No suspension of disbelief required for this; there isn’t a single moment you’re not aware of what you’re watching, or anticipating what comes next. It’s impossible to regard its characters as remotely plausible, and Martin and Reiner make a virtue of this by drawing the lines that join the dots as outlandishly as possible – the “cleaning woman” resolution to the final problem being a prime example. Indeed, from the moment Martin rearranges Rachel Ward’s breasts you know the balance they’re drawing is going to be between the cleverness of their conceit and some inane comedy, and Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid doesn’t disappoint. To enjoy it requires an acquired sense of humour, and to appreciate its daring might necessitate ignoring its juvenility.
The plot, such as it is, involves the soft-boiled but hard-bitten private detective Rigby Reardon piecing together the puzzle left by the death of his brunette bombshell client Juliet’s father, celebrated scientist/cheesemaker John Hay Forrest. The conceit is that Martin gets to play in scenes with the stars of the golden age of the detective picture, by incorporating him into clips from the movies of the 1940s. Thus there are guest appearances from the likes of Lana Turner, Bette Davis and Ingrid Bergman – and a recurring role for Humphrey Bogart – in scenes from such films as The Big Sleep, Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice.
It’s a tremendous idea, albeit one that doesn’t necessarily lead to accomplished results. Singling out scenes into which Martin could be placed leads to many of them appearing as complete non-sequiturs in the overall plot. That this was attempted 35 years ago, before the kind of assistance computers would eventually have provided in integrating Martin into scenes made another forty years before that, means that in all but one of the instances, Rigby is seen only in newly-shot, over-the-shoulder reverse angles (the one exception featuring Cary Grant from Suspicion), giving Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid a disconnected quality even before the eccentric storyline kicks in. Much of the fun of watching it comes simply from gaping at Martin’s odd replies to, or contrived set-ups for, the borrowed dialogue.
This highly anticipated Blu-ray release also sets out the qualitative differences in high definition. Produced in an age before digital restoration, it’s impossible to believe that Martin is really interacting with the often visually slightly fuzzy characters he meets – but it’s to the film’s credit that you really don’t care. For all the absurdity and childishness on display, it’s elements like the sympathetic new score from contemporary composer Miklos Rozsa that mark out Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid as a loving homage as much as a surreal parody. By turns joyous and infuriating.
Special Features: Trailer
DEAD MEN DON’T WEAR PLAID (1982) / CERT: PG / DIRECTOR: CARL REINER / SCREENPLAY: CARL REINER, GEORGE GIPE, STEVE MARTIN / STARRING: STEVE MARTIN, RACHEL WARD / RELEASE DATE: 10TH APRIL