Steve Martin called him “my greatest mentor in movies and in life.” Norman Lear remarked that he brought “pure joy” to everything he did, while Billy Crystal deemed him “a nice genius” and Dick Van Dyke gushed that he was “the greatest human being I ever met in my life.”
In the worlds of television, film, and comedy in general, Carl Reiner was — and will most definitely remain — a giant. Although he left us at the age of 98 last week, his death still felt like a shock, probably because, thanks to Twitter and awed talk show hosts like Conan O’Brien, the man never stopped connecting with audiences or creating, as evidenced by the numerous books he published and TV appearances he made in just the last 10 years. For seven decades, Reiner was a part of so many timeless works that it only scratches the surface of his career to say that he hilariously played second banana to Sid Caesar and Mel Brooks, crafted the television masterpiece The Dick Van Dyke Show, and directed (and/or wrote) a slew of underseen, often parodic films.
When it came to spoofs, Reiner — much like his best friend, Brooks — knew how to poke fun at a genre with an adoring irreverence. Whether parodying the Western for an entire episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show or sending up television and advertising in the Doris Day/James Garner vehicle The Thrill of It All, Reiner was acutely aware of the underlying silliness of genre conventions. His 1982 neo-noir, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, is one of my favorite examples of this.
Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid was the second of four films Steve Martin and Reiner made together, all of which were centered around unique, or uniquely bizarre, concepts. While the story of Dead Men is your typical, (purposely) convoluted detective yarn, its execution is distinctive in that it weaves in clips from actual ’40s and ’50s films, thus enabling Martin’s private eye to interact with such luminaries as Humphrey Bogart, Barbara Stanwyck, Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, and James Cagney. For me, a classic Hollywood obsessive, film noir spoofs are often… uninspired. They tend to laugh at the same tropes every time, and the actors are made to do bad imitations of what they think the 1940s sounded like. What is smart about Dead Men is that it constructs its noir world with the icons that came before it. In addition to the clips, Reiner had composer Miklós Rózsa — who scored Double Indemnity, Spellbound, and The Killers, to name a few — and legendary costume designer Edith Head work on the film. Dead Men, a love letter to the very films that were part of Head and Rózsa’s careers, coincidentally and fittingly turned out to be the final movie for both of them.
Dead Men‘s repurposing of classic films can be distracting at first, I’ll admit, which is why the movie demands more than one viewing. Some of the interplay between the new and old footage isn’t always smooth (like when Martin first “meets” Ava Gardner), but it is still a technical marvel to see how Reiner, Martin, and their co-writer George Gipe were able to pluck multiple characters from multiple films and integrate them into something that is wholly different, all while Reiner made sure that the editing, set designs, costumes, and cinematography of the clips seamlessly blended with the beautifully-shot newer material.
Aside from being a magic trick of a movie, Dead Men is just plain fun. Your enjoyment doesn’t depend on knowing the films and the actors that were chosen, although it is certainly satisfying to see the real deal rather than pale imitations. The rest of the cast is terrific as well, including Reiner as a suspicious German butler. Martin is, unsurprisingly, fantastically funny, even when doing the smallest gesture. (There is one prolonged moment where all he does is pour coffee grounds into a pot and I giggle uncontrollably every single time.) As Martin’s gorgeous client, Rachel Ward is a great partner for him, a woman who can smolder while matching his deadpan ridiculousness.
As I’ve read more and more stories about Reiner over the past week, it is obvious that he prized love and kindness above all, and that shows in his work. While Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid is a spoof, you never doubt that Reiner’s intention was to lovingly pay homage to a bygone era that, as his film demonstrates, was populated with artists whose brilliance has yet to be duplicated. Reiner’s film isn’t just a quirky illustration of cinephilia, though. It is a singular, clever, endearing, laugh-out-loud comedy made by a man who fully embodied those adjectives on and off the screen.
In the words of Steve Martin, “Thank you, dear Carl.”
Michaela Owens is thrilled to be the editor of A Place for Film, in addition to being IU Cinema’s Publications Editor. An IU graduate with a BA in Communication and Culture and an MA in Cinema and Media Studies, she has also been a volunteer usher at IU Cinema since 2016. She never stops thinking about classic Hollywood, thanks to her mother’s introduction to it, and she likes to believe she is an expert on Katharine Hepburn and Esther Williams.