Dead Man Don't Wear Plaid Ages Better than a Suit



Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982)

Directed by Carl Reiner

Universal Pictures, 89 minutes, PG

(In Black & White.)




If I told you that you could see 25 Hollywood legends in the same film, would you watch it? And, no, I’m not talking about some self-congratulatory industry-made documentary. I’m talking about a feature film. Could you, for example, resist seeing Ingrid Bergman, Bette Davis, Ava Gardner, and Barbara Stanwyck in the same picture as Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, Cary Grant, and Burt Lancaster? Okay, how about if I throw in Steve Martin and make it a comedy?


Say what!? Some of you may know that legendary director, writer, and actor Carl Reiner passed away in June. Back in 1982, he directed Steve Martin in a spoof of film noir/detective films and titled it Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid. It got mixed reviews back in its day, but from the perspective of 2020, Reiner’s film wears much better than its titular clothing ensemble. In today’s mashup culture, Dead Men is the cinematic equivalent of photo stitching. It involved just eight contemporary actors of their day, and only three of them: Martin, Rachel Ward, and Reiner had major roles. Reiner filmed in black and white, because it allowed him and film editor Bud Molin to switch seamlessly between his “live” actors and clips from 19 films from the 1940s–most of them from Hollywood’s film noir days.


If you’re shaky on what film noir means, the word noir is French for black. Film noir was heavy on the use of moody black tones, fog, silhouettes, dreamy ambience, and low-key lighting. It was perfect for crime pictures, especially those involving hard-broiled detectives. The basic idea was to bathe the screen in atmospherics appropriate for films bristling with deception, sexual tension, psychological strain, and unexpected violence. In other words, a murder mystery that can only be cracked by a jaded gumshoe who straddles the line between criminality and respectability. Reiner mined a trove of noir films–including The Big Sleep, Double Indemnity, and Suspicion–and  his movie bears some resemblance to Notorious, though not every film he used is considered a classic. And, of course, a younger Steve Martin (37 at the time) is there to make sure things stayed on the silly side.


 In brief, Juilet Forrest (Ward) hires private investigator Rigby Reardon (Martin) to investigate the disappearance and presumed murder of her father, Dr. Forrest (George Gaynes), a renowned scientist and cheesemaker. (Yes, you read that correctly!) Martin first asks his partner (Bogart) to search for clues and soon two cryptic lists emerge: Friends of Carlotta and Enemies of Carlotta. But who is Carlotta? As Rigby wades more deeply into Dr. Forrest’s misfortune, Rigby falls for Juliet, the case gets hotter, and something very nefarious emerges–possibly involving Nazis.


At this point I should say that few comedians can get away with as many “cheap” jokes as Steve Martin and make us laugh so damn hard at them. Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid sports breast and “willie” jokes, bullets being sucked out snakebite-style, Martin in horrifyingly bad drag, cups of Rigby’s “world-famous Java,” and cleaning lady “trigger”references,. These are just the tip if the bullet. Don’t think too much; just go with the flow. They work because Martin simply oozes so much put-on smarm that it becomes charm. Aussie Rachel Ward was then on the cusp of her big moment–she would star in the TV series The Thorn Birds the next year–and she appears fresh, spunky, and up for the challenge of performing with a spontaneous talent like Martin. Carl Reiner shows up later in the film, but he was already a comedic giant who, in many ways, paved the way for guys like Steve Martin. Don’t be surprised to see Reiner nibble at one corner while Martin munches at the other when it comes to scene-chewing.


I really liked Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid when I saw it in the cinema back in 1982. I positively adored seeing it again on Netflix. Reiner’s film is the difference between making an audience laugh at moronic humor and making comedies for morons, the latter being my candid assessment of about 90 percent of every comedy made since 1990. Dead Men is both funny and a capsule look at 1940s films that will also make you wish to see some of them. You should, as they too are lessons; in this case they illumine the gap between craft and mere production.


As a final note, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid was the final film dressed by Edith Head. Ms Head (1897-1981) was, simply, the most famous costume designer in Hollywood history. It was also the final film for composer Miklos Rozsa, and also featured music from Steve Goodman, who died shortly after the film opened. Goodman was a brilliant singer/songwriter.


