Monday, August 15, 2016

Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid (1982)

The Parody film, or spoof - a "humorous imitation of something in which its characteristic features are exaggerated for comic effect," are nothing new. They have been around since the dawn of film. In recent decades, the output of parody films has risen, with some of the best made in the 1980s and 90s. The films of Mel Brooks immediately spring to mind: Blazing Saddles (Westerns), Young Frankenstein (Horror), Robin Hood: Men in Tights (Swashbucklers & Action), and several of his other films. Brooks of course isn't the first one to spoof those genre's and he certainly isn't the last.

One of my favorite spoofs is Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid (1982), a spoof of the Film Noir genre and directed by television's great Carl Reiner (The Dick Van Dyke Show). Not only is it hilarious, but it's full of familiar Film Noir faces: Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson, Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurrey, Ava Gardner, Burt Lancaster and several more. And yes, this movie is from 1982.

The film stars Steve Martin (whose birthday was Sunday). Filmed in black and white, the movie uses clips of Classic Films Noir and intersperses them with new footage of Steve Martin, to make an entirely new film. The editing (by Bud Molin) is fantastic in this film as the old and the new blend seamlessly. The idea came to Martin, Reiner, and George Gipe during a lunch meeting where they were discussing a script that Martin had written. "What if we used a clip from an old movie in this thing?" quickly became "What if we did a whole movie using old clips?" It was an idea liked by all. Reiner and Gipe sifted through hours of film to find singles and over-the-shoulder shots that they could easily incorporate Martin into. They also listened for dialogue that could be worked into an original story. They ended up using clips from 19 different films and 18 different Noir actors. "We came up with a plot that certainly wasn't any more confusing than The Big Sleep."
According to Alan Ladd's #1 fan, Hamlette, he was actually 5'6" or 5'7"

I knew it was a one-in-a-million idea.

To do the costumes for the film, Edith Head came on board. "When Edith Head said she'd take the assignment, I knew we had a good movie," Reiner remembered. Martin said, "I felt a sense of history working with her and I wanted to live up to what she presented." Head made over 20 suits for Martin alone, injecting classic 40s style suits with a little bit of the 80s. She was also called upon to recreate costumes she had designed over 40 years ago. In one scene, Martin dresses like Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity. She had come full circle in her career. Two weeks after production wrapped, Head passed away.

The over 85 sets used in the film were created by Production Designer John De Cuir. He recreated sets to match the clips used in the film as well as original sets in the style of Classic Film Noir, like the quintessential cluttered detectives office. The Director of Photography watched Noir films to study the lighting and camera angles so that the old and new would match.

Martin with Cary Grant (Hitchcock's Suspicion)

The only person who didn't watch a lot of Noir films during preparation was it's star. His reason? "Simply because I didn't want to act like Humphrey Bogart. It is very easy to pick up his style. I consciously stayed away from them because I didn't want to be influenced." The result was one of the most unique films ever made, with Martin bringing the perfect amount of humor that the film called for.

Your typical Noir detective

In the film, Martin is a detective named Reardon hired by the beautiful Juliet Forrest (Rachel Ward) to investigate the murder of her father, who was a prominent scientist and cheesemaker. In Dr. Forrest's office, Reardon finds two lists: Friends of Carlotta and Enemies of Carlotta. He also finds a signed photo of Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner). The lists are stolen from him by Alan Ladd, who shoots Reardon in the arm (he gets shots in the same arm multiple times throughout the film). After Juliet removes the bullet, he begins to look up the people that were on the lists. The investigation eventually leads to South America (where his pajamas get dirty). He also falls in love with Juliet, despite the warnings of his partner Marlowe (Bogart).

I won't tell you how it ends (it involves cheese and Nazis). You'll have to watch the movie yourself (or look up the synopsis), but if you love Film Noir, you will love guessing what film all the clips come from (or you can scroll to the bottom of this post). Carl Reiner and Reni Santoni also star in the film.

The beautiful Juliet Forrest (Rachel Ward)

Note: Unfortunately this film is not appropriate for children - unless you're good with the mute button - as there are several references to female body parts.



This post is part of The Film Noir Blogathon hosted by The Midnite Drive-In. Be sure to read all of the other posts! Also, check out my other post, Not Your Typical Noir: Nobody Lives Forever (1946).

Scroll down to see all the actors and films used (or don't and just watch Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid and test your knowledge of Noir films)


  1. The only disappointment to this movie was the fact that they didn't make the sequel "with a possible nude scene by Juliet." (Sorry I couldn't resist...) I SO want to find a copy of "The Bribe" since a major section at the end has scenes from it. Good review. Thanks.

    1. Is that a quote from the film? It's been a while since I saw it...

      Thanks so much for hosting!

    2. Yes, at the very end, Martin (as Reardon), in a voice over, comments that they had a future adventure which was soon "coming to a theater near you."

  2. This film was so cool! I've been a fan of Steve Martin for years, and this is one of the mopst unique films in his career. I liked to do the "guessing game" while wacthing and the plot made me laugh a lot.
    Don't forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)

    1. When I watched it the first time I hadn't seen many noire and didn't know a few of the actors even!! Still have several of the movies to see but I know everyone's name now!!

  3. I love this of my favorite comedies of all time! So well done, and with so many funny lines; it took me years to clue in to the 'Hunchback of Notre Dame' comment made by Martin to Charles Laughton! Thanks for spotlighting this one, Phyllis...I'm ready to watch it again!

    1. It is a great one and one that I feel not many know about, which is why I wanted to write about it!

      Thanks for reading, Todd!

  4. My college roommate was a major Steve Martin fan, so I've seen a pretty large number of his movies, and this was one of our mutual favorites. But I haven't seen it since college, and I hadn't seen nearly as much noir back then as I have now, so yeah... time for a rewatch. My library doesn't have it, alas, but there's always Amazon...

    (But that sheet is wrong -- Alan Ladd wasn't 5'4". He was either 5'6" or 5'7".