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FIVE STAR FILMS #88: Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (Carl Reiner – 1982)


11982 was a huge year for iconic film releases, many of which now have cult-movie status: Rocky III, Gandhi, Poltergeist, Blade Runner, The Thing, Tootsie, The Verdict, An Officer and a Gentleman, Friday the 13th Part III, Sophie’s Choice, and of course E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial – the US box-office’s highest-grossing film of the year (and still in the top 5 highest-grossing films of all time).

My next Five-Star Film pick was also released in 1982 (US-release May 21st: prior to most of the above list, which were predominantly US-Summer or later releases). It’s Carl Reiner’s hilarious and truly delightful Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid. There’s just so much to love about this film, including:

1.THE PREMISE

Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid is a black-and-white comedy that both parodies and pays homage to film noir and detective films of the 1940s. The ‘current day’ (ie filmed in 1981) leads in the film are ‘gum shoe’ detective Rigby Reardon (Steve Martin) and femme fatale Juliet Forrest (Rachel Ward). Juliet seeks out Rigby to help solve the mystery of her father’s (assumed) murder.

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As Rigby goes about his work, he crosses paths with various (… and this is genius!) characters from original film noir and detective films from the 1941-1950 period. By the fantastic use of stock footage (and expert direction, production design, costume design, camerawork, editing etc) we get to behold Rigby interacting with Humphrey Bogart, Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, Bette Davis, James Cagney, Charles Laughton, Lana Turner, Ava Gardner, Veronica Lake, Vincent Price, Joan Crawford, Kirk Douglas, Fred MacMurray and a dozen more Golden Age Hollywood stars.

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[SIDE NOTE: The following year, Woody Allen would use a similar technique to integrate stock footage into Zelig (1983)]

Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid is not only a technical marvel, but it’s also genuinely hilarious, clever and innovative. To call it just a ‘gimmick movie’ is selling it short.  Yes, the brilliant premise is at the heart of the film, but if the ‘gimmick’ wasn’t so expertly executed, the film wouldn’t be the artistic success that it is.

2. REINER AND HIS STELLAR CREATIVE TEAM

The wonderful Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid screenplay was co-written by Reiner, Martin and George Gipe. Reiner initially spent six months watching every available 1930s to 1950s film noir title, to help with the process of choosing which original actors / scenes / lines to use in the film. Eventually nineteen films were chosen. Most were Warner Bros, MGM or Universal titles, along with some from RKO, Paramount and Columbia Pictures (20th Century Fox and United Artists were the only big Golden Age studios whose films weren’t in the final mix).

Reiner’s direction of Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid is simply masterful. What a difficult directing challenge: to direct your lead actor in such a way that his acting style is not only consistent across the whole film, but also somehow ‘fits in’ with the style of the acting/direction from nineteen other films, which were in turn directed by over a dozen different directors. Credit should also go to Martin for being such a fine actor that he’s able to pull off this feat. This film, along with The Jerk (1979), The Man with Two Brains (1983) and All of Me (1984) is a testament to the brilliance of the Reiner/Martin collaboration team.

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Other exceptional key creatives who Reiner assembled to work on the film included:

* Costume Designer (and record eight-time Academy Award-winner) Edith Head, who had also designed the costumes on six of the original period films used in this film.

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Her Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid designs included nearly two dozen period suits for Martin. Unfortunately, this would be Head’s last film. The film’s end credits included a lovely tribute to Head and her technical and creative Golden Age Hollywood colleagues:

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 [SIDE NOTE: Head is a GwP Five Star Films favourite, having designed the costumes for a total of seven of my Five Star Films picks, including Double Indemnity (1944), which is one of the original films with clips in Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid].

* Production Designer (and three-time Academy Award winner) John DeCuir, who meticulously designed 85 sets for the film (most of which needed to match the sets from those in the clips from the original films). DeCuir had worked in production design since the early 1940s, and his work included such mammoth undertakings as Cleopatra (1963) and Hello, Dolly (1969). Sadly, DeCuir’s next film after Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid would be his last: Ghostbusters (1984).