Rob Weir


The Cold Millions: Fine Novel/Great History Lesson

The Cold Millions

By Jess Walter

Harper, 352 pp.





An old labor song asks, “Which side are you on?” Not everyone is taken with The Cold Millions by Jess Walter. It’s often a tough book. If you believe America is and has always been, a middle-class society, Walter rubs reality in your face. Some (all-too-young) bloggers are unaware that this historical novel is indeed “historical.” It takes us to Spokane in 1909, the center of one of the more traumatic labor uprisings of its day: a free speech battle led by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).


Spokane was a classic boom town. A burgeoning timber industry and the discovery of rich deposits of gold, silver, and lead extending from eastern Washington into Idaho’s Coeur d’Alene region swelled Spokane’s population from 350 to 104,400 in 30 years. Do not imagine for a nanosecond that the need for laborers meant decent wages or respect for working people. Spokane was also a place in which a relative handful of investment capitalists grew fabulously wealthy, built a nouveau riche enclave for themselves and bourgeois supporters, and considered their workforce as no more valuable than mules, shovels, or dynamite. For the hoi polloi, Spokane was burlesque and vaudeville halls, brothels, flophouses, bars, job sharks, and hobo camps. Naturally, it bred socialists, anarchists, and assorted other radicals. Bet on the fact that not all of the dynamite will be used to blast rock, but don’t assume you know who will be using TNT for nefarious purposes. Spokane was also home to private industrial armies, labor spies, crooked cops, and agents provocateurs.


Walter’s novel is built upon fictional characters who interact with historical figures. It centers upon two orphan brothers from Montana, 16-year-old “Rye” (Ryan) and 23-year-old “Gig” (Gregory) Dolan, who join the legions of drifters in search of work. By the time Rye catches up with Gig in Spokane, the latter is already a Wobbly (member of the IWW) and is devoted to a cause neatly summed by a line in the Preamble of the IWW Constitution: “The working class and the employing class have nothing in common.” Rye is better educated than his brother, though Gig is working his way through War and Peace in a self-improvement campaign. Rye’s hope that he and Gig can also improve themselves economically is challenged by local cops who routinely treat working stiffs and drifters as trash to be beaten for sport. Victims include their gentle friend Jules, who is part Native American, and a tramp named Early, who advises them to stop listening to IWW fantasies, embrace anarchism, and resort to violence.


That’s not their way. Gig has his eye on Ursula the Great, a burlesque singer who performs with a mountain lion; and Rye meets Lemuel Brand, a mining tycoon, and doesn’t quite know what to make of him or life from the top rail. When the free speech conflagration breaks out, they must figure out which side they are on. In brief, the IWW strategy–which worked brilliantly elsewhere–was to defy local ordinances banning large rallies. Wobblies saw it as a violation of the First Amendment and recruited out-of-work laborers to hop railroad cars and flood the streets. Wobblies mounted soapboxes, gave speeches, were arrested, and were thrown into jail. Success came when it cost cities so much to feed the prisoners that ordinances were repealed, strikes continued, and employers were forced to negotiate. That’s not how it went down in Spokane, where elites reacted with unspeakable brutality.


Another reason why some have struggled with The Cold Millions is that Walter wants readers to do their homework. He uses period lingo, IWW slang, and labor terminology without translating it. (They’re usually obvious from context, but there are phrases that might send you to Google.) Walter also expects you to sort fictional characters–such as the Dolans, Urusula, detective Dal Daveaux–from real ones like Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Frank Little, Clarence Darrow, Joe Hill, and Wesley Everest. One should read up on the IWW and its free speech battles–Flynn was later a cofounder of the ACLU, then a communist–but you can get by if you think of everyone as either real or a composite of historical figures.


Walter is a superb writer who knows how to spin a tale. He enhances The Cold Millions by interjecting lots of which-side-are-you-on dilemmas and wrapping  them in an unorthodox mystery. All of these–plus his use of the falls on the Spokane River as an inanimate character–keep readers off balance. Walter’s sympathy for the underdog earns him comparisons that I and other reviewers have invoked: John Dos Passos, Sinclair Lewis, Jack London, Upton Sinclair, and John Steinbeck. It is a thrilling read deliberately written in a retro style reminiscent of the aforementioned.


