Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid (UK - BD RB)
The Wilson Bros don't wear plaid. Occasionally Tartan.
With the cinematic world rocked by cat-juggling and the Opti-Grab device, Steve Martin and director Carl Reiner struck comedy oil with The Jerk in 1979 and subsequently sought fresh reservoirs of laughter. With the film-noir genre all but extinct, it became the basis for their new venture, dropping Martin right into the middle of a classic noir tale, alongside the biggest names associated with it, but with a dose of the same off-the-wall humour which made the Wild-and-Crazy-Guy a box office hit. With such an ingenious premise and assured hands shaping it, how could it be anything than a box-office firecracker?
Sadly, the world just wasn’t ready for something as brilliantly original as Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid. The Jerk had pulled in a very impressive $73m from the cost of a mere $4m, and this was before international takings were tallied, but its follow-up only doubled its money from the $9m outlay. Was it that the joke was lost on America? Could it be that the potential audience mistake the theatrical posters for the a re-release of an old movie? Or maybe there was a reluctance to go back to black & white after TV viewers were so used to seeing things in living colour, but whatever the reason, an injustice was dealt to a movie, one which even saw veteran critics sharpening the knives for daring to mix it up with classics of cinema.
When knockout dame Juliet Forrest (Rachel Ward) swoons her way into the office of down-at-heel private-eye Rigby Reardon (Steve Martin) after her scientist/cheesemaker father is killed in a supposed freak accident, he reluctantly takes on the case to find out the truth behind events which - unbeknownst to him - will have world-shaking consequences. After stumbling upon an enigmatic list entitled “Friends of Carlotta”, he uses all his underhanded skills and shady contacts to find the opposing “Enemies of Carlotta” list to solve a mystery intertwined with wartime America
This Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid sends Martin all around the mean streets of 40s LA, crossing paths with some of the biggest names in the genre, including Humphrey Bogart as Phillip Marlowe! One of the real joys of DMDWP is the sheer volume of legends who are dropped into the proceedings - you name a classic 40s actor, and they pop up to either help Rigby or try to have him take the big sleep! Kirk Douglas has him roughed-up, Bette Davis tries to rekindle their old flame, Cary Grant is tailing him and who’s that trying to shoot holes into our hapless private dick? Why, it’s none other than Vincent Price!!! You might think that the very nature of the movie being a comedy comes at the expense of any kind of mystery, even the wispiest of McGuffins which are utilized as the basis for such movies, but we are happy to report that you’d be wrong. One clue logically leads to another, and in genuinely intriguing, all culminating in a finale which would be plausible in the typical 40s noir, even if only the nature of the final reveal are comically absurd. It’s Death Star firing deadly banana custard absurd. Funny, bewilderingly odd, but doesn’t short-change the audience by shying away from providing a satisfying conclusion. Did we say that the Nazis were also involved…?
There are many ways a spoof can go, either to ridicule its subject whilst destroying it forever, purely because it’s the easiest thing to do. The same could be said for Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein, which took the script of official sequel Son of Frankenstein and simply re-wrote it as a comedy. Many hail it as genius, but it sticks in the throat that a genuinely good movie will never be viewed as intended again in light of the comedy remake. Brooks wanted to do the same with Star Wars, but had to settle with combining with The Wizard of Oz to get as far around the Lucasfilm lawyers as possible, and the less said about the awful (yet inexplicably popular) Robin Hood: Men in Tights the better. Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid is among the best examples of the movie spoof, generating copious laughs through clever writing without the succumbing to destroying the source material for easy sniggers.
The tone is set succinctly with a forceful piece of music from Miklos Rozsa, bringing a wonderful sense of familiarity to the proceedings and dropping audiences into a world they can be comfortable in before taking them into unique territory, and continued use really helps cement the period feel in spite of very modern humour. Along with bringing in Rozsa, Reiner & co also called upon the services of movie costuming legend Edith Head, assigning her the task of recreating 20 costumes from classic movies for the body-doubles. This was to be the last project she worked on, dying of bone marrow disease a matter of months after filming. A heartfelt dedication adorns the end credits.
