Saturday, January 07, 2006

Private eyes ... they're watching you ... they see your every move ... : "Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid"

Ah, how I long for the days when Steve Martin wasn't family-friendly.

True, he still gets an intriguing, adult role every now and then. "Shopgirl" wasn't bad, and I thought "Bowfinger" was pretty funny. Then there was "The Spanish Prisoner," which wasn't a perfect fit for his wry humor but managed to work all right.

Alas, it seems these days we're treated more to stuff like "Cheaper by the Dozen" and "Bringing Down the House," which is great for the elementary school set but doesn't do much for those of us who appreciate "The Jerk" ("I'm picking out a Thermos for you!") and "The Man With Two Brains" ("Into the mud, scum queen!").

Wedged in between those two movies from more than 20 years ago was "Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid," which I first saw as a lad, before I could appreciate its full intent. Martin plays a 1940s private detective sucked into a case by a woman whose father has been killed. Doesn't sound like anything special, right? Well, just you wait.

The black-and-white uses clips from several old movies to advance the story ... or just have some fun. Working around Martin, Rachel "Man, I forgot how hot she was" Ward and director Carl Reiner are such famous faces as Ingrid Bergman, Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Cary Grant, Burt Lancaster, Vincent Price and a host of others. As a kid, I recognized maybe Bogey and nobody else.

As an adult -- at least by age -- it was easier to tell when old movies entered the picture, which was good and bad. On one hand, it was fun to see everything spliced together, and to see Martin play off the old footage, i.e. this "exchange" with Grant:
Grant: You don't smoke, do you?
Martin: No, I have tuberculosis.
Grant: Oh, thank heaven for that.

But I'd by lying if I said all of these splices were seamless, and more than one of them was pretty forced. It also didn't help that the quality of old footage was worse than the fresh scenes, even if all were in black and white. I suspect that wouldn't be as much of a problem now, given all the recent restoration of movies. But in the early '80s, the technology wasn't quite there.

Even so, the movie is a curiosity piece, and Martin is funny enough with his own dialogue. He seems to be having fun with such gumshoe-esque lines as these:
-- "I hadn't seen a body put together like that since I solved the case of the Murdered Girl with the Big Tits"
-- "My plan was to kiss her with every lip on my face."
-- "Carlotta was the kind of town where they spell trouble T-R-U-B-I-L, and if you try to correct them, they kill you."

Then again, maybe Ward -- who really does look amazing here -- has the best line of all:
-- "If you need me, just call. You know how to dial, don't you? You just put your finger in the hole and make tiny little circles."

Um, come again? Mercy.


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