Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982)

Where could Steve Martin and Carl Reiner go after The Jerk and The Man with Two Brains? How about to the world of film noir?

At lunch with Reiner and screenwriter George Gip, Martin discussed using a clip from an old film as part of a story he was writing. From that came the idea to use old clips throughout a movie to remix, recut and reframe an entirely new narrative that would place Martin into the world of film noir, using some of those that helped make those classic films, like costume designer Edith Head*, who made more than twenty suits and production designer John DeCuir, who designed 85 sets for the film.

Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid casts Martin as Rigby Reardon, who comes to the aid of cheese heiress Juliet Forrest (Sela Ward) after the mysterious death of her father. Throughout the narrative, they come into contact with all manner of famous actors and characters, including Alan Ladd as The Exterminator who attacks Martin (taken from This Gun for Hire), Barbara Stanwyck from Sorry, Wrong Number, Ray Milland from The Lost Weekend, Ava Gardner footage taken from both The Killers and The Bribe, Burt Lancaster from The KillersHumphrey Bogart as Philip Marlowe using scenes from The Big Sleep, In a Lonely Place and Dark Passage, Cary Grant from Suspicion, Ingrid Bergman from Notorious, Veronica Lake** from The Glass Key, Bette David from Deception, Lana Turner footage from Johnny Eager and The Postman Always Rings Twice, Edward Arnold from Johnny Eager, Kirk Douglas from Walk Alone, Fred MacMurray from Double Indemnity, James Cagney from White Heat, Joan Crawford from Humoresque and Charles Laughton and Vincent Price from The Bribe. Whew!

These eighteen movies*** — plus footage shot at Culver City’s Laird International Studios, the same place where SuspicionRebecca and Spellbound were all made — creates a narrative all its own, much how beats and samples come together to make a new song within the world of hip hop.

There’s so much detail in this movie, which is because of the talents of the filmmakers, including  director of photography Michael Chapman , who worked with Technicolor to seamlessly match the old film clips with his new footage.

I find it really intriguing that Martin came out of another period piece, Pennies from Heaven, into this movie, while Sela Ward played the woman at the center of the modern noir Sharky’s Machine before this.

The new blu ray re-release of this movie from Kino Lorber includes new commentary by filmmaker Allan Arkush and film historian/filmmaker Daniel Kremer, as well as four radio commercials, three TV ads, a theatrical trailer and the Buttometer teaser trailer. I’m beyond excited to have this movie in my library.

* *The film was dedicated to Head, who died soon after it was completed, with the credits saying, “To her, and to all the brilliant technical and creative people who worked on the films of the 1940’s and 1950’s, this motion picture is affectionately dedicated.”

**Cheryl Rainbwaux Smith also was the double for Lake in this scene, which I heartily endorse.

*** Nineteen if you count the car crash in the beginning, which came from Keeper of the Flame.

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