Like many great films, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid was born from a Hollywood lunch. In the summer of 1980, Steve Martin was lunching with director Carl Reiner and screenwriter George Gipe to talk about a screenplay for a film set in the 1930s. Martin suggested they might use a clip from an old film of the time. From this suggestion came the idea of using many clips from vintage films throughout the entire feature.
Reiner – a fan of 1940s film noir – developed the idea of working Martin into old footage via over-the-shoulder shots so that it looked like he was talking to the original actors. In other scenes, trick photography would use duplicate costume and scenery to put Martin apparently in the same shot as the original.
Reiner and Gipe spent hours in film libraries, combing through classic films searching for scenes they could use and “listening for a line that was ambiguous enough but had enough meat in it to contribute a line”. Reiner and Gipe worked out a story based on these scenes and Martin then added some funny material of his own.
This was the first film to splice together original footage and vintage stars with modern footage in sets and with costumes designed to recreate the originals. It has been done many times since (notably in Forrest Gump and Woody Allen’s Zelig) and perhaps done better. But combining the trick with equally funny dialogue that affectionately satirises the hard-boiled dames and guys of the 1940s creates an almost unending list of memorable and quotable scenes.
In the film, Martin plays Marlowesque private eye, Rigby Reardon, who is hired by beautiful and mysterious Juliet Forrest to get to the bottom of the murder of her father. The ludicrously complicated plot follows the classic noir pattern of Martin being slugged, shot at and getting mixed up with dames, gangsters and Nazis.
Among the actors he “appears with” from classic films are Ingrid Bergman, Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Brian Donlevy, Kirk Douglas, Ava Gardner, Cary Grant, Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake, Burt Lancaster, Charles Laughton, Fred MacMurray, Ray Milland, Edmund O’Brien, Vincent Price, Barbara Stanwyck, and Lana Turner.
Lines that were once menacing and struck chills down the spines of cinema audiences now became straight feeds for Rigby Reardon’s sardonic comments and memorable one-liners. From time to time, I still catch myself silently guffawing over favourite lines, like;
Rigby Reardon: I hadn’t seen a body put together like that since I’d solved the case of the Murdered Girl with the Big Tits.
Rigby Reardon: If you want me to investigate your father’s death, I get ten dollars a day – plus expenses.
Juliet Forrest: Will two hundred dollars be enough in advance, Mr Reardon?
Rigby Reardon: For two hundred, I’d shoot my grandmother.
Juliet Forrest: That won’t be necessary.
Rigby Reardon: You never can tell. In my last case, I had to throw my own brother out of an airplane.
[at door of Juliet’s house after Rigby has been shot]
Rigby Reardon: I’d like to see Miss Forrest.
Butler: Who shall I say is calling?
Rigby Reardon: Rigby Reardon, tell her I’ve been shot.
Butler: Very good, sir. May I tell her by whom?
Rigby Reardon: No, I don’t know myself.
Butler: Are you all right? You look as though you’re going to faint.
Rigby Reardon: Faint? Never. . . Catch me.
[Rigby Reardon falls on the floor, fainting]
Butler: Sorry, I’m a Butler, not a catcher.
But aside from the quality of the script, there is another reason DMDWP does it better than later imitators. Martin and Reiner managed to pull off a second remarkable coup for their film, and one that can never now be duplicated.
For they managed to lure out of retirement many of the great names from Hollywood’s glory days who worked on the original films they spoofed. These included costume designer Edith Head (winner of 8 Oscars and 28 nominations for films such as The Ten Commandments, Airport, The Sting), set designer John De Cuir (winner of 3 Oscars and 10 nominations for films like Cleopatra, The King and I, and Hello Dolly) editor Bud Molin (Fatal Instinct and many others) Michael Chapman (cinematographer of films such as Taxi Driver, Invasion of the body snatchers, Raging Bull, Ghostbusters and Evolution).
But their greatest coup was to persuade veteran film composer Miklos Rozsa, winner of 3 Oscars (for films like Ben Hur and Hitchcock’s Spellbound) as well as 19 nominations for films such as El Cid, Double Indemnity, and Julius Caesar, to write the score. This was to prove Rozsa’s last film and although his score is to some extent a pastiche of all his Hollywood compositions, it is to my mind one of the greatest cinema scores ever written.
This is a monumentally silly film, yet it is preposterous to the point of greatness and foolish to the point of being sublime art. It was also Edith Head’s last film and is dedicated to her memory.
The only time that the music is performed in full is over the credits at the end of the film, which are worth watching simply to identify all the movies that have been pirated. Rozsa called his final piece Dead Man’s Bolero and you can hear the whole thing on YouTube. I urge you to make a couple of minutes to listen to it because it is a masterwork of cinematic music from a composer at the peak of his powers.