The Definitive Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid

Earlier this year, I started on a post about the three versions of Carl Reiner and Steve Martin's underrated detective comedy, Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid.  That's the non-anamorphic DVD that's been the mainstay for years and years, the obscure anamorphic version that I would've recommended seeking out if this was five years ago, and finally the barebones, MOD BD.  But just as I was in the middle of it, Kino announced a new special edition coming out in September, so I waited.  And now we're looking at the best of four.
This 1982 starts off in in very familiar, comedy territory: making light of the traditional 1940's noirish gumshoe flicks.  Filmed in black and white, Our tough talking detective is working late in his office one night when a beautiful dame knocks on his door wearing a black veil in desperation to solve his husband's murder.  But Dead Men takes the homage one step further, by inter-cutting scenes from over a dozen Hollywood classics.  His down-on-his-luck partner is played Humphrey Bogart, accomplished by having Martin exchange dialogue with clips taken from The Big Sleep, Dark Passage and In a Lonely Place.  It's grounded by a lush, traditional score and an earnest, straightman performance by The Thornbird's Rachel Ward, though like all of Reiner and Martin's collaborations, it's not afraid to veer into wild and ridiculous places to find that extra laugh.
It's that clever and snappy writing that keeps this film moving.  The high-concept gimmick could wear itself thin real quick in other hands, but Dead Man's takes are always inventive and surprising.  It does run a little low on steam in the final act, where it gets a little too bogged down in wrapping up its convoluted plot to keep the laughs coming as fast and furious as they had been in the first hour.  But, clocking it at under 90 minutes, it's good natured and uncombersome enough to keep you at least smiling through to the end.  Just how convincing the inserted footage is varies pretty widely, from how contrived the connections are to the shifting picture quality; but none of that matters, because the film never asks us to take it so seriously that we require anymore immersion than it can deliver.  It's more of a giant comedy sketch than a story, but it sustains itself by never running out of fresh jokes.
So yeah, Universal originally released Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid on DVD in 1999.  It was barebones, but alright for its day, when TVs were all 4:3.  But after a few years, a non-anamorphic widescreen DVD was a drag, so I was happy to discover that the 2008 the 'Steve Martin: The Wild and Crazy Comedy Collection' DVD set quietly upgraded the film to an 16x9, and at discount prices.  That was my go-to disc until Universal eventually released it on blu in 2017.  It was an MOD release, but at least it was a pressed disc, not a BD-R.  Still, it was as no frills (not even a menu) as they come, so while I wouldn't call Kino's brand new 2021 blu a loaded special edition, I was happy enough to repurchase the film one more time.
1) 1999 Universal DVD; 2) 2008 Universal DVD;
3) 2017 Universal BD; 4) 2021 Kino BD.

It's easy to forget that not only do non-anamorphic discs not fit your widescreen displays properly, but they're actually a smaller, lower resolution format.  So the older DVD winds up looking even softer and dupier than the 2008 disc, by a considerable margin.  That and it's also probably taken from an older master.  Despite both DVDs being framed at 1.85:1, you can see the newer disc reveals a good deal more information along the bottom and both sides.  It even has a sliver more along the edges than the blu-rays, which are also 1.85:1 but a pinch tighter.  More important, of course, is the sharper, clearer image in the HD boost.  You can start to see hints of film grain in the 2008 disc, albeit in soft clumps, which is far more than what the 1999 DVD could deliver.  But it comes into real focus on the blus.  Both blus, because they're using the same master and are virtually identical, except for Kino's being a shade darker.  No new scan here.  And that's fine; the Universal blu already looked pretty nice and filmic, though it does (and, by extension, so does Kino) exhibit signs of what looks like edge enhancement, as is common with their older masters.

All four discs are good enough to retain the original mono audio with optional English subtitles.  Both blus bump it up to DTS-HD, and the 2008 DVD also threw in a French dub, while the 1999 DVD had extra French and Spanish subtitles.
Extras have always been a sad story with this film.  The 1999 DVD was barebones apart from an attractive insert.  The DVD added the trailer, which has some amusing narration, but nothing else.  And the Universal blu-ray didn't even keep the trailer.  Again, it didn't even have a menu.

But Kino has finally given us, well, something at least.  The chief extra is an audio commentary with director Allan Arkush and film historian Daniel Kremer.  Astute readers will note, however, that Arkush may be a notable director, but he's not the director of this film.  So what we essentially have is just an expert commentary, not one with any first-hand experience.  And that's still nice; there's a lot for them to help viewers with, what with all the vintage films being incorporated and all (though they get really bogged down just listing everyone's IMDB credits).  But that's mostly it.  Kino does bring the trailer back, along with some TV and radio spots.  Probably the most exciting extra, in fact, is a fun promo trailer Martin shot, which is an entirely original comedy bit.  It's great to finally have it with the movie again, but it's still a slim package all together.
So at the end of the day, Kino has given us the best Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid yet.  It's the definitive edition to buy, but with no advances in PQ or AQ, fans who bought the 2017 blu might not be in a big rush to replace it.  Still, to date, this is the definitive edition, and Kino does also include reversible cover art and a nice slipcover.  Plus their prices are always reasonable.  So it may not be anything to get too excited over, but it's worth it.

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