Published January 5, 2010

WORDSLINGER’S NOTE: I’m going to start featuring reviews of some of my favorite films, many of which — while not forgotten — have been out of the mainstream so long, they’ve been neglected.  If I can introduce someone to a great film they’ve never seen before … my work will not be in vain.

When Steve Martin made his leap from the stage to the Big Screen with 1979’s The Jerk, he did so with the help of legendary writer/director Carl Reiner. These two would make three more films together, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982), The Man With Two Brains (1983), and All of Me (1984). While all of these movies are entertaining and have their diehard fans, perhaps the most underappreciated is their sophomoric sophomore effort Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid.
Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid
Meant as an homage/spoof of hardboiled detective stories and the film noir classics of the 1930s and 40s, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid was initially written off by many critics as a “one joke movie.” True, but when the joke is this funny, the film so lovingly crafted, the hero so charismatic, and the femme fatale (or is she?) so drop dead gorgeous, it’s hard to go wrong.

Martin stars as Rigby Reardon, a detective who has fallen on hard times, who must help a damsel in distress, Juliet Forrest (Rachel Ward – never more lovely) solve the mystery of her father’s murder. Any plot description beyond that would miss the point entirely.

Twelve years before director Robert Zemekis would insert Tom Hanks’ Forrest Gump into old news footage using CGI, Reiner did the same thing using only editing, old fashioned photographic techniques, and brilliant set design. Martin’s gumshoe interacts with a slew of Hollywood’s elite, including Edward Arnold, Ingrid Bergman, Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, William Conrad, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Kirk Douglas, Ava Gardner, Cary Grant, Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake, Burt Lancaster, Charles Laughton, Fred MacMurray, Ray Milland, Edmund O’Brien, Vincent Price, Barbara Stanwyck, and Lana Turner, among others. Using clips from Johnny Eager (1941), Deception (1946), Humoresque (1946), The Big Sleep (1946), The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), Dark Passage (1947), The Bribe (1949), White Heat (1949), Suspicion (1941), Notorious (1946), I Walk Alone (1947), Sorry, Wrong Number (1948), Whirlpool (1949), and In a Lonely Place (1950), Martin is ingeniously grafted into these scenes to great comedic effect. Gimmicky? Sure … but the effect is seamless and very entertaining.

It is also very silly. Like the line that Juliet flings at Rigby, aping Lauren Bacall’s classic line from To Have and Have Not. “You know how to dial, don’t you? You just put your finger in the hole and make tiny little circles.”

Rachel Ward
Or Martin’s deadpan narration with lines like:

“I hadn’t seen a body like that since I solved the case of the murdered woman with the big tits.”

“All dames are alike: they reach down your throat and they can grab your heart, pull it out, and they throw it on the floor, step on it with their high heels, spit on it, shove it in the oven, and cook the shit out of it. Then they slice it into little pieces, slam it on a hunk of toast, and serve it to you, and then expect you to say, ‘Thanks, honey, it was delicious.’ “

“Her lips were warm, and my arm wasn’t the only thing that was throbbing. Our hearts were, too. My plan was to kiss her with every lip on my face … then slowly move her to the next room, maneuver her next to the bed, marry her, and start the whoopee machine.”

There are waaaay too many others to list here.

This was also the final film of legendary Hollywood designer Edith Head. Somehow, this was an appropriate sendoff.

With four extremely entertaining films between them, it’s a wonder Martin and Reiner haven’t reunited for more. I would certainly lay down cash to see another.

For a film that is nearly 30 years old, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid has not only stood the test of time, but has seemingly improved with age. As far as Steve Martin movies go, this one remains my personal favorite.

Never seen it? If you are a fan of old film noir, or that wild and crazy guy himself, seek it out. And get ready to laugh. Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid is truly a forgotten classic.