Directed, co-written, and co-starring Carl Reiner, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid starring co-writer Steve Martin is not only one of the greatest parodies of all time, it’s one of the great noirs. A feat of editing, the film not only includes numerous visual and dialogue homages to films from the film noir era, it also features clips from 19 films from the 1940s and 1950s. Martin plays Rigby Reardon, a private detective hired by socialite Juliet Forrest (Rachel Ward) to investigate the mysterious death of her father. On the trail he uncovers a convoluted plot while crossing paths with characters played by Old Hollywood icons like Ava Gardner, Barbara Stanwyck, and of course, Humphrey Bogart as Philip Marlowe.
Here are all the Old Hollywood films featured throughout Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid and how they’re ingeniously reworked into this new mystery.
Keeper of the Flame, 1942 (dir. George Cukor)
The opening sequence includes footage of a car crash, the supposed death of Juliet Forrest’s father Dr. John Hay Forrest, a scientist with a passion for cheesemaking and the dream of curing world hunger. In Cukor’s film Katharine Hepburn plays Christine Forrest, the widow of a famous civic leader whose dark Nazi past is unearthed by a former war correspondent turned biographer played by Spencer Tracy. Martin and Reiner not only lifted the character names, but also the Nazi elements, although they twist the plot ever so slightly.
This Gun For Hire, 1942 (dir. Frank Tuttle)
While visiting Dr. Forrest’s office and cheese laboratory, Rigby is ambushed by a man known as The Exterminator, played by Alan Ladd. In Tuttle’s film, Ladd plays Philip Raven, a hit man who kills famous wartime chemist Albert Baker before being betrayed by his employer. Much like Dr. Forrest’s experimental cheese, the hit on Baker was in order to steal a formula for poison gas that the Nitro Chemical Corporation intends to sell to the Japanese. This Gun For Hire also stars Veronica Lake, who appears later as one of Rigby’s exes in Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid.
Sorry, Wrong Number, 1948 (dir. Anatole Litvak)
Juliet informs Rigby that her brother-in-law, Sam Hastings (Ray Milland), is holding a dollar bill for safe keeping that her father gave him. They decide to call her sister, Leona Hastings-Forrest (Barbara Stanwyck), to find out his whereabouts and inform her of her father’s death. The call becomes fruitless due to Leona’s hysterics. Stanwyck received an Best Actress Academy Award nomination for her portrayal of the bedridden, paranoid wife of Burt Lancaster in Litvak’s original melodramatic noir.
The Lost Weekend, 1945 (dir. Billy Wilder)
Rigby discovers Sam going through Delirium Tremens in an apartment on skid row. Scrawled on the dollar bill are the names Kitty Collins, whose autographed picture he had found in Dr. Forrest’s office, and Swede Anderson. Names that had earlier appeared on lists labeled “Friends of Carlotta” (FOC) and the other called “Enemies of Carlotta” (EOC). Wilder’s film became the first film to win the top prize at both the Cannes Film Festival and Best Picture at the Oscars. Milland won the Oscar for Best Actor for his haunting performance as an alcoholic New York writer who really goes through it one long, lost weekend trying—and failing—to stay on the wagon.
The Killers, 1946 (dir. Robert Siodmak)
Tracking Kitty (Ava Gardner) down to a club in Santa Barbara, he follows her to a restaurant where she drops a brooch in her soup. Inside the brooch is the “EOC” list, with every name except Swede Anderson (Burt Lancaster) crossed out. He later tracks Swede down, but is unable to save his life. Kitty and Swede are both characters from Siodmak’s adaptation of the Ernest Hemingway story, in which two insurance detective’s investigate why a former boxer didn’t resist execution by two professional hitmen. Garner’s femme fatale Kitty Collins is consider one of the most iconic of the era.
The Big Sleep, 1946 (dir. Howard Hawks)
Stalled on the case, Rigby calls up his mentor Philip Marlowe for some help. As notorious for its nearly incomprehensible plot as it is for the sizzling chemistry between leads Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, The Big Sleep is the gold standard for detective-led film noir. While Raymond Chandler’s creation has been portrayed on the big screen by everyone from Dick Powell to Robert Montgomery to Elliot Gould, Bogart’s take on the hardboiled gumshoe with a heart of gold remains unparalleled.
In A Lonely Place, 1950 (dir. Nicholas Ray)
When Marlowe meets up with Rigby at his office, he asks him for help in tracking down a few leads and also gives him grief for not wearing a tie, ultimately lending him a bowtie. The footage here is actually from Nicholas Ray’s adaptation of the Dorothy B. Hughes novel In A Lonely Place, in which Bogart plays a troubled and violence-prone Hollywood screenwriter with a penchant for wearing bowties. In the film, Bogart finds himself in a bad romance with silver screen siren Gloria Grahame.
Suspicion, 1941 (dir. Alfred Hitchcock)
As Marlowe hunts down some leads, Rigby uses a key Juliet found in her father’s desk to open a locker at the train station. Finding more lists, Rigby suspects a handsome man (Cary Grant) of following him. Although he tries to evade him, the two end up sharing a train compartment. In Hitchcock’s film, Grant plays an irresponsible playboy who meets an inexperienced young woman named Lina (Joan Fontaine) on a train, woos her, and then marries her. Slowly she begins to suspect he is actually a murderer. Fontaine won the Best Actress Oscar—the only acting award for a Hitchcock film—for her performance in the film.
