Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid is a 1982 parody of and homage to Film Noir. Its central joke is the use of Stock Footage from well-known '40s movies (mostly noirs, though the women's melodrama Humoresque somehow crept in) to construct editing gags in both visuals (skillful cutting, stand-ins, and identical sets and costumes bring modern actors into classic scenes) and dialogue (pre-existing lines are recontextualized to the point of bizarrerie).
It stars Steve Martin and Rachel Ward... and Ingrid Bergman, and Humphrey Bogart, and Ava Gardner, and Fred MacMurray, and so forth. And, when you think about it, was directed by Carl Reiner... and Delmer Daves, and Howard Hawks, and Alfred Hitchcock, and Robert Siodmak, and Billy Wilder, and so forth. The film had the luck of hiring veteran costumer Edith Head, who'd also done the costumes from most of the original films used. She passed shortly after, and the film is affectionately dedicated to her memory and to the people who worked on the films of the '40s and '50s. As a coincidence, it was also the last feature film of composer Miklós Rózsa, who partly wrote music for scenes he had already scored 40 years before...
Most of the old-footage interactions are one-shots with characters who do not return. This was probably due to the limited number of potentially funny scenes in each of the source films, rather than a deliberate choice, but it actually manages to replicate the episodic, loosely-plotted feel of some low-budget noirs.
The Bogart and Ava Gardner characters do appear several times throughout the story. The final section, set in a South American village, is more unified than the rest of the film because all of its pre-existing footage comes from one movie (The Bribe), creating a consistent visual style and allowing the three imported characters (played by Gardner, Charles Laughton, and Vincent Price) to refer to one another by name.
Many scenes in the film contain no old footage; these advance the plot, such as it is, but their broad humor is at odds with the subtler editing gags.
This film provides examples of:
- Adventure Rebuff: Juliet volunteers to spy for Rigby Reardon. He refuses telling her, "You're not blonde enough".
- Alliterative Name: Rigby Reardon, Doris Devermont and Kitty Collins.
- Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking: Juliet asks Reardon to quit investigating her father's death:Rigby Reardon: Why? Because I've been roughed up a little?
Juliet Forrest: You've also been shot, drugged...and probably had to go to bed with women you didn't know.
- Bang, Bang, BANG: Dated gun sound effects are used as part of the Homage
- Bloodless Carnage: For a guy who is beaten up and shot three times, Rigby doesn't bleed much. Done as an Homage to old Hollywood movies.
- Brick Joke: Reardon's Berserk Button helps him defeat the Big Bad in the end.
- "It's alright, it's only a bullet! My wife will suck it out later!"
- The Butler Did It: It turns out the butler was an undercover Nazi officer and he was behind the entire plot of the film.
- Cloud Cuckoo Lander: Juliet's sister Leona (actually Barbara Stanwyck in 1948's Sorry, Wrong Number). Before Rigby phones Leona, Juliet warns him that Leona's "disturbed", and the film Lampshades its own use of stock footage by having Leona's dialogue obviously belong to a different film (she denies that her father is dead and is needlessly rude to Rigby.)
- Comedic Sociopathy: Detective Reardon is a disturbed individual, only funny.
- Comically Serious: Everyone in the film is this.
- Crapsack World: "It was a street of frustrated hopes and broken dreams. Everything was cheap, cut-rate. Even the prostitutes were having a sale."
- Dame with a Case: This is how Steve Martin's detective character gets involved with a Nazi spy ring. She also learns that his Berserk Button is the words "cleaning woman", since his father abandoned him and their mother to run off with a cleaning woman...
- Disguised in Drag: Rigby Reardon does himself up as a blonde to seduce Walter Neff. Later, he scores an interview with the imprisoned Cody Jarrett by impersonating Jarrett's mother.Juliet Forrest: I'm beginning to think you enjoy dressing up as a woman.
- Dude, She's Like, in a Coma!: Rigby Reardon gropes Juliet just after she passes out, in the first scene of the movie. Played for Laughs.Juliet Forrest: [dazed but wary] ...What are you doing?Rigby Reardon: ...Adjusting your breasts. You fainted and they shifted all out of whack.
