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Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid (1982)

A review by Damian Cannon.
Copyright © Movie Reviews UK 1998

A clever spoof of, and homage to, the hard-boiled detective flicks of the 40s, Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid is too dependent upon its single good idea. Sitting bored in his low-rent office, Rigby Reardon (Steve Martin) is a private investigator with too much time on his hands and not enough money coming in. However, that all changes when the sultry Juliet Forrest (Rachel Ward) knocks politely on his office door, then faints dead away as she glimpses his paper's headline. No, it's not the Dodgers defeat that shocks her but the front-page news of her father's death, in a car accident. Dr. Forrest (George Gaynes) was an eminent scientist with a preoccupation about cheese, a man likely to have few enemies. Juliet is sure that his death was murder though and for $200 Rigby is inclined to agree.

His first step is to search through Dr. Forrest's office in search of clues, ignoring the pervasive stench of cheese. Juliet provides a slim lead with the torn-off corner of a dollar bill, covered in tiny hand-written names, but it's not a lot to go on. Luckily Dr. Forrest was a thorough man, leaving behind a couple of cryptic lists, respectively labelled as the Friends and Enemies of Carlotta. Unfortunately Rigby is not the only one after these scraps of paper, as is proved by the sudden appearance of a dodgy looking "exterminator". A brief stand-off as the two appraise each other gives Rigby time to rough out a plan, or at least it would if he were any good. In the event, Rigby ends up playing dead (after taking a bullet in the arm) and loses the lists for good.

Juliet is most sympathetic though, even sucking the slug out of Rigby's shoulder for good measure, which is more than her supercilious butler (Carl Reiner) would do. It's pretty obvious that they're onto something important here, so the best bet would be to see if either Juliet's sister or Dr. Forrest's illicit lover knows anything of value. Working at speed, even Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart of course) is roped into the case after a while. It's a shame that Juliet's sister (separated from her alcoholic husband) proves unable to help. Being a paranoid-hypochondriac can't make for an easy life, but Rigby doesn't mind since he's sure to crack the conundrum of Carlotta eventually.

The central premise of Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid is obvious in its simplicity, even if the technical challenge is enough to put most people off. By pairing Martin with a whole host of carefully chosen scenes from classic noir movies of the 40s, a golden opportunity for comedy is born. The original actors read their lines in all seriousness (of course) but here Martin gets to pre-empt them, placing a whole new spin on their scenes. It's impressive how well the conversation's dovetail, even though the technology has been superseded by films such as Forrest Gump. The problem is that director Carl Reiner seems unsure how to take the movie past this initial joke, so he doesn't even bother to try. Thus it feels like the team put too much effort into the effects and not enough into the story and characters (once again proving that special FX alone do not a great movie make).

Martin is fine as a softer-edged Bogart, though Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid doesn't really test his acting ability. Most of the time all he has to do is drop a few wisecracks, look reasonably dopey and get his timing right. Martin's best moments come when he's done up in terrible drag, stomping about like a bricklayer and smooching with Ward (these scenes alone are almost worth the price of admission). No one else makes much of an impact though, which is perhaps not surprising given the range of talent scooped out of some classic movies and funnelled into this one. The script is the key to tying everything together and, fortunately, it hits all of the familiar noir buttons. The only problem is that the screenplay gets increasingly stretched out of shape as it tries to conform to the dialogue and action of the spliced footage.

Reiner and his collaborators must have had a great time trawling through the archives, deciding which films they could patch together to make Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid. The movie itself has a similar hobbyists enthusiasm, with lots of fun to be had identifying old movies and performers (if that's your kind of thing). Regrettably the enterprise flags after a while as the lack of tension makes itself felt, with the result being that heightened silliness and increasingly blatant jokes are used to fill in. There are humorous touches involving bullet removal, Band-Aids and breast rearrangement but the movie is just too spotty to be consistently entertaining. Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid is probably the only movie which combines cheese and Nazis but all that can be given is a guarded recommendation.

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