Rigby Reardon (Steve Martin) is a private eye who thinks he's seen it all until Juliet Forrest (Rachel Ward) walks into his office. Or rather, falls into his arms when he opens the door, fainting at the the sight of the headline on the newspaper Rigby has been reading. Holding her, he steals a few kisses then lets her lie on this couch; while he cops a feel she wakes up and asks him what he's doing - he bluffs and tells her he was adjusting her breasts, but wants to get to the point. What does she want? It turns out her father, as mentioned in the paper, has died yet she thinks there was a conspiracy behind it... she doesn't know the half of it.
Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid could have been a one note movie, and to some extent it is, but it's a good one: edit Steve Martin into old movie clips to create a whole new film. To the credit of Martin, director Carl Reiner and George Gipe who wrote the script, and especially editor Bud Molin, the gag is obvious enough to be apparent to the audience while still making narrative sense: it's ridiculous to be sure, but the story still holds together as a mystery. Not that many would take the time to follow it, but as with the old film noirs it spoofs, there's a complex series of twists and hidden motives here.
One thing that has the film rise above a simple sketch that you might have seen on a television comedy show is that the humour is faithful to it's essential absurdity. So even in the scenes that don't involve classic movie stars adapted into something different, there's a consistent stream of ludicrous laughs with Martin playing up the tough guy, world weary detective to the hilt. Ward, too, makes a decent heroine who may not be a femme fatale (something the film lacks), but is suitably glamorous in the gleaming black and white photography.
In his last days before his car went flying over a cliff, Juliet's scientist father (who made cheese as a hobby) became increasingly paranoid and created lists of "Enemies of Carlotta" and "Friends of Carlotta" on every scrap of paper he could find, including a dollar bill that she has a fragment of. Not that it matters when Rigby tracks down some of the lists as he can't make head nor tail of them, never mind knowing who Carlotta is. Another reason it doesn't matter is because what will really grab your attention are the succession of stars cleverly inserted into the plot.
So Martin goes to a party held by Ingrid Bergman, gets shot by both Alan Ladd and James Cagney, strangles Bette Davis when she mentions the trigger phrase "cleaning woman" (this sends Rigby into a psychotic rage) and in the film's nicest touch, has a believable relationship with fellow private eye Humphrey Bogart. Along with that there's a lot of smoking, drinking and bullet sucking as Rigby's investigation leads him to dress up as a woman where he is seduced by Fred MacMurray (!) and finally end up in South America where he discovers the plot is orchestrated by... well, that would be telling. You don't have to be a film buff to appreciate the clips, although it's fun to see how they're used if you do recognise them, because it's funny enough regardless. Notably this is one of those films that announced a sequel in its last scene that never arrived. Spot-on music by Miklós Rózsa.
American actor, writer and director, a comedy specialist. He got his break writing for Sid Caesar's television show in the 1950s, then created the Dick Van Dyke Show in the 1960s. He moved into film with the autobiographical Enter Laughing, followed by the more serious The Comic and the controversial Where's Poppa?
In the 1970s he scored a hit with Oh God!, and then directed a string of fine quality Steve Martin vehicles: The Jerk, The Man with Two Brains, Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid and All of Me. He continued to direct into the nineties, and had a good role in the Ocean's Eleven remake. Father of Rob Reiner.