Notorious, 1946 (dir. Alfred Hitchcock)
After finally evading the handsome man, Rigby tracks down one of the names from the list—F.X. Huberman, who he discovers is a flirty dame (Ingrid Bergman) with bedroom eyes. Another lift from Hitchcock, in the original film Bergman plays Alicia Huberman, the daughter of a German war criminal, who is recruited by a government agent (Cary Grant) to infiltrate an organization of Nazis who have moved to Brazil after World War II.
The Glass Key, 1942 (dir. Stuart Heisler)
Acting on another tip from Juliet, Rigby needs a blonde to help him entrap Walter Neff, the owner of a South American cruise ship called Immer Essen, who likes to pick up blondes at supermarkets. His first pick, Monica Stillpond, a bombshell who once said she would do anything for anybody anywhere, says she can’t. Veronica Lake appears here as her character in The Glass Key, based on the political thriller by Dashiell Hammett book of the same name.
Deception, 1946 (dir. Irving Rapper)
Next Rigby visits his old flame Doris Devermont (Bette Davis), who unceremoniously left him many years earlier. Rapper’s film, Davis reunites with co-stars Paul Henreid and Claude Rains, all of whom had made Now, Voyager three years earlier with the same director. Although it leans heavily into melodrama, the film explores the same weighty themes of lingering betrayal from choices made during WWII and how violence can erupt when lies are employed rather than truth and forgiveness.
Johnny Eager, 1941 (dir. Mervyn LeRoy)
Rigby’s final blonde is socialite Jimmi Sue Altfeld (Lana Turner), who is deeply in love with him, but whose father (Edward Arnold) does not approve. Johnny Eager not only established Lana Turner as a leading actress, her co-star Van Helfin won an Oscar for his performance as the alcoholic right-hand man to the titular Johnny Eager (Robert Taylor).
The Postman Always Rings Twice, 1946 (dir. Tay Garnett)
Interspersed within the Johnny Eager footage are scenes from one of Turner’s most well-known films: The Postman Always Rings Twice. In this adaptation of the novel by James M. Cain, Turner plays Cora, the unfulfilled younger wife of gas station/diner owner Nick Smith (Cecil Kellaway). When Cora meets drifter Frank Chambers (John Garfield), sparks fly and murder is in the air.
I Walk Alone, 1947 (dir. Byron Haskin)
After Rigby fails to convince Jimmi Sue’s father to let her help him by giving him a puppy, he has his goon (Kirk Douglas) rough him up a bit. Here Rigby finds himself smack dab in footage from I Walk Alone, in which Douglas plays Dink Turner, a former rum-runner turned nightclub who stiff his ex-partner Frankie Madison (Burt Lancaster) out of his fair share of the profits when Frankie is released from prison after the taking the fall for both of them.
Double Indemnity, 1941 (dir. Billy Wilder)
Finally, Rigby decides to dress in drag himself in order to flirt with Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) himself. After drugging him, he finds the Immer Essen passenger list, which mirrors the EOC list, and discovers its captain Cody Jarrett is in prison. Martin in Barbara Stanwyck’s ridiculous wig from Double Indemnity is truly a sight to behold. Wilder’s film is widely considered one of the key masterpieces of the era. Adapted from the novel of the same name by James M. Cain, Stanwyck’s Phyllis Dietrichson seduces skeevy insurance salesman Walter Neff, convincing him to murder her husband but make it look like an accident. These are two of the most rotten characters to ever grace the silver screen. The film was nominated for eight Oscars, including for Best Picture, Director, and Actress, although it did not win a single award.
White Heat, 1949 (dir. Raoul Walsh)
Rigby dons drag once again to meet with Captain Cody Jarrett (James Cagney), who will only speak to his mother. While in prison, Rigby finds himself caught up in both a riot and jailbreak, ultimately learning that Jarrett is actually one of the Friends of Carlotta. Bringing with him to the noir era the same energy he had in the peak 1930s gangster era, Cagney’s Cody Jarrett is a truly terrifying figure. His final line “Made it ma! Top of the world” has become one of the most iconic movie lines of all time, landing at number 18 on AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movie Quotes list.
Humoresque, 1946 (dir. Jean Negulesco)
After escaping prison and Jarrett, Rigby returns home to Juliet and finally confesses his love for her. On her way to the drugstore for some medicine, however, she overhears part of a phone conversation between Rigby and an ex-lover named Margaret who plans to leave her husband for him. The phone call is made by Joan Crawford from the melodramatic romance Humoresque, in which rich socialite Crawford falls madly in love with her patron, a much younger violinist played by John Garfield. A favorite film of Madonna’s, the music video for her 1998 song “The Power of Good-Bye” is an homage to the film’s ending.
Dark Passage,1947 (dir. Delmer Daves)
Heartbroken after Juliet leaves him, Rigby receives a call from Marlowe instructing him to look at a map of Peru, where he discovers Carlotta is actually an island. This phone call features a clip from Dark Passage, another Bogart and Bacall flick in which the two meet up at a seaside bar in Peru, hopefully to live happily ever after.
The Bribe, 1949 (dir. Robert Z. Leonard)
Once in Carlotta, Rigby not only finds Kitty Collins, but also finds her boyfriend Rice (Vincent Price), who leads him to the key figure in Juliet’s father’s muder: Field Marshal Wilfried von Kluck (Carl Reiner, doing his best Erich Von Stroheim). In The Bribe, Robert Taylor stars as a federal agent named Rigby who travels to an island called Carlotta to break up a war-surplus aircraft engine racket. Price and Gardner co-star, along with Charles Laughton and John Hodiak.