*. File this one wistfully under “What might have been.” The idea had huge potential, and with Steve Martin as the golden-age gumshoe Rigby Reardon and Rachel Ward as the damsel in distress they had two perfect leads. But somewhere along the way they forgot something.
*. Specifically, they forgot to write a script. The concept of the “collage film” put together out of short clips from noir classics no doubt hurt them in this regard. Whatever story they came up with was going to have to be written around the various clips and cameos they wanted to include, and not the other way around.
*. Given the limitations that come with such a concept, they must have had a lot of trouble coming up with a decent script. And by decent I mean something funny or at least coherent.
*. Though I suppose they could have got by without coherence. Noir is famous for its plots that don’t always add up, and at the end of Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid they have some fun with this, as Martin and Carl Reiner get in a duel to see who can best explain what’s been going on. Unfortunately, that’s one of the few good scenes in the movie.
*. Where Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid fails is in its lack of laughs. The way that clips from other old movies are woven into the fabric of the film is interesting, but by contemporary standards it seems pretty crude. Except for one scene with Martin and Cary Grant sharing a train carriage (taken from Suspicion) it’s all done by way of editing and over-the-shoulder shots. More to the point, however, is that aside from the game of trying to recognize the sources there’s nothing funny about the resulting interactions. Sure they’re clever, but none of them have any real connection to the plot and few of them work as comic bits. Trying to give Edward Arnold from Johnny Eager a puppy and having it crap on the floor is a highlight, which tells you something.
*. Making matters worse is just how awkward so many of the cameos are. It doesn’t take long before we realize they’re merely throwaways that have nothing at all to do with the main plot, so we stop paying attention to them. Five minutes after they appear, and then quickly disappear, could you remember who Burt Lancaster (from The Killers) or Ray Milland (from The Lost Weekend) were playing? Even Bogart, as Marlow (drawn from a few different movies), has nothing to add to the proceedings.
*. This leaves us with the rest of the movie, which has little more to recommend it. Where are the funny parts? In Reardon groping Juliet while she’s unconscious? In her sucking bullets out of his shoulder? In Martin getting dressed up in drag? Certainly not in the lame vaudeville gag that has Martin going into full meltdown mode every time he hears the words “cleaning woman.”
*. So the promise was there but it remained unrealized. I know a lot of people like Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, but I think most of them just see it as a charming homage to favourite films of the past. Judged on its own it seems to me to be a trifle, and an unsuccessful one at that. Ironically, the movies it mines for material are all more watchable, and seem far less dated, today.