The Dork Knight: Steve Martin in DEAD MEN DON’T WEAR PLAID (Universal 1982)

Quick, name a film noir that stars Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Ava Gardner, Cary Grant, Veronica Lake, Alan Ladd, Vincent Price, and… Steve Martin? There’s only one: 1982’s DEAD MEN DON’T WEAR PLAID, the second collaboration between that “wild and crazy guy” Martin and comedy legend Carl Reiner. I remember, back in 1982, being dazzled by editor Bud Molin’s seamless job of incorporating classic film footage into the new narrative while simultaneously laughing my ass off. Things haven’t changed – the editing still dazzles, and I’m still laughing!

Martin and Reiner’s first comedy, 1979’s THE JERK, was an absurdist lover’s delight, and this time around the two, along with cowriter George Gipe, concocted this cockeyed detective saga after combing through old black and white crime dramas (we didn’t call ’em film noir back then) and cherry picking scenes to build their screenplay around. Martin plays PI Rigby Reardon, a hard-boiled knucklehead who takes on the case of Juliet Foster’s missing father, a famous scientist and cheesemaker. Rigby instantly falls for the femme fatale (“I hadn’t seen a body like that since I solved the Case of the Murdered Girl With the Big Tits”), and who can blame him, since she’s played by the delicious Rachel Ward, who shot to fame in SHARKY’S MACHINE and the TV miniseries THE THORN BIRDS!

“For God’s sake, Marlowe, put on a tie!”

The case leads him to discovering a conspiracy involving “The Friends and Enemies of Carlotta”, but the plot is strictly secondary to Martin’s interacting with movie stars of the past. Rigby’s got a partner named Marlowe, none other than Bogie himself, using footage from THE BIG SLEEP , DARK PASSAGE , and IN A LONELY PLACE . His interaction with Fred MacMurray in DOUBLE INDEMNITY, dolled up in a blonde wig and tight sweater to resemble Barbara Stanwyck, is a scream. Martin dons drag again as James Cagney’s mother in a funny riff on WHITE HEAT .

Besides those previously mentioned, other classic stars appearing include Edward Arnold, Ingrid Bergman, William Conrad, Jeff Corey, Brian Donlevy, Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster, Charles Laughton, Charles McGraw, Ray Milland, Edmond O’Brien, Barbara Stanwyck, and Lana Turner, from films like THE BRIBE , DECEPTION, THE GLASS KEY , HUMORESQUE, I WALK ALONE, JOHNNY EAGER, THE KILLERS , KEEPER OF THE FLAME, THE LOST WEEKEND, NOTORIOUS , THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE, SORRY WRONG NUMBER, SUSPICION, and THIS GUN FOR HIRE (and by the way, that’s 70’s Exploitation queen Rainbeaux Smith doubling for Veronica Lake in her scene opposite Martin).

There are some great running gags throughout the film, like Juliet’s unique way of extracting bullets (“It’s really for snakebite, but I find it works for everything”), Martin going berserk every time he hears the phrase “cleaning woman”, and his constant chiding of ‘Marlowe’ for not wearing a tie. DEAD MEN DON’T WEAR PLAID was the last film for a pair of Hollywood greats: composer Miklos Rozsa and costume designer Edith Head. Both went out on a high note, a loving homage to films noir past, and a brilliant piece of work that itself stands the test of time.

Adventure of a Lifetime: THE THIEF OF BAGDAD (United Artists 1940)

Alexander Korda’s Arabian Nights fantasy THE THIEF OF BAGDAD has stood the test of time as one of filmdom’s most beloved classics. A remake of Douglas Fairbanks Sr.’s 1924 silent classic, Korda and company added some elements of their own, including Indian teen star Sabu as the title character, and some innovative Special Effects. In some scenes THE THIEF OF BAGDAD plays like a child’s fable, in others a horror movie, all blended together to create a grand piece of entertainment, despite having five different directors!

Those familiar with Disney’s animated 1992 ALADDIN will recognize much of the plot here. Blind former Prince Ahmad and his faithful dog are begging for alms when summoned by trickery to the court of evil Grand Vizier Jaffar to awaken a beautiful princess from her slumber. Ahmad then relates the backstory of what has transpired: thrown into prison by his treacherous Vizier, he meets the child-thief Abu, who has stolen the key to the cell. The two escape before being beheaded to the city of Basra, where Ahmad lays eyes on the Sultan’s beautiful daughter, whose face it is forbidden to behold. Ahmad must see her again, and he does, with the help of young Abu. The exiled prince and the beautiful princess fall madly in love, because of course they do!

