Directed By: Carl Reiner
Starring: Steve Martin, Rachel Ward, Alan Ladd
Tag line: "Laugh... or I'll blow your lips off!"
Trivia: Star Steve Martin appears in drag in this movie
If it hadn’t been for Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, a 1982 black & white comedy directed by Carl Reiner and starring Steve Martin, I would have never seen some of the best movies of the 1940s and ‘50s. A spoof of detective flicks that re-uses scenes from about 20 classic film noirs, allowing Martin and his co-stars to interact with the likes of Humphrey Bogart, Cary Grant, Joan Crawford, and Veronica Lake, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid introduced me to The Lost Weekend, The Big Sleep, even Double Indemnity. And after watching this movie again today, I realize there are still a few I haven’t checked out yet!
Private eye Rigby Reardon (Martin) hasn’t had a case in weeks. That all changes when Juliet Forrest (the stunning Rachel Ward) walks into his office. Convinced the so-called “accident” that claimed her father’s life was really murder, she hires Reardon to investigate. Armed only with two lists of names (the “Friends” and “Enemies” of “Carlotta”), he crosses paths with a variety of lowlifes, all of whom clearly know more than they’re letting on. But Reardon’s investigation takes an unexpected turn when the clues lead him to a small island off the coast of Peru, where he comes face-to-face with some pretty dangerous characters.
While the film’s two stars have some funny moments together (Juliet has an interesting way of removing bullets from Reardon’s body), the best scenes in Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid are the ones where Martin, by way of some clever editing, meets up with the stars of yesteryear. When Reardon gets into a jam, he calls his colleague, Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart, taken from The Big Sleep, among others), to ask for his help, and at one point, he nearly strangles poor Bette Davis to death (a scene lifted from 1946’s Deception). But, for me, the absolute best sequence is when Reardon pays a visit to Cody Jarrett, James Cagney’s character from the classic White Heat, who’s locked away in prison. Posing as Jarrett’s mother, Reardon, decked out in a black dress, tries to find out what Jarrett knows about the Friends of Carlotta, and the way Martin handles their “conversation” is priceless.
Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid isn’t the funniest Reiner / Martin film. In fact, taking into account the remaining three comedies they made together, namely The Jerk in 1979, The Man With Two Brains in 1983 and All of Me in 1984, I’d say this one finishes a distant 4th. But while it won’t tickle your funny bone quite as often as their other collaborations, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid is definitely the director’s / star’s most creative venture, and if you’re a fan of old-time movies, I’m betting you’ll like what you see.