Sunday, March 1, 2020

Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid (1982).

There's a certain kind of perk that comes from being a pop-culture junkie.  For one thing, you're blessed with the kind of curiosity that won't shut up unless you go exploring down forgotten nooks, crannies, and side alleys that have been overlooked by time in search of rare and exotic curios and artifacts.  The way it starts is you here a rumor about some old film that starred a major Hollywood talent.  The catch is no one seems to now what it's about because its so far off the map that it's seldom seen or talked about.  That's just the kind of setup that certain types of geek are willing to go out of their way to discover.  Sometimes the search is a long and arduous, with little to show for it except a trail of breadcrumbs leading nowhere.  Other times it's as simple as one click order and you've got the item in your collection.  In my case, I was lucky enough to land the second option.  And I owe it all to what I read in a book.

One of the goods things to be said about Nick De Semlyan's Wild and Crazy Guys is that on occasion the author is willing to throw his readers a bone.  This study of the Comedy Movement of the late 70s and 80s is often a dry and matter-of-fact affair, for the most part.  Yet here and there Semlyen would mention hints and clues about a number films and flicks that have been shoved into the background by the growing popularity of their more famous contemporaries.  Everyone knows about Ghostbusters.  Who ever heard of a film called Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid?  The answer seems to be: not much.  It looks like Semlyen is one of the lucky few who've seen the film and are able to shed at least some light on it.

In his book Semlyen notes that the film is all of a piece with the kind of humor Steve Martin was known for.  "More so than any of his contemporaries, Martin was a one-man variety show.  He juggled, made balloon animals, did card tricks, performed magic.  But he did all of it with a thick dollop of irony.  Adopting a the persona of a slick, preening show-biz guy, he honed a high-voltage club act that mesmerized crowds...What he meticulously crafted throughout the '70s was a postmodern style that his friend Rick Moranis later labeled "anti-comedy."  He shunned punch lines, opting instead to address audiences with with surreal lines such as "Does anyone know where I can get a pair of cat hand-cuffs?" of "Hello, I'm Steve Martin and I'll be out here in a minute."  As he explained to a reporter, "Another comedian will do anything to get a laugh.  But in my act I think it's abstracted back to the point where the idea of someone doing anything for a laugh is funny, not the action.  That's the way I like it (17-18)".

It's a very odd sounding concept, and I think it might be a bit difficult to grasp in an age when audiences prefer their humor more or less straight-up, no matter how surreal the circumstances.  A good way to explain it is that it might be something of an inheritance from guys like Monty Python.  Their style of humor was always aiming for the farthest left field effect they could manage.  They often used surrealism to carry this technique across.  It was a gamble that turned out to be a good one, as audiences then and now are able to quote whole routines and sequences from the troupe's work.  I think that Martin is sort of a more quiet and low-key form of that same style of humor.  It's just been slightly Americanized while style maintaining that same kind of style that is anarchic, detached, and self-questioning by turns.  It's a style of humor that's meant to reward audiences for being intelligent about fart jokes.
It's also the main driving engine for some of Martin's early film experiments.  I call them experiments because there's just no other word for what he was able to accomplish during the early 80s.  Those seem to have been his peak years.  It was during that time span that audiences were treated to a Martin that was willing to break as many rules in the service of getting a laugh, and not caring about the consequences.  He's settled down since then, and is willing to play it all straight.  This is the Steve most audiences have come to embrace and enjoy.  However this has led to the neglect of the other side of the comedian's work.  I'd like to see if it can be brought back into the spotlight.  This examination of the comic's 1982 Noir parody, Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, might be at least a step in that direction.

The Case Files.

 It's not easy being a private eye.  Just ask Rigby Reardon.  The biggest perk the job has to offer is that if you play your cards just right, the best you have to look forward to is a new pair of cement overshoes or a nice, new fitting wooden jacket.  It's a sucker's game, which tells you pretty much all you need to know about guys like Rigby.  That he's obsessed with his business partner wearing the proper tie is just the tip of iceberg.  He also goes berserk every time someone uses the phrase: cleaning woman!

