someone with gravitas to wring more humor from the sardonic dialogue and in order for the parody to pack more of a punch. Case in point is Reardon’s female counterpart, Juliet Forest, played by Rachel Ward. Ward, with her sultry voice and body and deadpan delivery, is believable in the part of a classic noir heroine, making it all the more hilarious when she gutsily sucks bullet after bullet from Martin’s chest. Carl Reiner makes a typically off-putting cameo as a Nazi who has been pulling all the strings.
Even with Martin’s faults, I’ll take watching two hours of him—as long as he’s with Douglas, Stanwyk, Lancaster, Gardner, Grant, Bergman, Lake and Turner—over most contemporary alternatives any day.
Noirs with scenes in Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid:
The Big Sleep (1946)
The Bribe (1949)
Dark Passage (1947)
Double Indemnity (1944)
The Glass Key (1942)
I Walk Alone (1947)
In a Lonely Place (1950)
Johnny Eager (1941)
The Killers (1946)