Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982) Written and directed by Carl Reiner. Steve Martin, Rachel Ward, and a cast of noir icons (88 min) Rated PG.
A meticulous tribute to the noir style ends our series, with jigsawed clips from This Gun for Hire, Suspicion, The Big Sleep, White Heat, Notorious and many other classics, framing a mystery for Steve Martin’s suave (sort of) detective. Dead Men is the last film credit for golden age Hollywood composer Miklos Rozsa and multi Oscar winning costume designer Edith Head, who even got to dress Martin in the same outfit she once designed for Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity. Dead Men is an affectionate spoof of everybody’s favorite movies.
I was surprised to discover while researching this film how luke warm the reviews were when it opened. You Tube has an old video clip of a 1982 Sneak Previews with Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel (The other movies on the episode are Rocky III, Poltergeist and E.T.) They discuss it as a tribute to “private eye” movies, the phrase film noir having not yet made it into the popular culture, and trash it as being “long, slow and repetitive” with maybe 3 or 4 laughs, and complain that Steve Martin “still hasn’t made a film that makes use of his comic talents.” I beg to differ, of course, or we wouldn’t be showing it here tonight.
Steve Martin grew up in Southern California. His first job was selling guidebooks at Disneyland, and he was later promoted to demonstrating tricks in the magic shop. At 18 he left home and got a job at another theme park, Knotts Berry Farm, where he acted in a fake period melodrama 25 times a week and in between shows practiced his magic/comedy/banjo act for captive audiences. He also began making the rounds of folk and comedy clubs, honing his very unusual humor. He wrote, “Even though the idea of comedy sound risky when I compared it to the safety of doing trick after trick, I wanted, needed to be called a comedian. I discovered it was not magic I was interested in, but performing in general…was my ego out of control and looking for glory? I don’t think so, I am fundamentally shy and still feel slightly embarrassed at disproportionate attention. My answer to the question is simple. Who wouldn’t want to be in show business?” (Martin 70).
After many years of comedy clubs, talk shows writing for tv variety hours like The Smothers Brothers and Sonny and Cher and stand-up concerts, of course his act went into the stratosphere after he appeared on Saturday Night Live, a show that completely matched his “wild and crazy” humor. Suddenly, everyone in America was saying, “Well, excuuuuuuuse me!” I saw him perform in this era, at Cincinnati Music Hall, and it was exactly the kind of concert that was burning him out. He appeared on stage in his white suit (which he adopted for fear that some of the audience was so far away they couldn’t see him) accompanied by his props and his catch phrases and provided the established bits that his fans adored.
He said, “I was determined to parlay my stand-up success into motion pictures while I still had some clout. A movie career seemed to foster longevity, whereas a career as a comedian who had become a fad seemed finite. Plus the travel was exhausting me, and I swooned at the idea that instead of my going to every town to perform my act, a movie would go while I stayed home” (Martin 188). Working on a movie set was almost relaxing, “Movies were social; stand-up was antisocial.” He loved the spontaneity and the improvising and he loved writer director Carl Reiner, who was a joyful man. “He taught me more about how to be a social person than any other adult in my life.” The Jerk was an enormous hit, and it was eventually voted among the AFI’s Top 100 Comedies of all time. Martin invited his family to bask in his fame for The Jerk‘s red carpet premiere. He especially hoped to impress his extremely critical father, who had withheld praise from him his entire life. After the film, his father talked about everything but his son’s success until someone pointedly asked him what he thought. His reply “Well, he’s no Charlie Chaplin.” But, The Jerk opened up a new career as a movie star, and Martin never looked back.
Reiner and Martin continued their fruitful collaboration with this film noir valentine, the second of four films they did together. Martin’s intensity as an actor is rather startling, and also how slick he looks in his period clothes. The craftsmen for this black and white film not only replicated sets and costumes, but also signatures like the incessant cigarette smoking. One can never get over in old films how much smoking there is. The shot-reverse shot close-ups technique, with just a hint of another person in the frame made it simple to reproduce the cinematographic style, and some of the shots are quite convincing. There’s a love of the convoluted voice over metaphors, and steamy sexual innuendo is outed, even though the PG rating keeps naughtiness at a minimum.
Dead Men was the final screen credit of two important Hollywood craftsmen. Miklos Rosza was a classically trained Hungarian composer, the last link in Hollywood to the 19th century European romantic style that once dominated film music. Unable to make a living as a concert composer, he began scoring films in England in the 1930s. His first major score was for the 1940 version of The Thief of Bagdad, which was described as “a symphony accompanied by a movie.” Another of his scores, for The Jungle Book, also starring Sabu, was issued as a set of 78 records, with a Peter and the Wolf style narration by its star, the first movie soundtrack ever released for sale. He did the original scores for some of the films excerpted here, including Double Indemnity, Spellbound, The Lost Weekend, The Killers and The Bribe. Rosza was the last of his generation, and found himself in demand in the 1970s by directors who had grown up admiring his work. He enjoyed rescoring some of his old music for this film, and composing a dramatic new theme.
This was also Edith Head’s final picture. She arrived in Hollywood in 1925. Her name was on every A picture released by Paramount beginning in the late 1930s, and she designed clothes for virtually every top star. Many iconic film costumes were designed by her. She also promoted herself tirelessly, with how to and celebrity tidbit books, and appeared on tv, advising women on style. She did the original designs for many of the films used in Dead Men.
In 1981, she was dying of cancer, and thought that she would never work again. She was still under contract to Universal however, and they asked her to do a little job for them, design four outfits for Rachel Ward for a comedy film. When that went well, they asked her to do Martin’s clothes, as well. Then it occurred to Reiner that he would need some duplicates of the dresses used in the old clips. He naively asked, “Could you do a dress like Ingrid Bergman wore in Notorious?” “I designed Notorious,” she told him (Chierichetti 216).
She was weak, but came into the Universal offices every day. But, the film was a cheapie, and it was not being shot at Universal Studios. The production could afford to offer her either a driver or a sketch artist, but not both, and she couldn’t possibly drive herself somewhere new, so she would have to make her own sketches, something she had rarely done at the height of her career. But once she sat down at the sketch pad, the ideas began to flow, and in one morning made a pile of 50 sketches for the production, while her confidante and biographer, David Chierichetti watched and helped.
If it drives you crazy that you can’t identify every scene used in this film, wait until the end, and all stars and movies are identified. I’d hoped to be able to show a movie called The Bribe, starring Ava Gardner, Robert Taylor, Charles Laughton and Vincent Price, which cut up and pasted back together forms the plot resolution of Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid. There was no circulating print that I could find, but TCM to the rescue! They are showing it at 12:15 am on Tuesday morning, November 25, 2008, so set your timers.
When Universal had its huge fire about six months ago, Entertainment Weekly wrote that among the show prints that had been lost were all the prints of this film. Paul Ginsberg at Universal, who is a true friend of repertory cinemas like ours, evidently struck a new print, for us, and for all the other movie fans to enjoy this quirky comic gem. The NCMA audience adored the film and laughed throughout, which leads me to two conclusions. One, is that audiences, after 25 years, have gotten over the fact that Martin left stand up comedy for the movies. And the other is that since the film was made before the home video revolution, many people just didn’t know the scenes that were being included. White Heat, Double Indemnity and many others, now staples of cable tv, DVD and repertory cinema, have become part of the national cultural language. Martin and Reiner were ahead of their time.
Born Standing Up by Steve Martin, Edith Head by David Chierichetti, “Miklos Rozsa” by Bruce Eder in March April 1996 Films in Review.