Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid is a 1982 comedy film directed by Carl Reiner and starring Steve Martin and Rachel Ward. It is both a parody of, and homage to, film noir and the pulp detective movies of the 1940s and 1950s.
The film is a collage effect of old black and white movie clips from films of the 1940s and 1950s, with more recent footage of Martin and other actors (including Carl Reiner, Rachel Ward, and Reni Santoni) similarly shot in black and white. When everything is put together, the original dialogue and acting becomes part of a completely different (and ridiculous) story. This was the last film for both costume designer Edith Head and composer Miklós Rózsa.
Among the actors who appeared from classic films were Edward Arnold, Ingrid Bergman, Humphrey Bogart, Wally Brown, James Cagney, William Conrad, Jeff Corey, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Brian Donlevy, Kirk Douglas, Ava Gardner, Cary Grant, Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake, Burt Lancaster, Charles Laughton, Charles McGraw, Fred MacMurray, John Miljan, Ray Milland, Edmund O'Brien, Vincent Price, Barbara Stanwyck, Lana Turner and Norma Varden.
Film editor Bud Molin faced the challenge of linking Film Noir classics and contemporary footage.
In the opening scene, John Hay Forrest, noted scientist and cheesemaker, dies in a single-vehicle car accident. In the next scene, private investigator Rigby Reardon (Steve Martin) is reading a newspaper when Forrest's daughter, Juliet (Rachel Ward), enters his office and faints when the paper's headline reminds her of her father's death. She hires Rigby to investigate the death, which she thinks was not an accident. In Dr. Forrest's lab, Rigby finds two lists, titled "Friends of Carlotta" and "Enemies of Carlotta", respectively, and an affectionately autographed photo of singer Kitty Collins, whose name appears on one of the lists. His search is interrupted by a man posing as an exterminator (Alan Ladd, in This Gun For Hire), who shoots Rigby in the arm and frisks the lists from the supposedly dead investigator.
Rigby manages his way to Juliet's house, where she sucks out the bullet, snakebite-style. She points Rigby to the club at which Kitty sings. Juliet also discloses a note to her father from her alcoholic brother-in-law, Sam Hastings, which in turns discloses that Dr. Forrest gave him a dollar bill "for safekeeping". Despite warnings that the mentally disturbed Leona will not be of much use, Rigby calls Leona, who however answers in gibberish and hangs up. (Barbara Stanwyck, in Sorry, Wrong Number). On the way out, Juliet asks Rigby to leave further news with the butler or cleaning woman. Mention of the latter causes Rigby to go berzerk (an homage to the old Slowly I Turned vaudeville routine), due to his own father running of with the cleaning woman and his mother dying of a broken heart.
Rigby tracks down alcoholic Sam (Ray Milland, from Lost Weekend) and gets Dr. Forrest's dollar, which has "FOC" (Friends of Carlotta) names scrawled on it — including Kitty Collins and Swede Anderson (Kitty's boyfriend). Rigby tracks down Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner, from The Killers) at the Brintwood Room. He asks if she's one of Carlotta's friends, which causes her to leave abruptly. He trails her to a restaurant, where she ditches her brooch into her soup. The retrieved brooch contains an "EOC" list, on which all names are crossed out, except Swede Anderson's. Rigby visits Swede (Burt Lancaster, from The Killers) but while Rigby prepares a "java", Swede is killed
Rigby is also shot, causing Juliet to suck out another bullet. Rigby calls Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart, from The Big Sleep), his mentor, for assistance. Juliet hands over a key from Dr. Forrest's desk, a key to a train station locker. The accompanying note, "most recent rat", tells Rigby to look for locker 1936, the last Chinese Year of the Rat.The reference to 1936 being the most recent Year of the Rat, dates the plot to earlier than the next one, beginning in January 1948, while the reference to the downfall of Nazi Germany places it after May 1945. If another scene's reference to lent is made in earnest, the scene would dated to spring 1946 or 1947. Upon exiting, she asks Rigby to call with any progress. "You know how to dial, don't you? You just put your finger in the hole and make tiny little circles," a tiny little nod to To Have and Have Not. Marlowe arrives, and picks up the EOC list to check against unsolved murders.
