Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: Don’t say ‘cleaning woman’.

It’s the 1940’s and private investigator Rigby Reardon (Steve Martin) gets a visit from Juliet Forrest (Rachel Ward) who wants him to investigate the mysterious death of her father, which she believes to have been murder. Rigby’s investigation turns up two lists both showing names of people who were either friends or enemies of a person named Carlotta. As Rigby continues his research he becomes menaced by a man who shoots him and steals the lists forcing Rigby to interview a wide array of different people in order to get to the truth.

In the spring of 1980 Martin got together with Carl Reiner and screenwriter George Gipe to go over his next movie project idea. He had just gotten done starring in Pennies from Heavena 1930’s period musical, and wanted to do another film from that era, a comedy that was entitled ‘Depression’. While going over the plot he mentioned using a clip from an old movie and splicing it into his film and making it a part of the story. This gave Reiner the idea of doing an entire movie centered around old movie clips ultimately leading to them using footage from 19 vintage films from Hollywood’s golden era with most of them being dramas that were meant to be taken seriously, but with Martin’s character responding to the lines mentioned by the actors in the clips in such a way that it becomes funny.

Incorporating a plot completely around old movies is certainly an inspired idea, but the result is only so-so. On the technical end you can clearly tell when an old film is spliced into the scene because it’s footage is much grainier than when it shows Martin or Ward. Having it all filmed in black-and-white helps a little but the new footage is too pristine and intentional scratches should’ve been added to make it better match the old stuff.

As for the story, well, it works for awhile, but then starts to get downright boring by the third act. There are definitely some laugh-out-loud moments, but the concept wears itself out. Some have called this a one-joke movie, but I would describe it more as a joke that gets told over-and-over again until it’s predictable and redundant. Having old film clips put in during a certain part of the movie, but then focusing on other comedy angles during the rest of it would’ve worked better. Had it spliced-in only 1 or 2 other movies and with a smaller character count would’ve created less of a diluted effect as ultimately there’s just too many people to keep track of and the plot itself is too fabricated to hold much interest.

Martin is excellent and the fact that he didn’t watch any movies from the 40’s in order to prepare for the role as most other actors would’ve done, was a wise decision as he ends up creating his own style instead of coming-off like he’s imitating somebody else. Ward is good too and while she isn’t particularly funny she does make for a excellent straight-man, which is what a solid comedy needs by having a normal person play-off the other wackiness around them. Carl Reiner is engaging in a send-up of Erich Von Stroheim and it’s interesting seeing Reni Santoni appear here as he played a young Reiner 15 years earlier in the movie Enter LaughingThe characters though are flat and never evolve, which like with the other issues described above, make this movie a novelty experiment that never fully gels.

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: May 12, 1982

Runtime: 1 Hour 28 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Carl Reiner

Studio: Universal

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Video, YouTube

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