A spoof is a mocking imitation of someone or something; it’s usually light and good-spirited, like a humorous parody. In movies, creating satire is challenging to do effectively without becoming simplistic, sophomoric, idiotic or just repetitiously low brow. Mel Brooks’ “Young Frankenstein” (1974) is considered by many to be one of the best movie spoofs, playfully mocking classic Universal monster films, like “Frankenstein” and “Bride of Frankenstein,” with a riotous cast led by Gene Wilder, Marty Feldman and Madeline Kahn.
The week’s gem is veteran comic writer/director Carl Reiner’s “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid” (1982), a very humorous and nostalgic spoof that took a loving, mocking take on the 1940’s detective film, with a heavy emphasis on film noir visual atmosphere. Co-written by Reiner, Steve Martin and George Gipe, this story concerns struggling detective Rigby Reardon (Steve Martin) who gets involved in the case of the lifetime when a beautiful woman appears at his office seeking the killers of her father, John Hay Forrest, a philanthropist, scientist and cheese manufacturer.
Reiner inventively incorporates numerous clips of classic scenes of past crime/noir films, nearly seamlessly inserted into the narrative, featuring the old stars like Alan Ladd, Humphrey Bogart, Ava Gardner, Barbara Stanwyck, Kirk Douglas and many others. While some critics thought this was mostly a gimmick, those who love films will be intrigued by how skillfully they edit old footage and blend it with contemporary scenes. It also becomes a fun guessing game to figure which old movies these clips were taken from.
Rachel Ward stars as the seductive and troubled femme fatale, Juliet Forrest. When she first appears at Reardon’s office, she immediately faints into his arms. Within seconds, the overwhelmed Rigby comments in voice-over, “Was she real? There was only one way to find out, but I remembered Marlowe’s words.” Before Rigby becomes more intimate with her, Reiner shows a framed sign on Reardon’s wall that states, “Don’t fall in love with a client. Phillip Marlowe.” But no such luck, of course, he falls for her. After that, Reardon playfully refers to her as “Dollface.”
Martin wisely doesn’t play his usual “wild and crazy guy” persona and makes a decent attempt at playing the courageous private detective, adding only the slightest bits of tongue in cheek humor. When Reardon takes a bullet to the shoulder from a hardened thug nicknamed “The Exterminator” (Alan Ladd), he appears at Ms. Forrest’s home with a list of possible contacts of her late father’s called ‘Carlotta’s enemies.’ Juliet soothes his wound by sucking the bullet from his shoulder. Reiner himself later appears as the evil Field Marshall Von Kluck.
The plot’s mystery involves Reardon hunting down the names on Carlotta’s list, which usually included one of the many past stars, like a lounge singer named Kitty Collins (Gardner) or Juliet’s sister, Mrs. Hastings (Stanwyck), a society gal at a dinner party (Ingrid Bergman) and frequent calls with advice from Phillip Marlowe (Bogart). The clues ultimately lead to a convoluted Nazi plot lead by Von Kluck.
Adding to the film’s effective parody, Reiner utilized the services of veteran composer Miklos Rozsa, who ages before scored the music for many of these 1940s classic crime films, like “Double Indemnity.” This would the great maestro’s final film score. And by using Michael Chapman’s beautiful black and white cinematography, Reiner captures the near-perfect feel of ’40s shadowy film noir style and echoes much of the look and moods of Chapman’s work of recent Martin Scorsese’s dark dramas “Raging Bull” and “The Taxi Driver.” Also, the film was dedicated to the film’s famous costume designer Edith Head, who died shortly before its release.
In Martin’s recent New York Times loving tribute to his late mentor and director of four of his early films, he noted, “Carl knew how to direct comedy, of course, and while we were shooting, he gave me the best comic direction I ever received. We were filming a scene and slightly stuck. After about the fifth time, he stopped shooting and took me aside. I was expecting a lengthy discussion of motivation, characterization, and possibly a discourse on comedy, but he said only, ‘Funny it up.’ Not a Stanislavsky direction, but one I could understand.”
Watching “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid” is simply an excellent way to pay tribute to the creative 98 year- old Reiner, who passed on June 29.