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In 1982, Carl Reiner and Steve Martin unveiled their latest collaboration. The second of four films together, Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid would take the concept of collaboration to a new level, with the intersplicing of scenes from eighteen classic detective/film noir thrillers into the narrative. The story of a private detective, played by Martin, trying to solve the case of his beautiful client while falling in love with her, alternately spoofs and pays homage to the film noir genre. In order to pull it off, a special kind of production crew was needed. Luckily, Reiner and Martin assembled a highly skilled group known for their technical expertise; in fact, many of them had worked on the original films featured in Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid.
The most notable of these artisans was Edith Head; to date, she is the most honored woman and costume designer in Academy Award history. Head was nominated for thirty-four Oscars and won eight for such films as A Place in the Sun (1951) and Roman Holiday (1953). Head was even more well-suited for the job in Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid: she was the costume designer for six of the eighteen films featured within the picture, including Notorious (1946) and Sorry, Wrong Number (1948). Speaking of well-suited, Head would outfit Martin with twenty suits during production, each painstakingly rendered and executed to assimilate seamlessly into the classic action. With her death in 1981, Dead Men would be Head's last film; the film's dedication was made in part to her.
In his role as musical composer, Miklos Rozsa also added to the authenticity of the production. A film veteran, he had composed scores for four of the films used in Dead Men, including Double Indemnity (1944, also with Head). Rozsa's unenviable responsibility was to ensure the score in Dead Men meshed with the music from the master versions of the classic films; many of the pics had sound elements that could not be erased. Thus Dead Men was carefully scored to ensure that the audience could not detect the old from the new music.
As the production designer, John DeCuir also had his work cut out for him: due to the many different scenes from all the clips, over eighty-five sets were created - much more than an average film would require. During his research and scouting searches, DeCuir found the actual train compartment used in Suspicion (1941) with Cary Grant - this set piece would be used in the scenes featuring Martin interacting with Grant, a touch that helped to increase the realism of the action.
Michael Chapman, a relative newcomer compared to the rest of the crew principals, was the cinematographer. With credits such as Raging Bull (1980) under his belt, Chapman invested over six months of research to ensure that the new film being used was a close match with the classic film stock. The person responsible for putting everything together was Bud Molin, Reiner's longtime editor - the two had worked together as far back as The Dick Van Dyke Show in the early sixties. Molin masterfully and meticulously spliced the old content with the new, creating nearly undetectable illusions that maintain their realism today.
However, the film owes its top-notch presentation not only to the editing, but to the clever camera techniques employed in production. Without the resources such as blue screen technology and computer animation that are available today, Dead Men relied on specific camera vantage points and precise perspective filming. Many of the films of the forties and fifties favored camera views shooting over the shoulder of characters - this trend enabled Dead Men's production team to replicate the set-up of the shot, with a stand-in posing as the shoulder with Martin in full view. Another technique used was filming Martin in front of a screen on which the classic film was projected; with the proper perspective and angles in place, the two films effectively merged for the viewer. The Suspicion scene with Grant is an example of this method, and the original set piece helped to add to the authenticity.
The concept for Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid evolved throughout production; originally a Martin script called Depression, it went through several rewrites before emerging as the final version; the idea of integrating old movie clips came about during the revision process. With so many aspects going into a production, it was inevitable that some would be left out: for instance, the explanation of the film's title. In a scene ultimately cut from the master, Martin's character gives the explanation by way of a story about a woman with an obsession with plaid. She explains, "I'm funny that way," to which Martin replies, "Good, it may save your life. 'Cause dead men don't wear plaid."
Producer: William E. McEuen, Richard McWhorter, David V. Picker
Director: Carl Reiner
Screenplay: Steve Martin, Carl Reiner, George Gipe
Cinematography: Michael Chapman
Editing: Bud Molin
Music: Miklos Rozsa
Production Design: John DeCuir
Costumes: Edith Head
Cast: Steve Martin (Rigby Reardon), Rachel Ward (Juliet Forrest), Carol Reiner (Field Marshal Von Kluck), Reni Santoni (Captain Carlos Rodriguez), George Gaynes (Dr. Forrest), Frank McCarthy (Waiter).
BW-89m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Eleanor Quin