Carl Reiner and Steve Martin had a run of films just as strong as the great Gene Wilder/Mel Brooks trilogy of the ’70s, and I’m always fascinated by these collaborations that burn super bright and then just end.
Reiner and Martin’s first film, “The Jerk,” put them on the map, and it was a fairly big hit considering it couldn’t have cost much money at all. And despite Reiner’s history in the business at that point… the guy was a TV legend, basically… there was something almost experimental about what he was doing with Martin. Reiner saw Martin’s stand-up comedy and it sparked something in him. He came back at Martin with film ideas and directorial style that didn’t just capture Martin’s sense of humor… it completed it. It gave Martin the perfect world to play. It’s like Tim Burton directing a Pee Wee Herman movie… it just makes everything work. Martin’s comic persona is a reaction to ’70s pop culture, a mockery of everything sincere in show business.
Wilder and Brooks set a very high bar for parody with “Young Frankenstein,” and part of what makes that film so incredible is the attention to detail. The production design on the lab where the monster is built. The black and white. The way Gene Hackman looks as the blind man. There are so many ways they get it right, and the space is so specific, such a dead-on reproduction of the Universal movies and their entire aesthetic, that every ridiculous thing that happens feels surreal, twice as funny. The more sincere the satire, the better the end result, I think.
And so when I look at “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid” as satire, I’m impressed with the quiet cool that Reiner brings to it. He’s making a noir movie. He’s making every noir movie. And this was 1982, before the home video explosion, before the idea of the film geek went mainstream. Reiner and Martin come by this nerd cred honestly.
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If you haven’t seen the film, it’s more than just a simple parody of film noir. It’s a movie-built-from-other-movies, the narrative equivalent of what a hip-hop artist does when sampling old records. Here, Reiner and Martin chose a dozen film noir movies and they took footage from them, building that footage into their movie, so that Steve Martin plays scenes with Alan Ladd, Humphrey Bogart (whose Marlowe almost steals the film), and Barbara Stanwyck, just to name a few. It sounds like it’ll be forced or awkward, but they’re really, really good at building these absurd, hilarious moments out of the old films. And the film’s plot, involving the Friends and Enemies of Carlotta (whoever or whatever Carlotta is), is clever, and feels authentic to its supposed era. Watching it right now, as everyone debates and discusses “Watchmen” on the page and on the screen, it occurs to me that Alan Moore may be a “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid” fan. Much of the way the Ozymandias story plays out in the book is similar to the way the Carlotta plot plays out. Oddly similar. Just saying.
I love watching old Steve Martin films. I love this era of work by him because he was so engaged, so present in each of the films. His work as Rigby Reardon is classic old Hollywood in attitude. He knows what he’s going to look like in black-and-white, and he adjusts his clowning so it’s at the precise laconic pace of a classic noir, and Rachel Ward’s in on the joke as Juliet Forrest, the bad bit of business who gets Rigby involved in the case in the first place. Michael Chapman, the film’s cinematographer, had just shot “Raging Bull,” and his black-and-white work is amazing here, seamlessly matching Martin into the various films. It helps that Edith Head was the costumer on this film. She was a huge part of the Universal Studios history, an Academy Award winner who was working during the era that this movie is roasting. Her work here is authentic, so everything looks of a piece. Reiner’s attention to detail pays off in something that plays like the sort of film that “Mystery Science Theater 3000” hints at during their most inspired riffing. And because of the nature of how it’s made, it serves as a primer.
When I saw the film in 1982, I had not seen the movies that were used in stitching it together. Well, a few of them, but not many, and it immediately became a priority for me to track them all down, however long it took. I think it was six years later when I finally crossed the last one off the list, and that was in a much less video-heavy era. I relied on cable and blind luck to help me see movies like “The Glass Key,” “Sorry, Wrong Number,” “Humoresque,” and “In A Lonely Place.” And while I’m sure my interest in noir would have been awakened some other way if not for this film, I love that this film was the gateway drug for me, and revisiting it, I’m convinced it can serve that same purpose for other viewers as well.
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Next week, we’ll be doing F-J, so expect reviews for “Fat Girl,” “Going In Style,” “High Plains Drifter,” “It’s A Gift,” and “Joe Vs. The Volcano.” Feel free to watch along with us each day and join in with your own take on the movies.
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