As you know, we here at JPFmovies are in the midst of tribute to the legendary comic Steve Martin. Our first review was The Man With Two Brains (1983). The year before The Man With Two Brains was released Carl Reiner and Steve Martin were teamed up again in the second of four films the two would collaborate on. The film uses a very interesting technique of inter-splicing of scenes from eighteen classic detective/film noir thrillers into the narrative. The story is a Bogart-Sam Spade type of private detective, played by Martin, trying to solve the case of his beautiful client while falling in love with her. Sound familiar? Something like the Maltese Falcon? Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid both pays tribute and satirizes the film noir genre. According to my research, Reiner and Martin assembled group known for their technical expertise; in fact, many of them had worked on the original films featured in Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid. Luckily they were still alive.
Apparently Edith Head (to date she is the most honored woman and costume designer in Academy Award history) was the costume designer for six of the eighteen films featured within the picture: Notorious (1946) and Sorry, Wrong Number (1948). She outfitted Martin with twenty suits during production, each created to integrate seamlessly into the original classic action. She died and 1981 and Dead Men was her last film was dedicated to her.
The Film’s musical director had to ensure that the audience could not tell the difference between the old and the new music. The man in charge of production had the really tough job because of the high number of different scenes from all the clips; eighty-five separate sets were created. The production manager found the actual train compartment used in Suspicion (1941) with Cary Grant – this set piece would be used in the scenes featuring Martin interacting with Grant that only helped to increase the realism of the action.
Without the resources such as blue screen technology and computer animation that are available today, Dead Men had to rely on precise perspective filming. Many of the films of the forties and fifties used camera views that shot over the shoulder of the characters allowing the makers to replicate the set-up of the shot, with a stand-in posing as the shoulder with Martin in full view. Another technique used was filming Martin in front of a screen on which the classic film was projected; with the proper perspective and angles in place, the two films effectively merged for the viewer.
Among the actors who appear from classic films are 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. If that is not an all-star cast you tell me what is.
In the opening scene, John Hay Forrest (George Gaynes), noted scientist and cheese maker, dies in a single-vehicle car accident (represented by the car wreck scene from Keeper of the Flame). 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. Upon coming to, she hires Rigby to investigate the death, which she thinks was murder. In Dr. Forrest’s lab, Rigby finds two lists, one titled “Friends of Carlotta” and the other “Enemies of Carlotta”, as well as 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 seemingly dead investigator.
Rigby manages to find his way to Juliet’s house, where she sucks out the bullet, snakebite-style, and points Rigby to the club at which Kitty sings. Juliet also reveals a note to her father from her alcoholic brother-in-law, Sam Hastings, which in turn reveals 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 after a rambling discussion, hangs up (Barbara Stanwyck, in Sorry, Wrong Number). On the way out, Juliet asks Rigby to leave further news with her butler or cleaning woman. Mention of the latter causes Rigby to go berserk due to his own father running off 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 Brentwood 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. Rigby subsequently retrieves the brooch, which 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 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.
Rigby wakes up back 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 for 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, and learns that Neff cruises supermarkets looking for blondes.
Rigby goes into drag by 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 in drag again 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. There Rigby tracks down the hideout where he finds Juliet, her father (actually still alive), and her butler, who introduces himself as Field Marshal Wilfried von Kluck (Carl Reiner).
Rigby and the Field Marshal 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 Marshal to say “cleaning woman,” causing Rigby to go berserk, break his chains and overpower the Nazis. While Juliet gets Rodriguez, the Field Marshal manages to pull one of the switches, destroying Terre Haute, Indiana, before being shot dead by Rigby who remakes that they just got a new public library.
Here is a list of the films used in Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid:
This Gun for Hire (1942)
The Glass Key (1942)
Double Indemnity (1944)
The Lost Weekend (1945)
The Killers (1946)
The Big Sleep (1946)
Dark Passage (1947)
White Heat (1949)
Johnny Eager (1941)
Keeper of the Flame (1942)
The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)
The Bribe (1949)
I Walk Alone (1947)
Sorry, Wrong Number (1948)
In a Lonely Place (1950)
The film grossed about 4 million in its first weekend and has grossed to date about 18 million. All in all a very interesting film and get an A for creativity since I have not seen a film try what Dead Men accomplished intermingling the old and the new of film history. The cheese mold think is a little corny but watching it is like watching the “best of” of some great old film noir movies. Go ahead and watch it it is even safe viewing for the whole family.