I’m going to say right off the bat that See No Evil, Hear No Evil is not the best work of either Gene Wilder‘s or Richard Pryor‘s careers. It’s good. Sometimes it’s very good, other times it’s not so good. But I think this is the best way I can pay tribute to the recently deceased Gene Wilder and also to the not-so-recently deceased Richard Pryor because of my relationship to the film. You see my dad was, and still is, super big into comedy films and when I was a child there were several different films that if they came on the TV we would pretty much abandon all other plans to watch them. Things like The Pink Panther series with Peter Sellers, The Naked Gun with Leslie Nielsen, The Blues Brothers with John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd and, as it happens, See No Evil, Hear No Evil. These films basically laid the foundation for my interest in film comedy so I hope this review can serve as both a thank you and a goodbye to one of the great film comedians. So without further ado, let’s get on with the review.
So the premise of the film is that Wilder’s character is deaf and Pryor’s character is blind and they are framed for murder. They team up to overcome their disabilities and prove their innocence. As you can imagine, shenanigans ensue and holy god damn do I love shenanigans. They’ve got a decent buddy comedy dynamic going between them as well, where Wilder’s character still hasn’t really accepted his disability but Pryor’s character has. That’s a classic optimist and pessimist pairing and there’s a lot of potential there. There is an issue though that they don’t fully commit to it and the two leads are just really nice guys who occasionally bicker and that’s a shame because as we’ll see later when they bicker there’s a lot of fun to be had. But look, the way I see it is this was the type of film where you came up with the premise and let two great film comedians ply their craft. So what happens then is a collection of funny scenes with a fairly standard character journey for Wilder. And honestly, when the comedy is good, that can be enough and I think it is enough in See No Evil, Hear No Evil. Take for instance the scene where they are getting their mugshots taken. It’s very Abbott & Costello-esque and if you’re into that brand of comedy, you’ll enjoy it. Personally I buy into the silliness so I fucking love it. And Gene Wilder mumbling about ships at the end caps it off beautifully. The interrogation scene before this is also a treat to watch.
As you can see from that scene what really bolsters the comedy in this film is the obvious chemistry between Wilder and Pryor. Before See No Evil, Hear No Evil they had partnered together for Silver Streak in 1976 and Stir Crazy in 1980 so by 1989 they were well used to each other. Wilder’s character can read lips which allows them to have funny, flowing exchanges which, as we’ve mentioned previously, are at their best when they’re bickering. Wilder was a master of sarcasm. You can see it throughout his career. He has a wonderful, soft delivery that builds to crescendo. The best example of which comes after they’ve been framed and arrested for murder, escape from custody, are almost murdered themselves by the real killers, escape from them, steal a police car which Pryor’s blind character drives by following the directions of the handcuffed Wilder while being shot at by both police and criminals alike until finally leaping off a pier and crashing into a garbage barge. Pryor turns to Wilder and asks him if he is with him. Wilder slowly turns to his comrade and the following exchange occurs. If you haven’t seen the film, picture Willy Wonka delivering this;
Wilder: Am I with you? Of course. You’ve earned my trust, Wally. You’re always watching out for me. You never get me into trouble. Sometimes life is a little boring with you… But that’s a small price to pay for such a wonderful friendship.
Pryor: That’s a sweet thing you just said. Do you mean everything you just said?
Wilder: I’ll tell you how I feel in just a minute or two. (starts to build to crescendo) Right now… I’m a little overwhelmed by the stink of the 7000 tonnes of garbage that you drove me into!
Pryor: Is that what that is? I thought you let one go! That’s why I didn’t say nothing!
Wilder: (through gritted teeth) that was nice of you. Thank you.
End scene. I wish I could find the clip online because what the written word can’t get across is his slow, stop-start delivery that is integral to building the comedic tension necessary for the payoff to work. For those interested, I will leave a link to a short video which compiles some examples of Wilder’s use of the comedic pause throughout his career here. They’re out of context but some of them survive without it. His style of delivery certainly left on impact on me. I have to constantly check to make sure I don’t overuse ellipses when I’m writing creatively.
There’s no huge point I’m trying to make about Wilder’s work in this article. As I said in the beginning, this is just my way of saying thank you to a man who played a crucial role in my development as a creative and as a person. I just wished to share some of his lesser known brilliance with you and I hope that you can enjoy it the way I did as a child with my dad. Thank you, Mr. Wilder. You’ll be missed.