He knew the dame on his doorstep was trouble almost from the moment he saw her.  Her story is that her father, a world famous philanthropic scientist well-renown for making cheese, was killed in a car crash.  The coroner and the press are all just treating it like an accident.  Juliet Forrest, the dead man's daughter, believes there was foul play involved.  Before the accident, dear-old-dad was acting erratic, like he was paranoid about people following him.  He even started to draw up a list of names.  When he was shuffled off-stage, however, all he left behind was a bunch of illegible names on a torn off scrap of dollar bill.  Juliet would be very grateful to Mr. Reardon if he could follow up on this clue and see if it could lead to answers about her father's death.

According to P.T. Barnum, guys like Rigby are born every minute.  So like a fool, he takes the case, and digs up a lead almost right away.  In Dr. Forrest's old office, Reardon uncovers two sheets of paper making up separate yet related lists.  One concerns the "Enemies of Carlotta", the other is a list of Friends.  For some reason, all of Carlotta's enemies have been dropping like flies lately.  Even worse is when Rigby soon discovers that all of Carlotta's friends have taken interest in his affairs.  When they aren't tailing him from one train to the next, they're either killing off witnesses while he's in the middle of an interview with them, or else slamming his face into a wall.  The deeper Rigby dives into this case, the more twisted it gets, and where it all leads could determine the fate of millions of innocent lives, to say nothing of the the cleaning woman.

A Forgotten and Neglected Sense of Humor.

If I've made the story itself sound like just another boring and dull knock-off, then let me apologize.  The truth is that I don't think a bare-bones summary does any real justice to the kind of brilliant insanity that happens up on the screen.  During the film's whole runtime, what the viewer is treated to is something like a visual collage that jumps back and forth in time.  One minute your in an obvious set somewhere in and around the start of the 80s.  The next second the whole scene has reset itself, and we're in another time and place, somewhere during what used to be called Hollywood's Golden Age.  All of a sudden the dead don't just walk, they speak lines, and think and act with a cutthroat instinct that can't be found in your ordinary zombie.

That's because there's a very deliberate creative choice at the heart of this flick.  It was devised by Martin in collaboration with the film's director, Carl Reiner.  De Semlyen explains it better than I can.  "Like all good things," says Reiner, "it was conjured in a panic."

"The brainwave was this: what if they interspersed footage of Martin with clips from old movies, Frankensteining their own silly narrative?  They batted around the idea of making a pastiche Western, before deciding that re-creating the vast vistas of Monument Valley wasn't a viable option.  Instead, they settled on film noir.  We wanted personalities," said Martin, "and all the actors we liked worked mostly in the crime thriller genre."  A gumshoe spoof filmed in this way could make him part of the ultimate ensemble: Humphrey Bogart, Ava Gardner, Ray Milland, Joan Crawford, Charles Laughton, Cary Grant, Veronica Lake, Kirk Douglas, and more.  It would be that scene in Blazing Saddles where the cast runs through different movies, except with real films and real stars.

"Reiner...tracked down prints of every '40s and '50s noir they could think of, embarking on the ultimate noir binge.  "We spent months looking at these old black-and-white films, screening three or four a day, saying, 'Here's a funny line,' or, 'Could this insert of a dagger work?'" says Reiner.  When Martin returned, the three men scrawled fragments of dialogue all over a blackboard, slowly piecing together a coherent story like a giant jigsaw puzzle (105)".

The result could best be described as a kind of goofball genre parody, featuring Martin's detective character.  "As he embarks on his latest investigation..., Rigby weaves in and out of such classics as The Lost Weekend, This Gun for Hire, and White Heat, getting shot by James Cagney and strangling Bette Davis (with Paul Henreid's hands).  "We really had to contort ourselves to match what was going on in the old movies," Reiner admits.  "But the story we came up with isn't any more confusing than The Big Sleep."

