Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Trailer Park :: Doing it the Hard Way :: Carl Reiner's Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid (1982)

As children of the 1970's, like myself, we were witness to a lot of groundbreaking comedy albums and live performances from some very funny people. And as a child of the 1970's, again, like myself, we were usually confined to listening to these albums in clandestine secrecy, with the lights turned off and the sound turned down so low you usually ran the risk of permanently etching the pattern of a hi-fi speaker on your face as you pressed and held an ear against it and tried, desperately, not to bark out a laugh, a sure fire-signal that you were up to no good, or face the wrath of your parents and a guaranteed hide-tanning for listening to such forbidden fruit. (Seriously, if I shaved my left sideburn off you can still see a faint Zenith impression.)

Now, believe it or not, folks, but I'm not referring to Richard Pryor, Cheech and Chong, or George Carlin here. Nope. In my household, the number one guy on the banned list was Steve Martin. Steven Martin? Yes. Steve Martin. You read that right. Sadly, probably half of you have no clue that Martin's showbiz career began on stage. But he did, yucking it up with his banjo-picking, patented arrow-thru-the-head, and his trademarked catch phrase, "Well, excuuuuuuuuuse me!" Technically, I wasn't allowed to listen to Mr. Martin, not because he was a particularly dirty comedian, but, because he was branded as "just too weird" for my corruptible moral fiber. Kinda like how my Monty Python education was postponed by several years when my mom stumbled into the living room just in time to see a buck-naked Terry Jones banging away at an organ.

Anyways ... Martin's stand-up career probably reached its zenith with the release of his top-40 novelty song, "King Tut", which was prominently featured in the highest rated episode of Saturday Night Live to date. And with his popularity peaking, Martin dove into feature films, feet first, teaming up with Carl Reiner for The Jerk. The rags to riches to rags to riches film was a huge hit, which makes the comedian's choice for a follow up a bit of puzzler. For, with Pennies from Heaven, Martin took a huge risk by going against type with this lavish tribute to 1930's Hollywood musicals. Alas, with the proof in the box-office pudding, the viewing public wanted more Navin Johnson, not Busby Berkeley.

Despite this setback, instead of playing it safe, Martin's next project was to be another old-school Hollywood tribute. This time, teaming up with Reiner again, the film would be an ambitious comedic spoof on the hard-boiled noir films from the 1940's and '50s. Thus, in Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, Martin plays Rigby Reardon, a cynical and jaded private detective, prone to violent outbursts whenever a certain word triggers a deep-seeded psychosis, who also has a nasty habit of taking a bullet to the same shoulder in the exact same spot over and over again. (No wonder it never heals.) Enter, shadow and fog left, the beautiful femme fatale, Juliet Forrest (Ward), who hires Rigby to find her missing father, an expert in cheese manufacturing.

Taking the job, because, really, who could refuse those eyes, those lips, those legs, those *ahem* other assorted body parts ... Rigby chases down several leads that only uncover more cryptic clues as he tries to sort the friends from the enemies of the mysterious Carlotta, who holds the key to the whereabouts of Forrest's missing father. Following the trail of red herrings and dead bodies, the hunt leads our hero south of the border, where we finally discover who was behind the nefarious kidnapping and the true scope of this cheesy plot comes to light. And when I say cheesy, it doesn't mean what you think it means. Well, sort of. But not really. Eh, just trust me...

From a technical stand-point, a lot of folks say Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid was made too soon. I don't agree. Made almost ten years before a CGI'd Fred Astaire was dancing with a vacuum cleaner and John Wayne was hocking beer in a couple of ground-breaking commercials, and 12 years before Forrest Gump rewrote history, what makes Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid so unique is how Reiner and Martin paid homage to these old films by, basically, inserting Rigby into them. This, of course, was done the hard way, with split-screens, body-doubles and several editing tricks. And while CGI is a great tool, it can also make a filmmaker a little lazy in some aspects. Here, cast and crew had to work a little harder to pull it off, and, at that, they most definitely succeed.

Reiner and screenwriter George Gipe spent countless hours looking and sifting through old footage as they cobbled their plot together. And to help match it all up, Reiner brought costume designer Edith Head out of retirement to handle the wardrobe, Miklós Rózsa, who scored The Killers, Spellbound and The Asphalt Jungle, to tackle the soundtrack, and production designer John De Cuir, a 40-year veteran, to design the 85 sets needed for the scheduled ten-week shoot. All told, some 18 films are featured in Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid. And so, moving through the likes of This Gun for Hire, The Big Sleep, and The Lost Weekend, Rigby got to interact with Humphrey Bogart, Alan Ladd and Edward G. Robinson, while fighting off the siren temptations of Veronica Lake, Lana Turner and Ava Gardner. But the most hilarious bit, I think, comes when Rigby dresses in drag, basically becoming Barbara Stanwyck, and plays a scene with Fred MacMurray right out of Double Indemnity.

Sounds like a one-joke pony, right? Well, yeah; it is. And though satire is a useful tool that can be utilized to tear something a new asshole, I usually have better luck when its used more in its celebratory, let's have fun with it instead of making fun of it renditions. But even if you think a premise like this would be flogged to death or running on fumes before it even reached the third reel -- and, by all rights, it probably should've been -- I'm telling ya, Reiner, Martin and company manage to painstakingly recreate and sustain the hard-angles, cavernous shadows, dusky smoke and the bourbon-soaked neon of these old thrillers and the satiric touch they inject into it with nary a stumble until the mystery unravels -- make that dissolves, before the end credits roll ... even though we do never find out why dead men don't wear plaid.

Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid (1982) Aspen Film Society :: Universal Pictures / P: William E. McEuen, David V. Picker / AP: Richard McWhorter / D: Carl Reiner / W: Carl Reiner, George Gipe. Steve Martin / C: Michael Chapman / E: Bud Molin / M: Miklós Rózsa / S: Steve Martin, Rachel Ward, Carl Reiner, Reni Santoni and a simulated cast of hundreds.

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