The Pryor/Wilder Quartet -See No Evil, Hear No Evil

See No Evil, Hear No Evil (1989, dir. Arthur Hiller)

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Wally Karew (Pryor) is a blind man who isn’t letting his condition slow him down, despite protests from his sister. He ends up getting a job working for newsstand owner Dave Lyons (Wilder), who happens to be deaf. The two become embroiled in a murder mystery. Karew’s bookie comes looking for money he’s owed but instead stashes a valuable coin in the newsstand when some, even more, unsavory types show up. Karew and Lyons get implicated in the murder, as ludicrous as that sounds and they have to bust out of jail and track down the real killers. Clearing their name involves posing as doctors at a hotel convention and enlisting Karew’s sister for help.

In both Stir Crazy and this film, there is a palpable desire to recreate the past success of Blazing Saddles and Silver Streak. In my Silver Streak review, I mentioned how Pryor was initially set to play the Cleavon Little role. I get the feeling the interaction between Gene Wilder and Cleavon Little looms over these films. Add to that the iconic moment in Silver Streak where Wilder is forced to “black up” to sneak past FBI agents and you can see the pressure these new movies had to create similar iconic comedic moments. That’s the problem with forcing those moments; it won’t ever happen. Comedy is a very organic thing and letting your actors “just ad lib” is rarely a smart move, even if they are as talented as Wilder and Pryor.

Instead, the comedy in this film awkwardly comes from the characters’ disabilities. Almost every joke is a slapstick play on blindness, deafness, or a combination of the two. There are some occasional amusing moments, but often it comes across as offensive and ableist. Isn’t it funny how the deaf guy misreads lips or isn’t it funny how the blind man gropes that lady? It doesn’t help that the main storyline, the valuable coin, is dumb and forgettable. It resolves in a very sloppy way that gives off the sense that the writers and director just threw up their hands and said: “Forget it!”.

A carryover from Silver Streak has been the idea that Wilder’s character must always have a love interest. Here there is an attempt to make it the female villain. It never goes anywhere which makes it better than the forced love interest in Stir Crazy. When I think back to the chemistry between Clayburgh and Wilder in Silver Streak, it feels real and natural. Much like the best moments between Wilder and Pryor, these romantic plots can’t get shoehorned in if there isn’t a reason for them and them chemistry isn’t there between the leads.

1989 was a critical moment in Wilder’s life. His wife of five years, Gilda Radner, died the year this film came out and it had a profound effect on his work. Previously, he had made three films with here that had not been well received by audiences or critics, so he was a rough place personally and professionally. Pryor had a mixed bag in the years since Stir Crazy. He’d co-starred in Superman III and had made the pictures Brewster’s Millions and Moving. He was enjoying a bit more commercial success than Wilder and was working to soften his edges. In 1980, the actor notoriously freebased cocaine which led to him dousing himself in rum and setting himself on fire. That violent incident would be a huge turning point in his personal life and lead to his eventually sobering up.

Wilder and Pryor would make one more film together, Another You, which we’ll look at next week.

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