I almost want to compliment Reiner and Martin by saying that the finished product does make a kind of sense.  As we following the main lead from one encounter to the next, each one furthers his progress as he's able to gather more clues that bring him closer to finding the mysterious Carlotta.  In the end, its possible to say that all the characters he meets are either agents of the enemy, or else their allies, or neutrals.  The one thing all the enemies have in common is that they're the ones who keep trying to thrash him within inches of his life.  The curious part is that it really all does hold together.

I think this is down mainly to the skill of Reiner in the writing, and Martin for the comedic timing.  His method is to treat every encounter with the most deadpan approach that he can manage.  If I had to compare it to anything else, then it might find its echo in the techniques that Kubrick used to deliver the punchlines in Dr. Strangelove.  Both films seem to start from the premise that the comedy of their stories is best approached from a straight angle.  The way Martin's diverges off from this tactic is when it comes to certain line deliveries.  The mannerisms are still deadpan, yet the nature of the writing makes it deliberately impossible to take seriously.  A few good examples go something like the following:

"On my way to Firehouse Row, I tried not to think of Juliet Forrest.  I hadn't seen a body like that since I'd solved the case of the murdered girl with the big tits.  (Cut to a scene of Martin opening an apartment door)  I had no trouble finding Dr. Forrest's cheese lab.  It smelled just just like the number on the door (Martin closes door, revealing the number 2 emblazoned on its surface)".

It is possible to write off this sort of comedy as juvenile.  However, in an era where South Park is perhaps the closest thing we have to a benchmark for humor, I think a more appropriate challenge is to wonder whether it's too highbrow or not?  There may be a lot of viewers who don't get the kind of style Martin is going for from start to finish.  However, I'm willing to chalk that up to a simple question of learning differences.  Even if its something one has to accommodate to, that doesn't necessarily mean its not worth watching.  I'm even willing to go so far as to claim anyone who is able to win out and discover the meaning of Martin's sense of humor will come away having enjoyed the film all the more for making the effort.

Besides which, there's nothing really unfamiliar about the whole setup.  It's basically a riff on the comedic style of Mel Brooks.  The trick with Brooks is that in his best work he's throwing everything at the wall at once.  He's all about the gag and seeing whether it lands, or not.  Martin's film is a riff on that same technique.  The only difference is that where Brooks is willing to take a madcap, rapid fire approach, with one joke bouncing off the others, Martin is willing to take his time, and ease the viewer into a false sense of security before pulling the rug out from everyone while "the flowers are still standing".  He likes to be a bit cerebral, yet it can work as long as the entire premise is wacky enough.  It also begins to make a bit more sense when you stop and realize that the film's director, Carl Reiner, was also a frequent collaborator with Brooks back in the day.  The good news for Martin is that the entire narrative approach is screwball enough to support the technique.  We're not in a real, sane world with this picture.  Instead its like a humorous, feature length episode of the Twilight Zone where the main lead keeps wandering in and out of famous clips and characters from other stories that all somehow tie into his own.

There's a streak of generosity going on in the spliced scenes between Martin and the stars from Hollywood Golden Age.  If the film is a parody, then there's a genuine affection that's generating the action, rather than any sense of outright scorn, coupled with a desire to tear it all down.  Often there are times when Martin will be conversing with an old clip of Cary Grant, or Ingrid Bergman, and he reveals that his willing to play the straight man by giving himself the setup dialogue, and then letting Joan Crawford or Barbra Stanwyck have the punchline and the last laugh at his expense.  I can't recall many comedians who are willing to humble themselves to that level.  In fact, there's even one scene near the start of the flick where Martin is talking to Stanwyck on the phone, and she gives both the character and the audience a valuable piece of plot information that flies right by us the first time we watch that scene.  It's only when we go back for a second viewing and realize she was telling the truth that it begins to sink in just how much the joke was on all of us.