- She gets him back at the end, though:Rigby Reardon: [Juliet is groping inside his trousers] What are you doing?Juliet Forrest: Adjusting your willy. When you fell through the window, it shifted out of whack.
- She gets him back at the end, though:
- Every Man Has His Price: Naturally occurs in The Bribe scene.Rigby Reardon: Sorry, but my price for leaving stinking towns is 11,500 and a kiss on the lips from Carmen Miranda.
Rigby Reardon: What's he paying you boys? I'll double it and we'll beat the shit out of him.
- Reardon tries this in the I Walk Alone scene.
- Fainting: In the opening scene, Juliet faints at the sight of a front page newspaper headline proclaiming her father's death. Reardon thinks she fainted because of the sports headline that read "Dodgers Lose Again".
Butler: Are you all right? You look as though you're going to faint.Rigby Reardon: Faint? Never...catch me.Butler: Sorry. I'm a butler. Not a catcher.
- Reardon pretends to faint after he is shot by a gunman in Dr. Forrest's office. He faints for real once he reaches Julliette's house.
- Fun with Acronyms: "But what does 'FOC' mean?"Rigby Reardon: It's a slang word. It's when a man and a woman are in love, the man puts his...Juliet Forrest: No, no. It's written here: "F. O. C."Rigby Reardon: Unless I miss my guess, that stands for "Friends Of Carlotta".
- SHH doesn't mean "be quiet". It actually stands for Samuel H. Hastings.
- Gender-Blender Name: "When I arrived at Mr. Huberman's I was surprised. Mr. Huberman turned out to be a sexy dame who was throwing a party."
- GPS Evidence: Every single bit of evidence seems to have Reardon driving across town to interview somebody.
- Grand Finale: The film ended up coincidentally but awesomely being one for legendary costume designer Edith Head. It was the final film she worked on, and besides her original creations also features a lot of her earlier work in the clips.
- I'm a Doctor, Not a Placeholder: When Reardon faints, Juliet's butler refuses to catch him.Butler: Sorry. I'm a butler, not a catcher.
- Just Between You and Me vs. The Summation: The villain and the hero get into an argument over who gets to deliver the exposition of the villain's plot, invoking both of these tropes. They end up shouting them over each other.
- Mistaken for Gay: Juliet and Cody Jarrett's mother kiss passionately as three prison guards look on. They don't know that the mother is actually Rigby Reardon in disguise.
- Noodle Incident: "My last case I had to throw my own brother out of an airplane. Poor sap."
- Only a Flesh Wound: Reardon is shot in the arm repeatedly. In the same exact spot.Reardon: This is never gonna heal!
- Over the Shoulder: The camera technique that makes most of the interactions possible.
- Overly Long Gag: Reardon's method for making "java." It goes on so long he himself gets bored.
- Private Eye Monologue: ParodiedRigby Reardon: On my way to the Firehouse place I tried not to think of Juliet Forest. I hadn't seen a body put together like that since I solved the case of the murdered girl with the big tits.
- Product Placement:
- Probably not. But in one scene, Reardon sings the old Barbasol shaving cream jingle.
- There's also a box of Brut cologne in Reardon's medicine cabinet.
- Rule of Three: Reardon goes berserk and gets shot three times.
- Sequel Hook: A joke one. (It may be an homage to the similar closing lines of Jean-Luc Godard's Bande à part.)Rigby Reardon: Little did I realize that less than a year later, she and I would have an even more exciting adventure, which is coming soon to your neighborhood theater—with a possible nude scene by Juliet.
- Slipping a Mickey: F X Huberman slips Reardon one.
- Stock Footage: In this case, footage from well-known movies.
- Title Drop: Marlowe told him the title as a complete non-sequitur.Rigby Reardon: I still don't know what it means.
- Unsympathetic Comedy Protagonist: Reardon is a cad who sexually assaults Juliet within minutes of meeting her, later strangles her, and casually mentions other acts of violence and misogyny. And he's the hardboiled hero!
- Wholesome Crossdresser: Rigby is a little too insistent on taking female undercover jobs.
- Xtreme Kool Letterz: "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".