The legendary Carl Reiner passed away early yesterday at 98 years old. He left behind decades of work in film and television. As my own personal tribute to Reiner, I revisited my favorite film of his last night: Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid. The 1982 comedy is an ode to the classic film noir genre of Old Hollywood, splicing in footage of existing films of that era with footage of Steve Martin as Private Investigator Rigby Reardon.
My dad showed me Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid as a kid. This was long before I had seen any of the movies being paid homage to and certainly before I understood how clever and detailed this movie is. I just enjoyed that it was silly and thought it was funny how Steve Martin would not stop pouring coffee grinds into the pot. As I started watching these films and became more familiar with the faces of these classic stars, I would get excited whenever I recognized a scene that was used for Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid. Even most recently, when I watched Burt Lancaster in The Killers for the first time, I started giggling when I realized a scene from that had been used. That’s quite a mark for Reiner to leave.
Being more familiar with film noir now, I also see that Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid works so well as a comedy because noir is inherently…pretty silly. These films exist in heightened versions of our worlds with brutal violence and snappy dialogue. But Martin and Reiner play it straight, which makes the gags all the more hilarious. This all lends a beautiful universality to the film. I believe it could serve as a gateway to Old Hollywood for those less familiar.
I also cannot stress enough how crucial and effective the editing is in achieving the blending of past and present. It was also the final movie for both costume designer Edith Head and composer Miklós Rózsa, whose contribution of their talents lent to the authenticity of the era achieved. These are all elements to the film that I also did not appreciate as a kid but find essential to what the film achieves upon revisiting.
Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid should be on anyone’s watchlist who wants to honor the late, great, Carl Reiner. It’s such a unique piece of work that illustrates Reiner’s talents. Aside from an odd running joke of Rigby “adjusting” a woman’s breasts, it all holds up well and is family friendly enough for an introduction to both Reiner and film noir as it was for me. I think I turned out alright..Just don’t mention the cleaning woman.