When this film was made, Steve Martin had already teamed up with director Carl Reiner on the vastly overrated but successful The Jerk, which had Stanley Kubrick as one of its many fans. Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid is an altogether different beast, and perhaps the finest achievement of the projects Steve Martin originated, even though Bowfinger comes awfully close. When the film came out in 1982 it was a modest success but not as big of a hit as its predecessor, which is a real shame.
Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid is a loving pastiche and tribute to film noir, and unlike any other feature film out there (except for experimental shorts) it is actually a collage film, because it inserts clips from 19 different film noirs. Juliet Forrest (Rachel Ward) suspects that the death of her scientist/cheese-maker father isn’t just an accident, but that there were sister forces behind it. She enlists the help of the private investigator Rigby Reardon (Steve Martin). Soon the PI is in a world of intrigue, femme fatales, crossdressing, spiked drinks and Nazis.
This film could have fallen apart so badly by using clips of Humphrey Bogart, Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake, Fred MacMurray, Vincent Price, Burt Lancaster, James Cagney and numerous others. It’s a real testament to film editor Bud Molin, who worked almost primarily in comedy for his entire career, that it worked. This incredible achievement should have got him a lot more jobs. Carl Reiner and screenwriter George Gipe delved deep into the world of film noir to get the right clips: specifically, ones vague enough that you could write a script around them.
Steve Martin is credited as one of the screenwriters, but I gather that it’s more his character than the rest of the script that he was responsible for. He deliberately stayed away from the noir orgies because he didn’t want his performance influenced. His performance is perfectly pitched, combining the silliness he was known for with the right amount of seriousness to act alongside all these great actors who appear via the clips. Rachel Ward as Forrest is having a ball too, and she actually would end up being in some key neo-noirs later on in her career. Carl Reiner also brings out his inner Otto Preminger in the film’s climax.
It is also notable for being the final film for two veterans closely connected to noir. First up is costume designer Edith Head, who worked most notably with Hitchcock but who also designed the clothes for many of the films that were edited into Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid. Head had to replicate many of the clothes she had designed decades previously for Martin so that he could match the footage. She went down in history as one of the few costume designers in film history who became a household name, Sandy Powell would be her contemporary equivalent. It was also Miklós Rózsa’s final film. Rózsa had been a composer for many of the same films that Head worked on.
Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid remains a slightly forgotten film in Martin’s career, but it should be held up as a high-water mark of his brand of comedy. It’s super-inventive, especially with the editing, and remains funny. Hopefully the new Blu-ray from Fabulous Films will find this movie some new fans. The only extra on the disc is a trailer.