Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid

by K. A. Laity

Long before the atrocity machine that is Forrest Gump [shudder] and a year before Woody Allen’s ‘ground-breaking’ Zelig, Steve Martin, Carl Reiner and George Gipe delivered Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, a comic collage of noir classics cut into Martin’s cut up shenanigans. Dead clever and deadpan, it wasn’t the madcap lowbrow of The Jerk nor quite the ambitious remake of Dennis Potter’s insanely prescient Pennies from Heaven. Some critics passed it off as a “one joke” idea, others saw evidence. Audiences were often nonplussed by the strange blend of comedy and crime where modern actors interacted with their past masters.

I loved it.

You always get a special thrill when you find one of your tribes. When I first saw it back in the day I had seen some of the films referenced in the movie, but not nearly enough of them, but who could not be immediately arrested by Eva Gardner, Cary Grant, Veronica Lake, Burt Lancaster, Ingrid Bergman, James Cagney, Lana Turner, and of course Humphrey Bogart?

Now that I’m more familiar with the genre I have an even greater appreciation for the film and fondness, too. Though many of my favourite things are part of the creation: I can’t count how many times I’ve used the shorthand of “F.o.C.” or muttered to bemused on-lookers, “Cleaning woman?!”

The film works because there’s such attention to the details. It was the last project for legendary costume designer Edith Head, and the dizzying variety of authentic production designs were the work of veteran John De Cuir. Composer Miklós Rózsa (like Head, this was his last film) provided an seemingly classic soundtrack that perfectly captured the genre.

The real gem was Rachel Ward; given Martin’s propensity for exaggeratedly childish humour (is there any film he’s in that doesn’t have at least one dog poo joke?), she did most of the work of keeping the film on track and remaining seductively sexy as Martin man-handled her. Ward fit the 40s style outfits as if she were born to them. She never breaks character and really sells the romance between Rigby and Juliet, and gives the film an emotional centre that Martin didn’t yet have the subtlety to maintain (he got there in Roxanne).

If you haven’t seen it, you’re in for a treat. If you have, it’s probably time to watch it again.

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2 Comments

  1. Great review – I love this goofy film, well worth celebrating! And I think is also a useful primer for those not versed in the wonders of Film Noir too. Despite a cast including Ava Gardner and Charles Laughton, I probably would have spent a long time ignoring THE BRIBE (1949) were it not for the fact that so much of it got used here.

    • Oh, excellent point! I feel the need of a big ol’ noir marathon once I move. Lots of popcorn!


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