Motion/Captured Must-See: 'Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid'
Carl Reiner and Steve Martin had a run of films just as strong as the great Gene Wilder/Mel Brooks trilogy of the '70s, and I'm always fascinated by these collaborations that burn super bright and then just end.
Reiner and Martin's first film, "The Jerk," put them on the map, and it was a fairly big hit considering it couldn't have cost much money at all. And despite Reiner's history in the business at that point... the guy was a TV legend, basically... there was something almost experimental about what he was doing with Martin. Reiner saw Martin's stand-up comedy and it sparked something in him. He came back at Martin with film ideas and directorial style that didn't just capture Martin's sense of humor... it completed it. It gave Martin the perfect world to play. It's like Tim Burton directing a Pee Wee Herman movie... it just makes everything work. Martin's comic persona is a reaction to '70s pop culture, a mockery of everything sincere in show business.
Wilder and Brooks set a very high bar for parody with "Young Frankenstein," and part of what makes that film so incredible is the attention to detail. The production design on the lab where the monster is built. The black and white. The way Gene Hackman looks as the blind man. There are so many ways they get it right, and the space is so specific, such a dead-on reproduction of the Universal movies and their entire aesthetic, that every ridiculous thing that happens feels surreal, twice as funny. The more sincere the satire, the better the end result, I think.
And so when I look at "Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid" as satire, I'm impressed with the quiet cool that Reiner brings to it. He's making a noir movie. He's making every noir movie. And this was 1982, before the home video explosion, before the idea of the film geek went mainstream. Reiner and Martin come by this nerd cred honestly.
[more after the jump]
If you haven't seen the film, it's more than just a simple parody of film noir. It's a movie-built-from-other-movies, the narrative equivalent of what a hip-hop artist does when sampling old records. Here, Reiner and Martin chose a dozen film noir movies and they took footage from them, building that footage into their movie, so that Steve Martin plays scenes with Alan Ladd, Humphrey Bogart (whose Marlowe almost steals the film), and Barbara Stanwyck, just to name a few. It sounds like it'll be forced or awkward, but they're really, really good at building these absurd, hilarious moments out of the old films. And the film's plot, involving the Friends and Enemies of Carlotta (whoever or whatever Carlotta is), is clever, and feels authentic to its supposed era. Watching it right now, as everyone debates and discusses "Watchmen" on the page and on the screen, it occurs to me that Alan Moore may be a "Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid" fan. Much of the way the Ozymandias story plays out in the book is similar to the way the Carlotta plot plays out. Oddly similar. Just saying.
I love watching old Steve Martin films. I love this era of work by him because he was so engaged, so present in each of the films. His work as Rigby Reardon is classic old Hollywood in attitude. He knows what he's going to look like in black-and-white, and he adjusts his clowning so it's at the precise laconic pace of a classic noir, and Rachel Ward's in on the joke as Juliet Forrest, the bad bit of business who gets Rigby involved in the case in the first place. Michael Chapman, the film's cinematographer, had just shot "Raging Bull," and his black-and-white work is amazing here, seamlessly matching Martin into the various films. It helps that Edith Head was the costumer on this film. She was a huge part of the Universal Studios history, an Academy Award winner who was working during the era that this movie is roasting. Her work here is authentic, so everything looks of a piece. Reiner's attention to detail pays off in something that plays like the sort of film that "Mystery Science Theater 3000" hints at during their most inspired riffing. And because of the nature of how it's made, it serves as a primer.
When I saw the film in 1982, I had not seen the movies that were used in stitching it together. Well, a few of them, but not many, and it immediately became a priority for me to track them all down, however long it took. I think it was six years later when I finally crossed the last one off the list, and that was in a much less video-heavy era. I relied on cable and blind luck to help me see movies like "The Glass Key," "Sorry, Wrong Number," "Humoresque," and "In A Lonely Place." And while I'm sure my interest in noir would have been awakened some other way if not for this film, I love that this film was the gateway drug for me, and revisiting it, I'm convinced it can serve that same purpose for other viewers as well.
New to the Motion/Captured Must-See Project? Catch up now!
"After Hours" (3.2.09)
Next week, we'll be doing F-J, so expect reviews for "Fat Girl," "Going In Style," "High Plains Drifter," "It's A Gift," and "Joe Vs. The Volcano." Feel free to watch along with us each day and join in with your own take on the movies.
Can't get enough of Motion/Captured? Don't miss a post with daily HitFix Blog Alerts. Sign up now.
Don't miss out. Add Motion/Captured to your iGoogle, My Yahoo or My MSN experience by clicking here.
Not part of the HitFix Nation yet? Take 90 seconds and sign up today.
1996 | Crime | RSummary: Jerry, a small-town Minnesota car salesman is bursting at the seams with debt... but he's got a plan. He's going to hire two thugs to kidnap his wife in a scheme to collect a hefty ransom from his wealthy father-in-law. It's going to be a snap and nobody's going to get hurt... until people start ...Director: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Cast: William H. Macy, Frances McDormand, Steve Buscemi, Peter Stormare
2013 | Drama | RSummary: Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill have boundless energy in the story of a real-life commodities crook who earned millions through scummy small-time stock trades.Director: Martin Scorsese
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie
1995 | Mystery | NRSummary: Denzel Washington plays an out of work WWII vet who takes the wrong job and is soon neck-deep in a mess of politics, murder, and jazz in '40s Los Angeles.Director: Carl Franklin
Cast: Denzel Washington, Tom Sizemore, Jennifer Beals
2007 | Comedy | PGSummary: Newlyweds Nick (Ice Cube) and Suzanne (Long) decide to move to the suburbs to provide a better life for their two kids. But their idea of a dream home is disturbed by a contractor (McGinley) with a bizarre approach to business.Director: Steve Carr
Cast: John C. McGinley, Ice Cube, Nia Long, Aleisha Allen
1993 | Sports | PGSummary: Emotionally powerful sports classic featuring Sean Astin as a skinny high school kid with big football dreams and the determination to make his way towards his dream team at Notre Dame.Director: David Anspaugh
Cast: Sean Astin, Jon Favreau, Ned Beatty
1997 | Crime | RSummary: Quentin Tarantino adaptats an Elmore Leonard novel into this story of a few increasingly desperate people scraping to get by. It has deep soul, a wicked sense of humor, and Samuel L. Jackson, Robert De Niro, Pam Grier, and Robert Forster.Director: Quentin Tarantino
Cast: Pam Grier, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Forster
2008 | Science Fiction | PGSummary: Animated series continues the story of Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker as they battle the Emperor Palpatine, Count Dooku and General Grievous, but also takes time to explore other smaller characters in the Star Wars universe.Director: George Lucas (creator)
Cast: Tom Kane, Dee Bradley Baker, Matt Lanter
2013 | Thriller | RSummary: Based on the true story of Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) a Miami bodybuilder who wants to live the American dream. He would like to have the money that other people have. So he enlists the help of fellow bodybuilder Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) and ex-convict, Christian bodybuilder Paul Doyle (D...Director: Michael Bay
Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, Anthony Mackie, Tony Shalhoub
2013 | Comedy | NRSummary: Insanely funny comedy show created by Amy Schumer, who stars in brilliantly funny sketches about sex, city living, dating, and friendship.Director: Daniel Powell, Amy Schumer (creators)
Cast: Amy Schumer, Kevin Kane, Mike Houston
Let Streaming Genie help you.