Conclusion: A Forgotten Classic of 80s Comedy.

Nick De Semlyen is onto something when he admits, "Rarely has such a silly experiment been taken so seriously.  "Both Steve and I really got immersed in it," says Reiner (106)".  I'm sure it's possible for many critics to point out that the film's entire premise is ridiculous, especially when all it involves is Steve Martin running around the movie screen and holding conversations with people who aren't there.  However, that begs the question of whether being ridiculous was kind of the whole point?  What's the purpose of all comedy, after all, if not to wrench a laugh from us by displaying incongruities and human absurdities.  I think it's more a question of which type or style of comedy suits audiences from one moment to the next.  The trick with that approach is that the various potential styles of humor are elements that are always in and out of season, and there's no telling when the hottest topic will be considered passe, or what will take its place.  One thing I'd have to stress is that just because a comedy is old, that doesn't make it useless.  If it did, the Marx Brothers would have been forgotten long ago.  

Dead Men is a film that's been forgotten by time.  This seems to be down to a number of factors.  The first is that it never seems to have made that much of a difference at the box-office.  The other has to do the complex reputation of Martin as an entertainer.  In some respects, he's been very lucky.  Where some of his more hard partying contemporaries have succumbed to drugs and burnout, Martin has been able to hold it steady over the years.  The catch seems to be that his star has never really faded, so much as it is something of a background feature.  He has name recognition, yet its never been anywhere near as high as Bill Murray's.

The final factor has to do with the nature of the film's comedy.  I said a moment ago that it was similar to Mel Brooks in a low key.  Perhaps its this muted quality that means despite it being full of laughs, it never seems to have gotten the recognition it deserves.  I'm left wondering what other kind of factors play a part in letting a neat little film like this fall through the cracks.  Part of it could be that viewers are used to more in-your-face, assault styles of humor.  Another possibility is the the audiences tastes had already shifted away from the kind of classic Film Noir stories that Martin and Reiner were lampooning.  This would make it a product for which there was no real interest.  However, I think the real issue is that the film was too experimental for mainstream tastes.

Martin is the kind of entertainer who likes to try and see if he can expand the boundaries of humor if he can get the chance.  I'm not talking about your typical pushing of the envelope.  South Park's style doesn't interest him so much as seeing if there are undiscovered avenues to explore.  Where South Park goes way low with a fart joke, Martin would take that same gag and try and push to as many heights as it can manage.  The fact remains that Steve Martin is the kind of comedian who likes to think in terms of high concepts when it comes to getting a laugh.  He's happiest when he's able to get  audiences laughing by trying to make them consider just why they are laughing, and what is it about the joke that makes it funny.  In other words, he's a thinking man's comic.

"The result," according to Ryan Vlastelica, "was an act founded on surrealism and non sequiturs, bits that zagged where every other comic had zigged. Martin counted on the audience knowing entertainment conventions; the joke was how those conventions were being subverted. “My act, having begun three years earlier as a conventional attempt to enter regular show business, was becoming a parody of comedy,” he wrote of his creative evolution".  Perhaps the most important aspect to underline about Dead Men, however, is that it really is funny as hell.  At the end of the day, Martin knows his job is to deliver the laughs, and he does it in one scene after another.  Perhaps the finest example of this film's wit is contained in the following monologue: "All dames are alike: they reach down your throat and they can grab your heart, pull it out and they throw it on the floor, step on it with their high heels, spit on it, shove it in the oven and cook the shit out of it. Then they slice it into little pieces, slam it on a hunk of toast, and serve it to you and then expect you to say, "Thanks, honey, it was delicious (web)".      