Walter gets history right, not just in the broad strokes but also in the background details. Reading The Cold Millions is simultaneously a lesson in early 20th century labor struggles, gender dynamics, anti-immigrant animus, technological development, and class consciousness (emergent, undeveloped, and/or buried). Think of The Cold Millions as a title with multiple meanings. If the novel discomforts you, ask, “Which side am I on?”


Rob Weir


Glenn Thomas, Four Year Strong, Debra Devi. Zoe Keating


Songs for December I

Westerly, Rhode Island native Glenn Thomas has been kicking around in various groups, including Wild Sun, for quite a while now. Recently he moved to Nashville where, tellingly, he has been praised for his songwriting skills. This may be his best shot at fame for the simple reason that his soothing voice is too light for big venues. His new album
Reassure Me There’s a Window is a collection of pensive songs that’s more Elliott Smith than Chris Stapleton. A case in point is “All You Can Do,” his musing on resolutions and how life has a way of throwing a monkey wrench into expectations:  Prayers will be said but they work too slow/When you have to fix things someone else broke. Pop Matters called it a “low-key folk jam,” and that sounds right to me with, perhaps, a bit of The Shins added as a flavor enhancer. “She IsLeaving” is another one wrapped in melancholy and ambience that suggests his new material is in a folk music singer/songwriter vein. Ditto his love song “Catharine Ames,” in which Thomas capos down on his Guild to get some bird-like tones to dance with his voice. Actual birds get to provide some answers on “Oriole.” He asks, So little oriole, what’s there to say when you realize it all fades to grey? I’m in love with the truth but I long for the comfort of lies…. His most “country” song is “Give a Damn,” which is shaped by some studio pedal steel, though to my ear it’s the simple-but-clever wordplay that stands out: I sure as hell give a damn/That I give a damn about you. In all we get ten really good songs that could easily be sung solo on the small club circuit, which is where I hope to catch him some post-COVID day.

The moment I heard “Learn to Love the Lie” from Four Year Strong, I was reminded of the Milk Carton Kids. How not? Gorgeous melody, tight harmony work between Dan O’Connor and Alan Day, solid acoustic pacing, and lines like: I don’t want to be the one to stay/I don’t want to be the one who got away/And if I’m being honest/You couldn’t get rid of me anyway. But the odd thing about it is that the quartet Four Year Strong is a punk band from Worcester. I’ve heard some of their louder material and, in all candor, the soft touch is way more memorable. “Thinking Myself in Circles” has a bit of grunge to it, but it also has an air of Milk Carton Kids. Who among us can’t relate to the title or lyrics like: I keep repeating the same thing without any meaning? Worcester is a tough town, so why not a bit more of the velvet glove?


If you want heavier material, Debra Devi can dish it. I’ve reviewed earlier work of hers in which I’ve commented on her let-it-rip guitar and vocals. Her latest project is an EP titled Wild Little Girl. She explains that the title “reflects my desire to encourage girls and women to be wildly creative and free and fulfill their potential to the max.” Give her a mic and an amp, and “max” is where she heads. Don’t think for a moment that a song titled “Butterfly” is going to be touchy-feelie; it’s like a bump-and-grind with blistering electric intervals. “Shake It” pretty much tells you how it’s grounded, “Tired of Waiting” opens soft but leaps into high gear, and “Stay” is hard rock in the same groove. I suppose that “Miles to Clarksdale” is Devi’s token quiet song. Her songs have meaning, but she sure does like to bring her inner wild little girl out to play.


Zoƫ Keating
demands your attention and you’d be foolish not to give it. She is a cellist with an esemplastic approach to music. You might find her at a club or in a museum courtyard playing for the glitterati, but she will confound any audience with DYI shows that are both works of art and lessons in programing. “Possible” has deep, rumbling tones, nervy pulses, and drone-like repeated patterns weaving beneath the surface. Collectively they encapsulate the uncertainty implied by her composition’s title. “Out There” leaves us with the question out where? Outer space? Inner space? It has melancholic colorings that evolve into a pace that’s as analytical and deliberate as track hunting. “Optimist” is a series of plucking, bowing, and sawing that awakes from a mysterious fog, gathers pace, and ultimately comes across as uplifting.  You need to be patient, as Keating is working on so many levels that it takes time for everything to cohere. It’s well worth the wait.