Jaffar, usurper of the throne of Bagdad, also travels to Bagdad, though his purpose is more nefarious in nature. He’s greeted by the doddering old Sultan, a collector of mechanical toys, and Jaffar has come bearing a gift: a flying mechanical horse! The Sultan, after taking a joyride, must possess this magnificent marvel, and Jaffar asks in return the hand of his daughter. The Princess, wanting no part of Jaffar, flees to Samarkand, and Ahmad and Abu are caught at the palace, where Jaffar uses his evil magic to blind Ahmad and turn Abu into a dog!

Back to the present: Ahmad’s presence wakes the princess, but she’s spirited away from him again aboard Jaffar’s ship. Abu-dog follows, only to be thrown overboard for his troubles. The princess, at Jaffar’s mercy, lets him embrace her, breaking the spell and restoring Ahmad and Abu to normal. They give chase, but the Grand Vizier conjures up a raging hurricane, stranding the pair on a deserted island, where peril awaits at every turn, including from a giant vindictive Djinn who has been trapped in a bottle for two thousand years…

The adventure never abates, as Abu must steal the All-Seeing Eye embedded in a statue inside a great temple in order to find his friend Ahmad. This spooky sequence is the most horror-influenced in the film, with Sabu climbing the web of a giant, venomous spider to get to the Eye, being careful not to fall into the abyss where a deadly octopus lays in wait. Another scary scene occurs when Jaffar conjures a murderous six-armed “Silver Maid” to lure the Sultan into a death embrace. There’s also flashing swordplay, romance, comedy, and even a few songs thrown in for good measure… a little something for everybody in this spectacular film, shot in gorgeous Technicolor by Oscar-winning Cinematographer Georges Perinal.

Sabu gives a charming, energetic performance as the thief Abu. The young star came into prominence in 1937’s ELEPHANT BOY at the age of 13, and is fondly remembered as Mowgli in the 1942 THE JUNGLE BOOK, as well as a string of Universal/Maria Montez/Jon Hall costumers. The great Conrad Veidt is the personification of evil as Jaffar, in what may very well be his best role of the sound era. John Justin (Ahmad) is handsome and heroic; he had a long screen career mainly in Britain, later popping up in some of Ken Russell’s 70’s films. June Duprez is lovely indeed as the Princess; among her movie credits are THE FOUR FEATHERS, NONE BUT THE LONELY HEART, and AND THEN THERE WERE NONE. Miles Malleson (The Sultan) also wrote the film’s screenplay; horror fans will recognize him from DEAD OF NIGHT , PEEPING TOM , and the Hammer entries HORROR OF DRACULA , HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES, BRIDES OF DRACULA, and THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA.

The there’s Rex Ingram, the American actor playing the Djinn. Ingram’s genie is no joking Robin Williams, but a towering titan of malevolence who only does Sabu’s bidding when the thief tricks him back inside the bottle. Ingram made his film debut in 1918’s TARZAN OF THE APES as an uncredited native. His booming voice landed him the plumb role of De Lawd in the 1936 all-black cast THE GREEN PASTURES, but like most black actors of the era, Ingram never broke the color barrier to major stardom. His talent could not be denied however, and he worked steadily in films: THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN (as Jim opposite Mickey Rooney’s Huck), THE TALK OF THE TOWN (as Ronald Colman’s valet), the all-black musical fantasy CABIN IN THE SKY, the war drama SAHARA, A THOUSAND AND ONE NIGHTS (as a giant reminiscent of his Djinn), GOD’S LITTLE ACRE, ANNA LUCASTA (as Eartha Kitt’s father), and his last, Otto Preminger’s HURRY SUNDOWN. Ingram also stands out in a 1969 episode of GUNSMOKE as an aging ex-slave.