Herein lies possibly the most subtle of performance Martin has given in one of his “wacky” comedies, given less opportunities to go on flights of fancy due to the constraints of integrating classic movie clips, and it works in his favour. He’d just come from the personal and critical success of starring in Pennies From Heaven, and this probably also contributed towards a more restrained/controlled role this time around. He’s also hilarious, so you don’t have to worry there! His hard-boiled nature comes unravelled in endearing ways whenever Rachel Ward raises his temperature, or when he goes berserk at the mention of the words which send him into a homicidal rage: “cleaning woman”. You’ll have to see it to appreciate the twisted logic, but it’s worth it! In fact, from a personal point of view, the work of Steve Martin mirrors that of Woody Allen, where his later output was lacking in the crowd-pleasing element which made them a star to begin with. With Allen, he grew into an artier filmmaker, deliberately aiming “higher” and succeeding at it, a career path which Martin also pursued in the 90s, but after LA Story and Grand Canyon didn’t have the lasting traction hoped for, he started making questionable choices, which led to crap like Mixed Nuts, The Big Year and The Pink Panther. The thing which a group of aliens told Allen in his 1980 movie Stardust Memories applies to both he and Martin, in that of their films, they prefer: “…the early, funny ones”.
Rachel Ward is fun as Juliet, with in spite of bringing little more to the party than anything visual and sexual. She interacts well with Martin, and there is some good chemistry between them. Other than the setting up the story and appearing whenever expository scenes are needed, she might not get much, but she nabs the payoff to the running joke in the movie. Speaking of which, upon first seeing her, Rigby notes that: “…I hadn't seen a body put together like that since I'd solved the case of the Murdered Girl with the Big Tits”. Having seen them without clothing, we can confirm that they’re some prize-winning doorbells! Director Reiner (a veteran comedy performer in his own right) turns up as a pivotal character, and pretty damn funny he is, too. Keep a keen eye out for Reiner’s son (and now-legendary director) Rob in a brief appearance as a bartender. Veteran character actor Reni Santoni is good fun as the loyal Carlos, helping to solve the case and all with a ridiculous cheerful demeanour, and if the name sounds familiar, then you might want to cast your mind back to Harry Callahan’s first partner…
The total difference in tone from the previous Martin/Reiner collaboration The Jerk is not surprising, given that Jaws screenwriter Carl Gottlieb didn’t make a return engagement. Instead, they were joined by George Gipe, embarking on his very first screenplay after successfully adapting 1980’s Melvin & Howard into a novel, and would go on to turn Back to the Future and other Spielberg movies into paperbacks. It seems that the more grounded Gipe brought a love of LA to the script, along with the Dodgers fan dropping in a reference into the script, and probably went a long way to balancing out Martin’s “wacky” writing and Reiner’s tendency towards more traditional comedy. It’s as shame that the only other screenplay Gipe wrote was The Man with Two Brains, as he died from - of all things - an allergic reaction to a bee-sting. Just how good was his contribution? How about this: after waking up from the shock through seeing the front page of a newspaper containing stories about her dead father and the defeat of the local baseball team, Rigby comforts her with the words: “You must be quite a Dodgers fan…”.
For a movie which severely under-performed at the box office, DMDWP managed to influence many other things over the years, from homages to out-and-out theft. Anyone of a certain age will remember the Griff Rhys Jones adverts for Holsten Pils, where he is dropped into classic films with legendary actors for comedic effect. Sound familiar? With deceased actors being digitally resurrected all over the place of late, the legacy of such a “failed” movie is greater than most would immediately credit. Think that the scene in Gremlins 2: The New Batch where the monsters make a flawless shadow-puppet of Abraham Lincoln was brilliantly original? Think again!
If there is legitimate criticism to the proceedings, then it has to be the sometimes uneasy methods used to get around occasionally mismatched material. You’ll notice them for yourself, so they won’t all be listed here, but the most incongruous one has to be where Martin puts a pyjama top on over his suit for no reason other than to match up with the footage of the aforementioned Vincent Price attempting to kill him in his bed. They drag the pyjama joke out for the next couple of scenes just to try and integrate it after the fact, but it draws too much attention to be downplayed into any form of sense. Indeed, the biggest problem with blending old and new footage comes from trying to put Martin in a scene in a supermarket, which is hamstrung by the stacked boxes of “Farina” cereal alongside the two characters having a different picture on them, depending which actor the camera is on. It also grates that DMDWP was striving to achieve the seamless blending of footage, but didn’t quite make the technical grade due to the limitations of material and technology of the time, whereas Ed Wood tried the same thing and was lambasted for his efforts, even though he was at the mercy of limitations, namely money.
