How Steve Martin Hassled Hollywood in ‘Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid’
Steve Martin and Carl Reiner’s film noir homage/pastiche Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid may be a stunt, but the meticulous yet free-spirited collage of detective movie cliches and signature '80s Martin physical comedy is a remarkably elaborate and surprisingly clever one.
Screenwriters Martin, Reiner and George Gipe didn’t simply use camera tricks to give comedy superstar Martin an excuse to goof on old movies. Instead, Martin is inserted into a story ingeniously woven through snatches of 19 classic Hollywood films with such care that he, in his crisp suits and period-dyed jet-black hair, could almost be mistaken for a credible '40s lead. (Think Dana Andrews with a screw loose.)
For 1982 filmgoers, Martin and Reiner’s one-joke premise was a demographic gauge of viewers’ sense of humor. Older viewers watching Martin’s absurdly dapper private dick Rigby Reardon interact with iconic movie stars like Bette Davis, Kirk Douglas, Lana Turner, Ingrid Bergman and others would recognize the films and performances spliced expertly into the film’s deliberately ridiculous tale of a post-WWII Nazi conspiracy involving deadly cheese bombs. Younger viewers, especially in the days before streaming or even readily available home video, were invariably drawn to The Jerk-era Martin alone and accepted his Reardon seducing Ava Gardner and being choked out by Vincent Price as just part of the gag.
Sure, Reardon uses some Hays Code-inappropriate language at times, but the hard-boiled genre’s conventions left the filmmakers plenty of room to adapt Martin’s persona to the tale of a '40s gumshoe hired by a mysterious and beautiful dame (Australian actress Rachel Ward). Martin’s Reardon expertly strikes matches with his thumbnail before flicking them unerringly into a distant ashtray in an approximation of tough-guy cool just heightened enough to be plausible for Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe on a good day. (Former magician Martin’s nimble fingers are constantly fiddling with the props.) That Humphrey Bogart himself appears as a character named Marlowe isn’t the joke. It’s that this Marlowe (culled from Bogart pictures like The Big Sleep, Dark Passage and In a Lonely Place) is portrayed as Reardon’s boozy former mentor and current lackey, berated at one point for not wearing the ties that Reardon keeps giving him.
Watch the Trailer for 'Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid'
The premise of the movie, in less committed hands, would function as nothing but a quickly exhausted gimmick. Reiner and Martin, however, sought to send up the private-eye genre from the inside, incorporating Martin’s Rigby Reardon into a legit-looking postwar detective drama. To do that, they assembled some staggering old-school talent.
Legendary costume designer Edith Head had dressed the stars of some of the actual films Reiner was pulling scenes from (including The Glass Key, Sorry, Wrong Number, Double Indemnity and The Long Weekend). Oscar-winning composer Miklos Rozsa had done the original scores for The Lost Weekend and Double Indemnity, while production designer John DeCuir had, likewise, been in the business since the '40s. For Head and Rozsa, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid would be their final film.
Within each scene where Martin, Ward and Reiner (playing Ward’s duplicitous German butler and secret Nazi mastermind) interact with the likes of Cary Grant (left napping by Reardon in a train car) or Charles Laughton (unsuccessfully bribing Reardon to dump the case), Reiner, along with editor Bud Molin, never settle for the mere appearance of famous faces alongside Martin as constituting the gag. They deploy body doubles and match the black-and-white cinematography, film grain and sound levels with the idea that the more Reardon appears to live in that world, the funnier his antics will be.
And the antics are some prime, '80s-era Martin, while still hewing close enough to the slightly elevated comic tone to maintain the sweep of the admittedly silly mystery. Trading tough-guy talk and private-eye lingo with aplomb, Martin’s Reardon is a legit hard-boiled private eye — right until he dodges a gunshot with signature Steve Martin balletic flair or succumbs to the mickey slipped to him by Ingrid Bergman by barking like a dog and shaving his tongue. Throughout the film, Reardon often appears to be doing something stupid (like watching the cab he’d just hired drive off without him), before revealing that it was all part of his absurd method. (“Follow that cab!” he barks at the only other remaining taxi, thus ensuring that Cary Grant can’t follow him to Ingrid Bergman’s house.)
If the movie flags a bit toward the end, it’s because Reardon has to reengage with the ridiculous plot, necessitating an overreliance on clips from the same movie. (The 1949 spy drama The Bribe, from which the movie swipes Laughton, Gardner, Price and Martin’s moniker “Rigby,” is called upon often.) Plus, there’s the occasional atonal grab for a wackier or cruder joke, as when, queried by Ward about a list named “F.O.C.,” Martin patiently starts to explain, “It’s a slang word. When a man and a woman love each other, the man takes his ... “
Ward, although a dead ringer for any number of period femmes fatales in Head’s glorious costumery, fares worst in that regard, being given too many double entendres with an unnecessarily smutty edge. (Paraphrasing To Have and Have Not’s famous, “You know how to whistle, don’t you?” line, Ward aims much lower, in every sense.) And then there’s her introduction, where, upon swooning in Reardon’s office thanks to a requisite, plot-driving trauma, Martin winds up essentially committing sexual assault on her, a gag that feels sour even as it (perhaps) intends to parody the genre’s inherent misogyny.
Still, there’s a remarkable consistency to both the jokes and the film’s whole look that turns Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid into more than just a stylistic lark. Apart from the impressive technical achievement involved, the film adapts itself to the conventions it's spoofing with just enough of a knowing wink. Reardon’s one ridiculous hair-trigger weakness (the phrase “cleaning woman” is his berserk button) comes right out of such ham-handed period takes on PTSD as Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound, which is not one of the films sampled here. And, unfortunate initial treatment aside, the way that the game Ward is repeatedly roughed up (only to, more often than not, accept her treatment as just the way things are) gradually coalesces into a coherent take on old-school gender roles.
For all the technical wizardry and the novelty, however, this is Steve Martin’s movie, and he’s truly never been funnier. Yoking Martin to such a rigid structure and well-conceived character reins in some of the showier aspects of his early “wild and crazy guy” instincts, and it makes Rigby Reardon feel only a few degrees off from authenticity. The best joke in the movie sees Reardon, attempting to rouse a groggy Burt Lancaster (right before he gets his in The Killers) with a cup of his “famous java.”
Watch the 'Famous Java' Scene From 'Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid'
Martin’s deadpan approach to shaking out a seemingly endless bag of coffee grounds is an example of a joke that wears out its welcome — before coming all the way around again to unexpected hilarity.
That Martin and Reiner have the patience for that joke to land shows a restraint that brings both of the film’s comic tones together in one classic extended gag. That’s not a bad description of Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, honestly.