THE THIEF OF BAGDAD was started by German director Ludwig Berger. Producer Korda, unhappy with the results, replaced him with Michael Powell, assisted by Tim Whelan. When financing and the war in Europe ground production to a halt, Korda moved filming to Hollywood, where William Cameron Menzies and Zoltan Korda took turns in the director’s chair. Menzies worked on the ’24 version, and his fingerprints are all over this one, though art direction and production design are credited to another Korda brother, Vincent. The Oscar was also awarded to the movie for its dazzling Special Effects. Lawrence Butler pioneered the bluescreen travelling matte process in this film, a process still in use today. Though primitive compared to CGI, it holds up well, and should be viewed from a historic standpoint. Miklos Rozsa’s outstanding score earned the composer his first Oscar nomination, though he lost to PINOCCHIO. THE THIEF OF BAGDAD is truly a classic fantasy film, and has a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Then again, so does PADDINGTON 2, so don’t take their word for it… see it yourself, and prepare to be enchanted!

 

 

A Bout De Souffle: Robert Siodmak’s CRISS CROSS (Universal-International 1949)

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CRISS CROSS hits you like a sucker punch to the gut, delivered hard and swift, followed by a non-stop pummeling that doesn’t let up until the final, fatal shot. Things kick right in as we find clandestine lovers Steve Thompson and Anna Dundee going at it hot’n’heavy in a nightclub parking lot. They go inside, and Steve gets into it with Anna’s husband, the gangster Slim Dundee, who pulls a knife, but the fight’s interrupted by Lt. Pete Rameriz, Steve’s boyhood pal. What Pete doesn’t know is the fight was staged for his benefit: Steve is the inside man on a planned armored car heist Dundee’s gang is pulling off.

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Flashbacks tell us how Steve got here: he was once married to Anna, and after the volatile couple divorced left L.A., drifting across country picking up odd jobs along the way. Returning to the City of Angels, he finds himself drawn back to their old hangout, hoping to run into the woman that still haunts his dreams. He spots her doing the rhumba on the dance floor, they talk, then Dundee drops by, her latest beau. After getting his old job back with the armored car company, Steve still pines for Anna. The bartender at “their” place gives him bad news: Anna has wed Dundee, and they’ve taken off for Yuma.

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The star-crossed Steve and Anna meet at Union Station, and she blasts him, saying everyone from his mother to Pete warned her to stay away from Steve, so she wed Dundee in haste. She shows him bruises and welts left by her new hubby, and Steve gets drunk as a skunk, confronted by Pete at the bar. They continue to see each other on the QT, and when Dundee and his boys catch them, Steve swerves the hoods by saying he can set up an armored car job and make everybody rich.

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The robbery is meticulously planned, and now we’re back to the present: Steve is driving the truck with the oil refinery payroll, there’s an explosion from a manhole, and Dundee’s gang tosses teargas to cover their tracks. Things then take a wrong turn as Steve’s partner is killed, and a shootout leaves both Steve and Dundee wounded, the money gone with Anna, and deadly repercussions…

To give away anymore would spoil one of the best damn noir flicks I’ve seen in awhile, so you’ll have to watch this one yourselves. In fact, you owe it to yourselves to see this cynical masterpiece from director Robert Siodmak , pulling out all the stops to bring his dark vision to the screen. Producer Mark Hellinger died before the cameras started to roll, so Siodmak had no restraints, and this is his finest hour, creating the quintessential noir complete with doomed characters, moody camerawork (by DP Franz Planer), and a sense of paranoia marked by people who know, despite everything, no one here gets out alive.

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Burt Lancaster’s Steve is a man whose fatal attraction slides him quickly downhill; he knows deep down Anna’s no good, but wants her anyway. Yvonne DeCarlo steals the show as Anna, the femme fatale that brings everyone around her down to her depths. The marvelous Dan Duryea (Slim) tones it down, bringing a quietly menacing presence to his role. Stephen McNally tries to be the voice of reason as Pete, warning Steve to steer clear of these unsavory characters. Even the minor roles deserve recognition: Tom Pedi stands out as a hood with his catchphrase “That’s the ticket”, Alan Napier shines as an elderly criminal mastermind with an unquenchable thirst, Percy Helton makes the most out of his bartender role, and Joan Miller adds to the atmosphere as a barfly. Familiar Faces pop up throughout the film: Richard Long , Meg Randall, John Doucette, Gene Evans, Vito Scotti, Charles Wagenheim, and Bud Wolfe. The young man doing the rhumba with DeCarlo early on is Tony Curtis, making his film debut.

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All this aided by a superb Mikos Rozsa score (with Esy Morales and His Orchestra providing the rhumba rhythms) add up to make CRISS CROSS a shadowy tour de force from all concerned. This is cinematic dynamite you don’t want to miss, a devilishly good time for fans of pessimistic pictures that will leave you breathless. Highly recommended!