Having said that, when it comes to perfect integration of classic footage with the new material, then we’d have to say the inclusion of Bette Davies from Deception scene works the best. It brings up their past relationship, along with the little quirks the two of them had, as well as advancing the story, so it feels more organic and part of the whole film rather than just being there for a laugh or the sake of having another big name in the movie. This is not to the detriment of the other “cameos”, but this one really sings. The use of rear projection whenever Rigby drives his car is dead-on from the time, as well as aping the lighting and cinematography which was the backbone of noir. Something utterly commendable about the movie is the way that it crafts comedy utilizing the tropes of noir without necessarily taking the piss out of the genre. Humour is found via the juxtaposition of mundane reality against the backdrop of heightened drama, with Martin providing the spark, and his own hardboiled machismo is sharply put in place by his own frailties and desires. It’s all about blending - right the way along!
It was only at Christmas that one of us set the ol’ Sky box to record a copy of the movie playing on UK Gold, looking forward to watching it again after over a quarter of a century. Settling down with a nice can of energy drink and codine, said Wilson Bro watched the opening scene in Rigby’s office and waited for the running joke of Martin using a flimsy excuse to grope the ample frontage of Ward. And it didn’t turn up. Yep, even after all these years, the BBC version with all instances of the gag removed is STILL playing on TV in the UK. Needless to say, he was pretty pissed off about it, and immediately deleted it from the planner. He might have also spat at the screen, but can’t remember. Anyway, as if to answer his psychic scream at the heavens, Fabulous Films have brought out Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid not only uncensored, but in a lovely HD edition. Now, let’s solve the mystery of exactly how this little beauty scrubs in in the AV department…
Presented in 1.85:1 with an AVC/MPEG4 encode, the bulk of the movie looks really nice, the multitude of greys so crucial to the visuals coming through in style. This is a clear step up from the MPEG2-encoded Italian disc, and comes complete with a nice sheen of light, natural grain. Whilst it looks lovely, the strength of the image only serves to make the vintage footage even easier to pick out. The clips used were probably just from library prints, and suffered from being blown-up to widescreen, and leave you wondering why they didn’t shoot the movie in in 1.33:1 to help matters, not to mention enhancing the authenticity. With TV & video favouring the square image at the time, it would have been a logical move. One innovative sequence really suffers in resolution, being where a clip from Suspicion is cleverly used as rear-projection to get Steve Martin and Cary Grant into the same train carriage together. In light of this, there’s more than a little irony at play that George Gipe would have connections to Robert Zemekis, the man who pioneered what was originally know as “Forest Gump technology“, where vintage footage was altered to allow the inclusion of new material. Oh, and the copy ends with American PG-rating logo. However, let’s just encapsulate by saying that Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid is unlikely to be bested anytime…ever.
Note: The images shown in this review are not representative of the quality of the disc. It's much better!
Coming in DTS:MA 2.0, we get an authentic relaying of the original mono sound mix as heard in cinemas at the time. The new material sound very nice, bringing a clean representation of voices and the rousing score. The advancement in audio technology is both a benefit of and a bit of a problem, as the integrated vintage clips often music playing over them, being the nature of drama/melodrama at the time, and even though the sound-mixers did their best to minimise them, it still comes through and throws you out a little, moreso in higher resolution. Hiring Miklos Rozsa was an ingenious step to curb it, arranging new music to try to blend with the intruding sound, but you are aware of what’s going on. These days, using the same separation technology employed when unpicking monaural sound for the multi-channel mix of Psycho, it would be an easier task, but none of it really takes away from the enjoyment. This kicks the shit out of the lossy mix found on the Italian Blu-ray, that’s for sure!
Trailer: A comedy event in itself, we get the original coming-attraction to see just what might have put audiences of the first time around. However, it’s a great trailer, and must just have been that punters didn’t want to pay for a B&W noir movie come the video age. It all end with the line: “The people who brought you The jerk…try to make it up to you!” This uncertainly about the product was echoed in the rather desperate (albeit extensive) print campaign running alongside it, including period-style front-of-house stills. See below for a sample of such things…
Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid is the (unjustly) missing link between The Jerk and The Man With Two Brains - it even has a very familiar suction sound effect - and it’s nothing short of a joy to finally see it not only available again, but in a very nice HD transfer. To many, it will be as though discovering a lost species of orchid in the heart of the Amazonian jungle, or even a Maltese Falcon. To the rest, it will be the fastest a credit-card has ever been whipped-out. Yes, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid is on Blu-ray, and Fabulous Films has come up trumps. Excellent!
Review by Wilson Bros
General viewing, but some scenes may be unsuitable for young children
Release Date: 10th April 2017
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: English DTS-HD:MA Mono
Easter Egg: No
Director: Carl Reiner
Cast: Steve Martin, Rachel Ward, Humphrey Bogart, Charles Laughton, Bette Davies, James Cagney, Cary Grant, Vincent Price, Reni Santoni, etc.
Length: 0 minutes
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