Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid is a fairly famous film noir spoof starring Steve Martin as veteran gumshoe Rigby Reardon who gets dragged into a mysterious case.
The film’s plot is neither here nor there. Presumably set in 1946, its strength lies in its dedication to emulate the style and feel of a 1940s noir film. On top of that, the script has been twisted in such a way as to enable the filmmakers to seamlessly include dozens of clips from up to 20 Golden Age films, allowing Steve Martin to interact with stars such as Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, James Cagney, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Kirk Douglas, Ava Gardner, Cary Grant, Burt Lancaster, Charles Laughton, Vincent Price, Barbara Stanwyck, Lana Turner, and many others. Many of these interactions take place via phone, which is of course the easiest way to include the footage. But others seemingly take place in the same room, which meant that Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid required the construction of a much larger number of sets than usual, in order to have these scenes appear seamless. Needless to say, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid is, for this and other reasons, shot entirely in black-and-white.
This asset of the film is also its greatest weakness. The writers, who apart from director Carl Reiner include George Gipe and Steve Martin himself, seem to have been too enamoured with the idea as such. So they employed it for its own sake, instead of for the sake of the plot. Happy to cram in as many scenes and as many stars as they possibly could, they lead their central character on many completely useless tangents that are entirely unconnected to the case and are taking away time and focus from an already thin plot. The over-use of old footage also leads to an over-saturation, and what is meant to entertain does become tiresome, especially in the second act.
Still, the old footage and old actors, combined with the efforts to integrate them seamlessly, all help to create a fitting atmosphere for this noir spoof. And as I indicated above, the filmmakers went to great lengths to emulate a 1940s film. Most importantly, the lighting of this black-and-white film, as well as Michael Chapman’s cinematography, give the whole affair a rather convincing period feel, even though the picture quality is “too good” – they did not go to the length of making the new footage artificially grainy. The opening credits are also retro/vintage, and the one “effect” used in the film is something which you might have found in a 1940s movie serial.
The entire set design is also handled with great care; as are the costumes, courtesy of Golden Age veteran Edith Head, who died shortly after finishing work for this project. Likewise, they asked veteran composer Miklos Rosza to write the score music, and it is therefore, unsurprisingly, absolutely on point. The language used in the dialogue also adds to the 1940s noir vibe, although there is no denying the fact that the writers deliberately used a highly exaggerated mock version of the language of the old films (whose dialogues, it could be argued, were also always exaggerated themselves).
Other positives include a number of good jokes; and the at times very clever way in which the noir tropes are employed in order to make fun of them.
Like the use of old footage, the humour, too, turns into a bit of a double-edged sword. For every good joke, there is at least one bad one. Many are crass and exaggerated, and thus feels cheap. Indeed, they begin to cheapen the entire writing, which is otherwise good. Some of the jokes are just silly, some are cringe-worthy. A good spoof requires subtlety – and I think it is fair to say that the 1980s were not really big on subtlety.
Often, it is just a matter of quantity. Some jokes just do get really old, really fast, so dragging them out is a really bad idea. Steve Martin dressing up in women’s clothing might have been funny if it was a 5- or 10-second throwaway joke. But it happens twice in this film, and each time it is drawn out so much that it is beyond tiresome.
As for the acting, there is very little to criticise. Rachel Ward is perfect as the alluring client, capturing the 1940s as well as the noir tone in her performance. Two of the more prominent minor supporting roles are filled nicely by director Reiner himself and by Reni Santoni. Steve Martin is very good as well, but while he is used as a “straight” actor in this film, it seems to me he is not used “straight enough”. This is not for lack of ability; Martin clearly can play straight. It is an artistic decision taken by Reiner and – I assume – Martin himself. In the film, Martin creates humour through exaggeration, but this exaggeration means that you do not buy Reardon taking the case as seriously as we are meant to believe he does. And that goes for the film as a whole anyway. There seems to be a pitfall in this noir spoof concept that the filmmakers did not manage to avoid. On the one hand, there is not enough levity in the telling of the story – which is down to the emulation of the noir tone which is naturally antithetical to levity. On the other hand – and I do know this sounds like a contradiction – you cannot shake the feeling that the film does not take its own plot seriously enough.
What I mean by this is that a crime comedy or a crime spoof only really works for me if the investigative part works even if you were to regard it entirely separately and independently from the comedy. That is the mark of a good crime comedy for me: the clues, the investigation, the twist and turns – it all has to work, i. e. the writers have to have taken it as seriously as if they had been writing a crime drama. That requires a lot of dedication and thorough workmanship, and so it is often omitted in the spirit of “it’s-good-enough-for-a-comedy”. Now, let me make this clear, I do not believe that this is what happened here. The script and the entire production show that the filmmakers were more than willing to go the extra mile and that they were very thorough and focused. I think the problem lies with the genre, and so the pitfall might be an inherent one that was almost impossible to overcome. A number of the original noir films were focused on atmosphere and on the brooding lead character. The criminal plot the P. I. was investigating was often secondary: it was often ludicrously unrealistic (foreign spies, conspiracies, thefts of miracle inventions), and the twists and reveals did not necessarily make much sense or were not necessarily earned. That criticism may not be valid for the top of the class, but it probably is for the majority of this mass-produced genre. Since Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid does emulate the style and tone of these films, it also goes for an outrageous plot and a nonsensical investigation – the film does not take its own plot seriously enough, because it can’t. It emulates the unrealistic plot of a lesser noir film, and its way of dealing with this is to turn the dial up to 11 in the finale, with the underlying conspiracy increasingly cheesy and its instigator being like a hammy stage actor in a bad play.
Still, that does not mean that this film is bad. It is a good spoof with certain shortcomings. And its imitation act, including the use of old footage, is a technical achievement and an artistic accomplishment to be marvelled at. With only 79 minutes of net running time, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid is also an entertaining watch, if you can look past the occasional silliness and unnecessarily long tangents. I rate this film at 6.5 out of 10.