Guns don't kill detectives, love does: That's Steve Martin's motto till he's sapped by co- star Rachel Ward in "Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid," a middling parody of 1940s mystery movies.

Ward, last seen opposite Burt Reynolds in "Sharky's Machine," plays it straight for the wild and crazy guy, who even shaves his tongue for a laugh. Ward, a sexy sort of comedic counter to that oh-so-sweaty Kathleen ("Body Heat") Turner, plays a guileless client, who seeks Martin's help when her dad (George Gaynes), a cheesemaker and scientist, is a goner.

Martin stars as aimless shamus Rigby Reardon, whose mentor, Philip Marlowe, is played again by Humphrey Bogart, thanks to a composite editing technique Martin tried out in a "Pennies From Heaven" dance segment with Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. Well, that was small change compared with what the technical types deliver in "Dead Men." It's unreel.

The editors adroitly splice the classic cameos and the new black-and-white footage into a seamless whole. There's Alan Ladd in "This Gun For Hire"; Bogart in "The Big Sleep"; Bette Davis in "Deception"; James Cagney in "White Heat"; Barbara Stanwyck in "Sorry, Wrong Number"; Cary Grant in "Suspicion" and on and on. Michael Chapman's cinematography, with its visual puns, parodies film noir. When it is coupled with the finicky sets, reproduced to match those in the clips, "Dead Man" becomes a slick package indeed.

Unfortunately, the technical hullabaloo gets stale about three-quarters of the way through and we want something to cling to. It's a case of the missing plot, unless you count what writers Reiner (who also directed), Martin and George Gipe weave round the clips to string them together. And much of what they have to say is movieland mimcry. Ward, for instance, steals a scene from Lauren Bacall in "To Have and Have Not." And she does it with Bacallian sass. "You know how to dial, don't you?" she asks Martin, who's getting goosebumples all over. "Just put your finger in the hole and. . ."

Martin seems timid in this film, backing off from extreme departures, still leery after the mixed reactions to "Pennies." He goes back to basics, making fun of Brut and Burt Reynolds, Bogie and all the suave guys who follow the formula, taking a poke at rote cool.

So here's looking at you, Steve. And especially at you, Rachel.

DEAD MEN DON'T WEAR PLAID At the AMC Carrollton, AMC Skyline, Jenifer Cinema, Roth's Quince Orchard, Roth's Tysons Corner, Showcase Pike, Springfield Mall and Wheaton Plaza.