It can be easy for jaded viewers to dismiss the whole thing, yet the truth is that's it's surprising just how much it fits in with the rest of the comedy from that decade.  If there's anything like a main theme that unites all of the best comedy films of the 80s, then its the concept of the little guy striking a blow against the phonies, the stuff-shirts, or just those who wield too much power, or who would abuse power for the sake of harming others.  In that sense there really is this kind of hidden moral streak underlying even the gross-out humor of a film like Animal House.  I think all that Martin has done with Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid is to bring this moral stance out into the open for perhaps the  first and only time during that decade.  I don't know if this makes that era's style of comedy sound old fashioned or not.  I also know I don't see how that's any reason to apologize for allow people enjoy a good laugh.  In the end, Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid is a forgotten gem worth digging up.  If even just a handful who read this are intrigued enough to hunt down a copy, then I guess that means I've done the story at least some kind of favor.


  1. (1) I must dispute the assertion that DEAD MEN DON'T WEAR PLAID is an obscure film. It's celebrated as one of Steve Martin's best and most unique films in a variety of places. I don't disagree it may not be as well-known among younger viewers (and as you established in your review from last time, perhaps de Semalyn should've researched a bit more out of his immediate comfort zone)but, I mean, so's something like Bad Day at Black Rock, or even High Noon. Doesn't make these films obscure by any means, just that people's appetite for canon has whittled away, perhaps by design or by attrition, who knows. Anyway! It was puzzling to me to see the film introduced as something unfamiliar to most people; has it really become that? This was ubiqutious in reruns in the 80s, at least in the Northeast.

    (2) Does this mean, perchance, you have not seen THE MAN WITH TWO BRAINS? That one - and "All Of Me" and "The Jerk" - always seemed to be on cable/ UHS, as well.

    (3) Steve Martin's comedy/approach was very much right place/ right time. Outside of the 70s it's difficult to conceive his becoming the biggest comedy star in the world. The 70s, for whatever faults they have, incubated a great deal of America's best art! "It's a style of humor that's meant to reward audiences for being intelligent about fart jokes." ha! Exactly.

    (4) I still say "pa-YAM-as!" as a result of this film.

    (5) What's funny, too, is how later in life I saw all the films referenced in this and was like "oh geez, I really had no idea..." It's kind of surreal how films like BLAZING SADDLES and DEAD MAN DON'T WEAR PLAID (which is such a great noir title) were early versions of mash-up/ sample culture. (Although we could say the same for THE MONKEES, too.) They were onto something that really exploded/ became institutionalized in the coming decades.

    (6) Martin's deadpan is truly admirable. I can't keep a straight face at all, so I admire the ability in other people. Martin's whole approach during this period seemed predicated on being able to seriously get across such silliness. I can't say I agree with its being a polar opposite to Martin or that its audience repudiates his or anything. But admittedly, the boundary-less-ness of all comedy after the 80s makes it harder (or perhaps obsolete) to employ Martin's approach. It's like the subtlety of sexual interaction in old movies - doesn't make much sense in a world of Tinder and Grindr and all else. Things change with technology/ taboos dropped.

    (7) Personally, I think SOUTH PARK is rather brilliant (and badly needed/ much appreciated) satire, and somewhat in this Martin vein of relying on the audience to be intelligent about fart jokes/ even worse.

    (8) Good call on the Stanwyck phone clue/ second viewing. That was my experience as well.

    (9) Forgive me I may have asked this last time but have you read either SHOPGIRL or PICASSO AT THE LAPIN AGILE? I loved both when I read them last, but it's been awhile.

    1. (1) Yeah, I was mainly going by personal experience here. That and the fact that the IMDB reviews, and the scant amount of vlogger attention on YouTube sort of painted this idea of "Plaid" as like this obscure piece that no one seems to have noticed. So I based the angle of this review off of just what I got from others before jumping into the fray. My basic thought was, "Well, got the work cut out for it this time, that seems for damn sure". I'll come back to this.

      (2) No, no again, and no, sadly. When it comes to a lot of this stuff I'm the automatic role of the guy who has to play catch-up. Martin wasn't even really a figure occupying much of my attention until I read what Semlyan had to say in his book. That's wher I ran across the other side of Martin (who now has my permission to steal that phrase for whatever creative project he wishes).

