This marks the last week of Noirvember. While most of my selections this month have been traditional noir films, I decided to end the month on a light note with the underrated Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid. Starring Steve Martin and directed by Carl Reiner, the film is a spoof of noir films sort of like Airplane! is a spoof of the Airport movies. The more noir films you’ve seen, the more you’ll appreciate Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid.
The film’s plot involves private detective Rigby Reardon (Steve Martin) investigating the murder of noted scientist and cheesemaker John Hay Forrest (George Gaynes). Forrest’s daughter Juliet (Rachel Ward) hires Reardon to look into the case. Juliet and Rigby go to Dr, Forrest’s lab and find two lists. One is titled Enemies of Carlotta and one is titled Friends of Carlotta. The two are interrupted when a man posing as an exterminator gets the lists from them and shoots Rigby. But Juliet helps him get the bullet out and he lives to fight another day. Rigby Reardon getting shot is sort of a running gag in the film.
But the labyrinth plot is not the real attraction of Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid. What makes it a joy to watch is how it tells its own story but intercuts scenes from other iconic noir films, including Double Indemnity, This Gun For Hire, and Suspicion, to name a few. Rigby Reardon’s mentor is none other than Phillip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart). The filmmakers made the brilliant decision to film it in black and white so that they could incorporate scenes from classic noir films to help tell a new story. This is a spoof but also a love letter to classic film noir and pulp novels of the 1940s.
Steve Martin is someone who is so good I think we take him for granted sometimes. Here’s a man who can do standup comedy, write plays, have his own banjo band, and act in comedies as well as dramas. The part of the slick and wise cracking private eye Rigby Reardon fits him like a glove. And of course he’s funny. He has some of the best comedic chops in the business.
Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid is smart, funny, and very imaginative in the way it cuts the current and classic movies together. Credit Carl Reiner for his solid direction and editor Bud Molin for making it all work. This isn’t just a film ripping off other films by incorporating clips of them into the storyline. This is a film that loves film noir and everyone that made the genre something that is still being studied and going strong decades later. Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid may not have been a box office smash upon initial release. But since its release more and more film lovers are embracing it. Better late than never.