I liked Steve Martin when Steve Martin wasn’t cool (in the movies, at least). After his surprising box-office success in The Jerk (1979), Martin went the Woody Allen route and lost his way with his audience for a while — including Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, a film noir spoof that earned middling box-office. I found it one of the funniest comedies of its year.
Martin (who co-wrote with director Carl Reiner) plays Rigby Reardon, a 1940’s gumshoe in the Bogart style. (In fact, via interspliced film footage, Martin constantly chastizes Bogart about his downtrodden appearance.) Reardon helps a gorgeous femme fatale (Rachel Ward at her most voluptuous) to solve the mystery of her scientist father’s disappearance.
This is mostly an excuse to throw Martin together in (seemingly, and seamlessly) the same scene with old film clips of Bogart, Cary Grant, and other noir stars. The gimmick isn’t always hilarious, but at the very least it’s fun to watch. But Martin manages to be quite hilarious on his own — doing a schizoid ballet on skinned knees, or nonchalantly “adjusting” (i.e. groping) Ward’s ample breasts. The later Reiner/Martin collaboration All of Me (1984) proved to the world what a flawless physical comedian Martin could be, but there’s ample display of his talent here.
Reiner and veteran composer Miklos Rosza (Double Indemnity) also deserve credit for evoking noir moods about as lovingly as you could ask for. The movie is filled with shadowy corners and appropriately slithery music. (Check out the scene where Rosza duplicates Martin’s expression of the phrase “cleaning woman.”) Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid — the title is explained within the movie, by the way, but it doesn’t help — is an overlooked but delightful entry in the Martin canon.