Thursday, December 10, 2009

Something old, something borrowed makes
'Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid' an effective spoof

Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid (1982)
Starring: Steve Martin, Rachel Ward, Carl Reiner, Reni Santoni, Ava Gardner, and Humphrey Bogart
Director: Carl Reiner
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Hardboiled detective Rigby Reardon (Martin) takes on the case of a lifetime when an investigation into the seemingly accidential death of a cheese-loving philanthropist leads to romance with his beautiful client (Ward) and run-ins and shoot-outs with a whole host of suspicious characters who are either Friends of Carlotta or Enemies of Carlotta... and many of whom seem eerily familiar.

"Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid" is an amusing spoof of the detective movies of the 1940s and early 1950s. There are a few touches of absurd humor here and there, but it developes most of its jokes from taking tropes from those films and taking them to extremes. Some of the humor also arises from strange actions taken by Steve Martin's character in order to make the film's main gimmick flow effectively through the story: Clips from real movies of the genre being spoofed are spliced into this movie, and Martin is seen interacting with the likes of Cary Grant, Ava Gardner, Humphrey Bogart, Kirk Douglas, and many, many more. In fact, just about every film that is "borrowed" from for this movie will eventually be featured in this space.

Technically, this is an excellent movie. The clips from the classic films are matched to modern footage to a spectacular degree and it's only because there seems to be no way of overcoming the fact that the actors are truly acting in different movies that the gimmick doesn't really work. (There are only two segments that don't have an unnatural, forced feel to them in the film--the one where Rigby calls Marlowe and wakes him up in at two in the afternoon ; where Martin and Cary Grant interact in a train compartment .) But, because the inter-cutting of the old footage so rarely feels completely natural, the film doesn't quite work.

(I also found myself wondering why Rigby kept dumping on Marlowe if he admired him so much.)

That said, Rachel Ward plays a great 1940s-style leading lady and Steve Martin is hilarious as the detective so hardboiled his shell has cracked.

"Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid' is a film that's worth checking out if you're a fan of Steve Martin, of if you love old detective movies.

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