‘Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid’ Blu-Ray Review – A Hilarious Love Letter To Classic Hollywood Noir

The 1982 comedy Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid is a film that only a crew who has a deep appreciation for film history could make. It is on the basis of this love for film that it ultimately succeeds rather than the numerous gut-busting moments. Critics of the film might be quick to judge it as a one-joke film stretched out to 90 minutes, but that would be undervaluing the clever layers that reside within this basic premise. The comedic pairing of Carl Reiner and Steve Martin struck gold their first time at bat with The Jerk, which turned stupidity into an art form. Their next pairing together would take high concept to a new level as Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid both parodied and paid homage to the film noirs of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Repurposing footage from 19 vintage films, this new feature crafted an entirely new narrative anchored by Martin that brought new life to these forgotten gems. While pulling off the minor miracle of convincing all of these different companies to license footage from these films seems impressive enough, the fact that the narrative works incredibly well is all the better. 

Martin puts forth a subtly brilliant portrayal as private investigator Rigby Reardon. Martin supposedly purposefully did not expose himself to these classic noirs because he did not want to be influenced by the likes of Bogart or the like in his performance. This seems suspect considering how natural he feels compared to the countless noirs I have seen over the years, as well as the nuances he lampoons with such hilarious precision. The clever narration that is playfully utilized throughout the picture introduces us to Juliet Forrest (Rachel Ward, The Thorn Birds), the daughter of noted scientist and cheesemaker John Hay Forrest. Juliet has reason to believe her father has been murdered, and Rigby seems like the only man who might be able to help her. One tiny clue in the form of a corner of a ripped dollar bill leads Rigby down a complicated path of shady figures and startling revelations that are surprisingly compelling for a film just trying to do the most with an ambitious idea. 

The brilliance of this movie comes from the impeccable feat of editing that it pulls off while finding the perfect moments in these classic features. Some of the moments utilized will probably jump out to even the most casual noir fans; Cary Grant in the train car of Suspicion or Bogart exemplifying the noir aesthetic in The Big Sleep or In A Lonely Place are practically standards in the genre. Others require a bit more extensive knowledge to pinpoint such as Barbara Stanwyck in Sorry, Wrong Number or Veronica Lake in The Glass Key. While you may get an added layer of excitement if you know the movies well, none of the basic humor will be lost if you are not a walking encyclopedia for film noir. Funny is funny, and watching Martin “trade bards” with the likes of Bette Davis or Kirk Douglas will keep you laughing. The humor ranges from the staunchly high-brow to the ridiculously silly, but it always leaves an impression. 

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The movie does not solely rely on the older films to garner laughter. The banter and romantic overtones between Rigby and Juliet have their own dry delivery that will have you giggling. Some moments are a bit cringeworthy like some casual groping that is played off of a joke, but it lands better when you realize the team is playing up the disposable two-dimensional nature of femme fatales in these old pictures. They were primarily featured as an object of desire that was expected to be lusted over and demeaned. Other gags are evergreen in their humor such as Rigby repeatedly getting shot throughout the course of his investigation and the creative way Juliet helps him remove it. Despite how clever the film is in its execution, it is fair to say that it runs out of steam in the final twenty minutes of the picture. Even when the jokes lose their potency, you can appreciate the craft of the film including the immaculate costumes from the iconic Edith Heath and the score from composer Miklós Rózsa, both of whom would count this as their final picture. While not always uproariously funny, Dead Man Don’t Wear Plaid remains a charming and inventive time that will resonate even more with classic film fans. 

Video Quality

Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid comes to Blu-Ray courtesy of Kino Classics with a digital AVC encoded 1080p transfer which appears to be derived from the same strong older master that was used for the previous Universal release. This is an interesting title to evaluate from a video quality point of view due to the presence of the numerous clips in different levels of quality from classic films. The quality is as good as can be given the source conditions used at the time of assembly, and any shortcomings are exacerbated by the vintage clips originally being in Academy Ratio and being blown up to 1.85:1 to match the newer portions of the film. This transfer maintains the natural film grain of the presentation without becoming intrusive or clumpy. The black-and-white photography maintains a pleasing contrast, and instances of glaring print damage are not apparent with any minor nicks and scratches blending into the aesthetic of the film. Overall clarity and detail is pleasing with plenty of subtle notes detectable in the production design and costumes. Black levels hold up well with crush not serving as an overwhelming issue. This new presentation from Kino Classics is very impressive, which should please fans of the film. 

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Audio Quality

The Blu-Ray disc comes with a DTS-HD 2.0 Master Audio track that perfectly preserves the artistic intention of the film. The memorable score that serves as a throwback to this era in film sounds great throughout the duration of the film. There is never a moment where it threatens to overwhelm competing sounds, and it maintains a good balance so that dialogue comes through clearly. Like the video, there is some minor fluctuation in fidelity that accompanies the vintage clips but it does not serve as a significant issue. Environmental sounds such as gunshots are rendered well alongside everything else. The more “thrilling” moments are delivered with more of a quiet strike than anything bombastic. There does not seem to be any majorly noticeable instances of age-related wear and tear. Kino Classics has given this film the perfectly preserved, faithful audio presentation it deserves.

Special Features

  • Audio Commentary: Filmmaker Allan Arkush and Film Historian/Filmmaker Daniel Kremer in which the pair discuss the score Miklós Rózsa, the inventive editing, the many talents of Carl Reiner, the history behind some of the classic footage used in the film and so much more. It is a lot of fun to hear two knowledgeable people geek out over comedy and classic films. 
  • Radio Spots: Two minutes of radio spots are included here. 
  • TV Spots: A minute-and-a-half collection of TV Spots are included here. 
  • Trailers: A Buttometer Teaser Trailer (1:47) and Trailer (2:01) is included here for Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid. There are also trailers provided for A Simple Twist of Fate and Where’s Poppa?

 

Final Thoughts

Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid is a really clever film that will resonate with hardcore film fans and casual audiences alike. Steve Martin turns in a top-tier comedic performance that utilizes his skills to their fullest extent. The level of care put into crafting this film proves that it is anything but a lazy, one-joke concept. Kino Classics has released a new Blu-Ray featuring a strong A/V presentation and some interesting special features that were missing entirely on the previous Blu-Ray. Fans of this film should consider this the disc to buy if they are looking to add it to their collection. Recommended 

Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (Special Edition) will be available to purchase on Blu-Ray on September 21, 2021. 

Note: Images presented in this review are not reflective of the image quality of the Blu-Ray.

Disclaimer: Kino Classics has supplied a copy of this disc free of charge for review purposes. All opinions in this review are the honest reactions of the author.

 

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