Rigby goes to the train station to collect the contents of locker 1936, which contains more lists. A "handsome" guy (Cary Grant, from Suspicion) follows him onto a train but , Rigby puts him to sleep with the help of his harmonica. Rigby finds F.X. Huberman, whose name he found on one of the lists and who turns out to be a "classy dame", throwing a party (Ingrid Bergman, from Notorious). She flirts with Rigby (represented by Cary Grant's silhouette), then drugs his drink and steals the locker key (represented by Claude Reins' wine cellar key).
Rigby wakes up back up at his office, where Juliet informs him that Sam Hastings fell out of a window to his death. She also has a New York Times reference for him from her father's office. The reference is to an article about a South American cruise ship called Immer Essen (German: Always eating) on whose last voyage Sam Hastings was a passenger. When Marlowe (Bogart, from The Big Sleep) calls, Rigby questions him about Walter Neff, the ship's owner, amd learns that Neff cruises supermarkets looking for blondes.
Juliet offers to dye her hair to serve as bait, but Rigby is protective of her as more than a client. He first tries to recruit Monica Stillpond (Veronica Lake, from The Glass Key), but she's not as willing as she used to be. Next he tries Doris Devermont (Bette Davis, from Deception), but he ruins his chances with her by strangling her for saying "cleaning woman". Then he successfully recruits Jimmie Sue Altfeld (Lana Turner, from Johnny Eager) and unsuccessfully attempts to make peace with her father (Edward Arnold, from Johnny Eager) by giving him a puppy. He then is beat up by four thugs (Kirk Douglas and others, from I Walk Alone).
After this, Rigby disguises himself as a blonde and meets Neff (Fred MacMurray from Double Indemnity). Rigby drugs him and finds documents about the Immer Essen, including a passenger list identical to an EOC list, and articles about the ship's imprisoned captain, Cody Jarrett, who refuses to talk to anyone about it but his mother. Rigby then dresses up as Jarrett's mother to visit Jarrett in prison without arousing the prison guards' suspicion (James Cagney from White Heat). He tries to win Jarrett's confidence by explaining the Friends of Carlotta are after him. Rigby doesn't learn anything from Jarrett though, so he cashes in a favor with the warden to act as a prisoner for a few days. Jarrett turns out to be a Friend of Carlotta after all, kidnaps Rigby on a jail break, and shoots him while he's still in the trunk of the getaway car.
After sucking out a third bullet, Juliet leaves for the drugstore for medicine. On her way out, a call comes in from an old flame (Joan Crawford, in Humoresque). Juliet overhears parts of it, takes it to be a double dating by Rigby and closes the case. While Rigby is drinking, thinking himself betrayed by Juliet, Marlowe calls and tips Rigby off that Carlotta is an island off Peru (perhaps a nod to The Man Who Knew Too Much). At a cafe, Marlowe finds Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner, from The Bribe) there. Carlos Rodriguez, a local policeman from Rigby's gun-running past, warns Rigby of the locals, including Kitty's new boyfriend, Rice. The next day, one of the characters Rodriguez warned Rigby of (Charles Laughton, from The Bribe) approaches him and tries to bribe Rigby into leave the island.
Next, Kitty drops by Reardon's room. Carlos calls to tell him Rice is in town with a group of Germans when the telephone line is cut. Kitty then drugs Rigby's drink, causing him to pass out. He wakes up to see Rice (Vincent Price, from The Bribe) trying to suffocate him. After exchanging shots and chasing through the "Fiesta de Carlotta" fireworks celebration (much of it archived footage), Rigby shoots Rice and frisks the corpse for instructions leading him to a hideout where he finds Juliet, her father (actually still alive), and her butler, who introduces himself as Field Marshall Wilfried von Kluck.
