On Wednesday, Arthur Hiller joined with the infinite. The onetime DGA president toiled away in television for over a decade, before finding cinematic success with the back-to-back productions of LOVE STORY and THE OUT OF TOWNERS. He was rarely christened an auteur, but to simply brand him as a Hollywood mechanic would be an incredible disservice. In a very short window, he steered five actors into Oscar nominations (Ryan O’Neal, Ali McGraw, John Marley, Maximilian Schell, and George C. Scott), and early partnerships with celebrated screenwriters Neil Simon & Paddy Chayefsky cemented his foothold in the industry. The disastrous response to MAN OF LA MANCHA brought the parade to a halt, but Hiller found intermittent success throughout his prolific career.
I could take this opportunity to laude the recent inclusion of THE IN-LAWS into the Criterion Collection, or mount a stringent defense of CARPOOL’s cheese ball absurdity. I could take the easy route and praise the brilliance of that first Gene Wilder/Richard Pryor pairing, SILVER STREAK. Naw. I need to talk about that other one, SEE NO EVIL HEAR NO EVIL.
The posters cheered SEE NO EVIL HEAR NO EVIL as “the first drop dead comedy of the summer,” and audiences eager for a repeat of SILVER STREAK and STIR CRAZY kept the film at number one for two short weeks in 1989. Critics were less enthusiastic, assaulting the film with blunt labels like “recycled” (Roger Ebert) and “juvenile” (The New York Times). Currently, SEE NO EVIL HEAR NO EVIL supports an 18% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. But who wants to live in a world of consensus?
The plot is silly and utterly contrived in a way that only Hollywood can justify. A blind man (Richard Pryor) and a deaf man (Gene Wilder) literally stumble upon a corpse, and are immediately implicated in the crime. One Rube Goldberg jailbreak scene later, and the odd-couple wannabe detectives are on the hunt for the real killers. There’s some McGuffin nonsense involving a rare coin, but it’s all just an excuse for Wilder and Pryor to antagonize the charm from each other. “Fuzz Wuzzy was a woman?” You’d be hard pressed to find anything more than a scrap of social commentary below the surface, and SEE NO EVIL HEAR NO EVIL is certainly not BLAZING SADDLES, but Arthur Hiller wrangles a quintessential showcase for fans of the duo. One watches this film and recognizes the joy these two actors truly had with each other.
This fanboy fodder fed from a genuine friendship that may not have extended beyond the set, but lives eternally on the silver screen. SEE NO EVIL HEAR NO EVIL is crammed with jokes. Some land, plenty fall flat. What never falters though is that warmth held between the two leads. A scene in which the two loners lament over their doomed marriages while enjoying cones of ice cream hits with bittersweet understanding. Wilder’s eyes drift into an ordinary sadness, “And then one day, my wife turned into this remarkable creature that could sit on the end of a broom stick and take off. She could actually achieve flight!” And Pryor responds with preternatural timing, “I think I was married to that woman once.” It’s a total set-up exceptionally executed.
In the early 1990s, SEE NO EVIL HEAR NO EVIL was a film trapped in a loop on cable television. HBO, TNT, USA – at some point in the middle of the night, it always felt like you were one channel click away from catching Gene Wilder threaten to shoot a woman with his erection. As a desperate pre-teen boy eager to prove to his parents that he was ready for R Rated entertainment, SEE NO EVIL HEAR NO EVIL appeared to be safe diversion for adults raised on the brilliance of YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN and CAR WASH. Mom and Dad always managed to nod off before Joan Severance reached for that towel. Kid win.
Arthur Hiller will always be remembered for those 60s classics, and he should be respected for the trails he blazed in the golden age of television, but for me, he’ll always be the man who swayed a 12 year old boy into red band adulthood. Raise a glass.