      Up till then, the most I was familiar with him was in stuff like "Bowfinger", "Parenthood", "Father of the Bride", and "Plains, Trains, and Automobiles". This was like discovering your stuffy old uncle used to work in Vaudeville, or something like that.

      (4) I think that's like m favorite sequence in the entire film, helped in no small part by the inclusion of the always reliable and welcome services of the Maestro of Meance, i.e. Vinnie Price. It's just too bad the actor himself didn't decide to take part in those sequences, now THAT would have made it one for the ages!

      (5) Come to think of it, you're right. It's amazing how not many people, even "Simpsons" and "Family Guy" fans seem that much aware of just how far back it goes. That's yet another reason for the tone of this piece.

      (6)(7) I'm not saying anything against "South Park". Again, I was going by what I read and saw, and here's where the disbelief at artistic subtlety comes in. Everything I saw told me that we've become so used to shock value that it's like the finer comedic nuances are in danger of getting lost in the mainstream, in which case you have a phenomenon (Modern Comedy) that suffers from an identity crisis because it has no fundamental or historical sense of itself. Question: what happens to comedy if it lacks a sense of self-awareness? Does the art form itslef lose motivation and go "out of season" until some new revitalizing artistic agent comes along to kick things back into high gear? These are just the questions that interactions I've observed around this film lead me to wonder about.

      (8) Yeah, I was lucky to pick up on that one. Not bad for a girl holding an entirely different conversation with someone who isn't there. "Hello, I'm Steve Martin, and I'll be out here in a minute"!

      (9) Again, no, say sorry. These are all things I need to remedy. The good news is that it does seem like this recent Martin re-discovery shows signs of just getting started.

      (10) My favorite one-liner in the entire movie: Martin (spoken to a lady like Ingrid Bergman):"...Woof, Huberman, WOOF!


    2. (2) That makes sense, then. I got into Steve Martin's movies right around the time he was transitioning from his 70s stuff into his 80s work, but there was another switch at the end of the 80s for Steve Martin where he was taking more dramatic and more mainstream roles, like the ones you mention (although "Bowfinger" was fairly wacky). But there seemed to be a change in his approach around that time. "LA Story" was a great one, as well; I watched that one an awful lot back in the day and it still holds up pretty well I think.

      If you haven't seen "All of Me," that one's a personal fave. I'd say that and "LA Story" are my faves, although "The Jerk" and "Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid" could be, any day of the week.

  2. I left a comment on this one, but I think Blogger ate it. Can't have been much of a meal; it wasn't much of a comment!

    The upshot of it was that while I love Steve Martin, I've got some major gaps in my knowledge of his work. For example, I've never seen:

    Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid (which sounds great)
    The Man With Two Brains (ditto)
    The Lonely Guy
    Planes, Trains and Automobiles (unthinkable, unforgivable -- what am I waiting on?!?)
    Leap of Faith

    I'm also waaaaaay overdue to see most of his classics with fresh eyes. Because I've technically seen "All of Me" and "Roxanne" and "The Jerk" and loved them, but it's been a long time.

    Bottom line: this post makes me want to do all of that.

    1. I'm playing catch-up here also. I haven't even seen "The Jerk". So, again, can't see no reason to apologize for anything.

      "Plains, Trains, and Automobiles" ears its spurs, that's for sure.


    2. Having rewatched a few of these fairly recently, here's an impromptu Mcmolo-approved top 5:

      1. LA Story
      2. All of Me
      3. The Jerk
      4. Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid
      5. Planes Trains and Automobiles.

      Actually, 2-5 are pretty much interchangeable, or one goes way ahead depending on the mood/context of when you watch it.

      #6 would be Leap of Faith. (Unless it's #1. In which case, I'd probably put Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid at #6. But that one's so funny, though! Life isn't fair.)

    3. Slow yet steady is how I have to make my way through that.