Rigby and the Field Marshall compete about the right to explain what happened. It turns out that Dr. Forrest had been tricked into divulging a secret cheese mold by Nazis posing as a humanitarian organization. Once he discovered their true intent, to use the mold's corrosive properties to destroy America and make a comeback, he assembled a list of Nazi agents, the "Friends of Carlotta". Before he could divulge the names to the FBI, he was abducted and his death faked to prevent a police investigation. The Immer Essen, a cruise ship passing by, witnessed the corrosive effects of the mold tests, making all passengers "Enemies of Carlotta" and targets for murder. Rigby is captured but Juliet gets the Field Marshall to say "cleaning woman", causing Rigby to go berserk, break his chains and overpower the Nazis. While Juliet gets Rodriguez, the Field Marshall manages to pull one of the switches, destroying Terre Haute, Indiana, before being shot dead by Rigby. Rodriguez rounds up the other Nazis while Rigby shares a long kiss with Juliet.
In the summer of 1980, comedian Steve Martin was having lunch with director Carl Reiner and screenwriter George Gipe. They were also discussing a screenplay Martin had written when he suggested that they use a clip from an old film. From this suggestion came the idea of using all sorts of clips from films throughout the entire feature. The three men left the lunch thinking about how they could incorporate all of these old clips into a story. Reiner planned to work Martin into the old footage via over-the-should shots so that it looked like the comedian was talking to these vintage actors. Reiner and Gipe spent countless hours looking through classic films for specific shots and "listening for a line that was ambiguous enough but had enough meat in it to contribute a line". They took lines of dialogue from clips they wanted to use and juxtaposed them while also trying to write a story based on them. Reiner and Gipe finally worked out a story and then met with Martin who contributed some funny material of his own.
Martin purposely chose not to watch any classic film noirs because he "didn't want to act like Humphrey Bogart ... I didn't want to be influenced". The filmmakers enlisted some of the people that helped define many of the classic films from the 1940s. Costume designer Edith Head created over 20 suits for Martin in similar fashion to those worn by Cary Grant or James Stewart. Production designer John De Cuir, a veteran with 40 years of experience, designed 85 sets over the ten-week shooting schedule. Director of photography Michael Chapman studied the angles and lighting popular among '40s film noir, conducting six months of research with Technicolor to try and match the old film clips with his new footage.
Principal photography began on July 7, 1981 with the bulk of the shooting done on soundstages of Laird International Studios in Culver City and three exterior locations shot in and around Los Angeles. Martin usually acted opposite actors dressed exactly like the classic movie stars he was interacting with so that he had someone to talk to and would respond to his lines.
The films used in Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid:
Films in Universal's own library
* This Gun for Hire (1942)
* The Glass Key (1942)
* Double Indemnity (1944)
* The Lost Weekend (1945)
* The Killers (1946)
Films licensed from other companies
:These films are now owned by Turner Entertainment and distributed by Warner Bros.
* Johnny Eager (1941)
* Keeper of the Flame (1942) (uncredited)
* 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) (owned by MGM/UA at time of release)
* Notorious (1946) (owned by ABC Pictures at time of release)
* I Walk Alone (1947)
* Sorry, Wrong Number (1948)
* In a Lonely Place (1950)
In his review for Newsweek magazine, David Ansen wrote, "A one joke movie? Perhaps, but it's such an engaging joke that anyone who loves old movies will find it irresistible. And anyone who loves Steve Martin will be fascinated by his sly performance, which is pitched exactly between the low comedy of The Jerk and the highbrow Brechtianisms of Pennies from Heaven." Vincent Canby's review for The New York Times praised Martin's performance: "the film has an actor who's one of America's best sketch artists, a man blessed with a great sense of timing, who is also self-effacing enough to meet the most cockeyed demands of the material." Time magazine's Richard Corliss wrote, "The gag works for a while, as Martin weaves his own plot-web into the 18 old movies, but pretty soon he's traveling on old good will and flop sweat".
It holds a 75% "fresh" rating at the Internet criticism aggregation site, Rotten Tomatoes. at Rotten Tomatoes
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