Reviews of movies from my giant DVD tower, and more.
Released on May 21, 1982
Directed by Carl Reiner
Written by Steve Martin, Carl Reiner, and George Gipe
Cast: Steve Martin, Rachel Ward, Reni Santoni, Carl Reiner, George Gaynes, Frank McCarthy, George Sawaya, Cheryl ‘Rainbeaux’ Smith, Charles Picerni, Gene Labell, and cameos from eighteen noir-era actors and actresses
The ultimate film noir comedy, bar none! Steve Martin plays a 1940s private detective trying to solve a missing persons case while interacting with characters from vintage black-and-white film clips of the era; Humphrey Bogart from The Big Sleep, James Cagney in White Heat, and Barbara Stanwyck—lacking phone courtesy—in Sorry, Wrong Number, to name just a few. Rachel Ward is the gorgeous client who hires him and assists in the search for her scientist father, and along the way she and Martin find themselves involved with everything from experimental cheese molds to a handful of pigdog Nazis.
Martin was simply pitch-perfect as Rigby Reardon, a quintessential noir PI caught up in a multi-layered case, playing off a multitude of old-time actors whose dialogue and movements were smartly and hilariously blended with Martin’s quips and reactions. Most of the time they fell in line with the flow of the story, but there were times where they existed just for the sake of a non-sequitur jibe or response. But that’s what helped make the whole deal such a treat…and especially so if you’re a fan of detective films, and in particular the snappy banter so often found in the crime films of that era.
I think that’s what I liked best about it all: the irreverence of the exchanges between Martin and the many characters he conversed with, and the deadpan responses Martin made to the existing dialogue from those classic films…even when they were out of context in relation to the newly-created storyline. For example: in one scene, Bogart answers a phone call from Martin with, “Oh, hello Bernie.” Of course, it’s not chief investigator Bernie Ohls from The Big Sleep on the other end, but Martin, who replies seriously, “No, it’s me, Rigby.” These understated gems could be found quite often throughout the film, and I loved how the writers took these possible errors in continuity and made them work so well.
And the fact that these writers—Martin, director Carl Reiner, and George Gipe—created a coherent and comic narrative thread out of all this was amazing enough, but to take footage from eighteen different noir films and integrate them so seamlessly with modern-day actors, sets, and costumes was, I thought, incredible. The filmmakers obviously did their homework as well—the set design, camera angles and lighting, and Martin’s voice-over dialogue were pure noir—and extra kudos should go to veteran costume designer Edith Head, taking part in her final film, and cinematographer Michael Chapman, who spent months working with Technicolor to get all the black-and-white shots to match.
This easily ranks as one of my favorite comedies of all time…I can watch it again and again (and I have), and it never fails to crack me up each time. Martin and Ward were wonderful together, and made for a fun and engaging screen couple; Reni Santoni was also hilarious, in a small part as a policeman hell-bent on looking after Reardon’s pajamas. And though some critics consider this a ‘one joke’ comedy, I say that stuffy label could be attached to any comedy; with Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, it’s not only a great joke, it’s a movie jam-packed with great jokes. Check it out! (9/10)