* Cinematographer Michael Chapman, whose previous work included Taxi Driver (1976) and Raging Bull (1980). His future DOP work would include the iconic music video for Michael Jackson: Bad (1987), Kindergarten Cop (1990) and Primal Fear (1996).

* Film editor Bud Molin, who began in television, on shows like the iconic I Love Lucy (1953-1957), moved on to film (including all of the Reiner/Martin collaborations), and worked up until the 1990s. The final film Molin edited was Reiner’s suspense/thriller spoof Fatal Instinct (1993).

* Legendary composer Miklos Rozsa. Like Edith Head, Rozsa worked on films such as Double Indemnity and Lost Weekend (1945), before revisiting them nearly forty years later for Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (and sadly, like Head, this film would be his last). Highlights of Rosza’s 45-year career included composing the scores for nearly 100 films, including three for which he won Academy Awards: Spellbound (1945), A Double Life (1947) and Ben-Hur (1959).

3. CLIP INTEGRATION HIGHLIGHTS

There are countless magnificently seamless clip integration highlights in Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid. I’ll run through just a few of them:

* Martin fills in for Stanwyck:

Classic film lovers will be familiar with the famous scene in Double Indemnity when Fred MacMurray’s Walter surreptitiously meets up with Barbara Stanwyck’s Phyllis at the supermarket. Here, the Double Indemnity set is recreated (right down to the baby food packs), and Martin’s Rigby is costumed identical to Stanwyck’s Phyllis. The integration of old and new footage is just wonderful. From behind, it’s the real Stanwyck, and then we see Martin dressed as her in the close-ups.

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* The Cary Grant scene: Rigby (via voice-over) tells us that he’s being tailed by a ‘handsome guy in a grey pinstripe’ at a train station. Mr Handsome turns out to be Cary Grant (from 1941’s Suspicion), and the two have a conversation. The whole scene is just so beautifully executed. If a viewer wasn’t aware that the two actors’ lines were filmed over forty years apart, it would be hard to even notice anything ‘strange’ was up.

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* The Veronica Lake scene: Like to two scenes above, Rigby has a seamlessly smooth conversation with a Golden Age actor. By the clever use of a body double to portray Lake’s character from behind, along with the creation of identical sets, we truly believe Rigby has crashed a dinner party at Lake’s character’s house, and has whisked her away for a private conversation.

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4. SCRIPT HIGHLIGHTS

The fabulously witty script has countless highlights. Particularly clever script elements include:

* An in-joke where Rigby calls Field Marshall VonKluck (played by Carl Reiner himself) a jerk. It’s a cute reference to their previous collaboration on The Jerk.

* When Charles Laughton’s dishevelled character asks Rigby ‘You know who I could be?’, and Rigby’s deadpan reply is ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ – a reference to a role Laughton played a decade prior to his one in this stock footage.

* The ‘cleaning lady joke’ payoff: this is one of dozens of times where a throwaway line from one of the original clips is integrated into Rigby’s storyline – to tremendous effect.

* And possibly the best of all: an ongoing gag in which Rigby berates Humphrey Bogart (in various scenes using clips from multiple Bogart films) for not wearing a tie. It’s the joke that keeps on giving, both in the dialogue and the visual jokes.

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5. GOOD-HEARTED PARODY

One of the loveliest things about this delicious film is that while it spoofs and parodies the detective and film noir genres, it does so lovingly and with reverence. Nothing is mean-spirited. It’s a genuine homage to the earlier genres, and is executed with respect.

This film is a gift to all lovers of the Golden Age of Hollywood. If you haven’t seen the film yet, I urge you to seek it out. And if, like myself, you love the work of Carl Reiner, I recommend that you follow him on Twitter. At the time of writing, Mr Reiner is 94 and a half years old, and his daily tweets (on everything from the entertainment business, to stories about his best mate Mel Brooks or his son Rob, to current US politics) are a real treat.

Lisa Malouf – follow Lisa on Twitter here: @lisamalouf

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