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The Private Eyes (Original Release Date: 10 April 1981)
Nostalgia bulletproofs some movies to criticism. That's how it is for me, at least. I apologize in advance for the inevitably positive review I will be writing for Legend of the Lone Ranger in May. It is roundly hated by casual moviegoers and Lone Ranger fans alike, and there is little chance of your liking it if you weren't indoctrinated into liking it as a child.
Legend of the Lone Ranger was one of my most frequent babysitters growing up, and I developed a good deal of affection for it. Another sitter was The Private Eyes, though like the sitter who continues to baby talk at you when you feel you’ve outgrown baby talk, The Private Eyes has dimmed in my estimation with time. That old affection is hard to access, even if watching it does produce constant flutters of recognition and memories from childhood.
A big part of my emotional distance from it is my having not watched it since I was a kid. I don't trot it out every couple years like I do with The Legend of the Lone Ranger. It had been so long since I had seen it, in fact, that I kept waiting for the arrival of scenes that turned out not to be there. "At least I know there's one funny scene coming up," I said to myself, and kept wondering when it would arrive. The scene I remembered involves a character trying to conceal the fact that he is hiding an only-partly-concealed unconscious man from the police by pretending the unconscious man's legs are his own. Turns out this scene is from Haunted Honeymoon.
The Private Eyes (unrelated to the Hall & Oates song, which would come out later in 1981) is the fourth in a string of buddy comedies featuring Tim Conway and Don Knotts. If you've seen any of the others, you'll probably have some idea of what you're in for. You'll have more of an idea of what you're in for if you've seen The Prize Fighter, specifically, since Conway wrote that one. Conway also wrote The Private Eyes, and he fills it with the same sort of family-friendly variety show routines with which he filled The Prize Fighter.
Conway also works in some derivative humor that wears its inspiration so showily on its sleeve it's actually a little inspiring. Two clear cases of this are just how much he takes from the Pink Panther series and from Mel Brooks. In the case of the Pink Panther movies, what might otherwise be overlooked as a superficial similarity -- the leads are bumbling detectives whose bumbling somehow shields them from all harm -- is magnified tenfold by an animated intro sequence pretty much identical to the ones DePatie and Freleng cooked up for the Pink Panther movies. (To give credit where it's due: Richard Williams did Return of the Pink Panther and Pink Panther Strikes Again, Arthur Leonardi did Curse of the Pink Panther and Bill Kroyer did Son of the Pink Panther.) Conway steals as much from Brooks, but it is nowhere more evident than his blatant theft of the “Walk this way!” gag from Young Frankenstein.
The setup, too, reeks of Pink Panther. Knotts plays an American detective, and Conway plays his childhood friend and harebrained inventor accomplice. They're in England as consultants for Scotland Yard (why Scotland Yard would need them is either never discussed, or I just missed it), and have just gotten an unflattering writeup of their performances and methods in the paper. Someone sees this, and decides they'd be ideal for solving a recent murder case. They'd be ideal, it is hinted, because they are cleary incompetent -- meaning that whoever hired them is banking on them bungling the investigation. This is essentially the plot for A Shot in the Dark, the second Pink Panther movie. (Just in case you didn't already know, William Peter Blatty, of all people, worked on that script.)
What follows is a series of tame and obvious jokes, along with the aforementioned pilferings from better comedies. While you're watching and feeling like you've seen this or that before in a Blake Edwards or Mel Brooks movie, you may start thinking the same thing about the Abbott and Costello horror comedies. You may even notice a joke or two you could have sworn were lifted from Murder by Death. In most cases, you'll be getting versions of the joke that feel less daring or innovative than they felt when you encountered them the first time around.
The most daring The Private Eyes gets is when the Conway and Knotts characters fight over who gets to look into a peephole to watch another character undress. Also, one of the characters doesn't have a tongue, and spends a lot of time trying to speak. While that's basically all there is to his character, and the only note there is to the joke, Conway keeps dropping the character into scenes as though he's convinced the joke will eventually become funny. This is exactly how a successful slow burn joke might work, if this were patterned to be a slow burn joke, and not simply a recurring one. There's nothing resembling a hint of nuance to the script, though, so it's probably a good thing that Conway avoided going for slow burns.
He does go for multiple recurring jokes, however, and even they fall flat. Consider the “Time Gun,” a gun Conway's character has designed to fire a single bullet on the hour every hour. Knotts's character thinks the gun is a stupid idea -- and, clearly, it is -- but Conway's character assures him it could one day save their lives. The viewer is thus tricked into waiting for some kind of payoff where the gun does save their lives, but it never happens. Instead, the gun just keeps going off, and Conway presumably keeps hoping the joke will eventually be funny. The same thing goes for all the poetic death threats found on or near victims' bodies. Here's the “joke” behind that: the poem is written in what should be an ABAB ABAB rhyme scheme, but the last line almost never rhymes. (I have to say “almost never” because there's one where the anticipated non-rhyme is paradoxically not there. Did Conway forget about his dumb recurring joke? Was he just being lazy? I'd be willing to think he had given us all those ABAB ABAC poems just to surprise us by finally managing an ABAB ABAB, but I figure it has to be an oversight. He does so much mugging when he doesn't get the final rhyme in all the other cases that you'd expect some more mugging when he finally gets the rhyme, but it's not there.) Here's a typical example:
To dig your own grave
Is quite a sight,
But to bury yourself
Is not very bright.
There are more to kill,
And the job'll be done.
Nowthere are five;
Soon there'll be a lot less.
It's hard to watch Knotts and Conway being so thoroughly unfunny. (It's hard, but it's nowhere near as hard as it was for me to watch Jerry Lewis in Hardly Working. Something tells me there would have been more laughs in his The Day the Clown Cried if he had ever finished it. If you know anything about The Day the Clown Cried, then you probably also know there's little reason for me to think there would be many laughs in The Day the Clown Cried.) I feel especially sorry for Knotts, since he plays the straight man throughout. For one thing, Knotts simply isn't suited to be the straight man. For another, he's being straight man to another man who is in no way taking advantage of not being the straight man.
Basically, The Private Eyes just isn't funny to me any more, which was a letdown. I also noticed some plot inconsistencies (they're spoilers, so I will spare you) I'd never noticed as a kid. On the whole, the experience left me feeling like maybe I'd grown up more than I realized in the two decades or so since the last time I saw it. I don't like being made to feel like a grownup.
The Final Word: Recommended? No. Your kid might like it. I make no promises.
Standout Scene: Can't really think of one. Conway's character spends the whole movie trying to convince Knotts's character that a creature called the “Wookalar” exists. You finally get to see one at the end of the movie. That stands out, I guess. Also, they drive a Studebaker, which reminds me of The Muppet Movie. Every time I was reminded of The Muppet Movie, I felt I was getting to take a micro-vacation from the disappointment of The Private Eyes. Conway's character also throws a pigeon through a window. That almost made me smile, despite my love for pigeons.
Hey! I Know That Guy!: You might recognize Grace Zabriskie, though you're more liable to recognize Patrick Cranshaw, who's probably more famous, at this point, for playing “Blue” in Old School than he is for any of the other performances he gave in his fifty-year career.
Nostalgia Score: 7/10
Review Score: 39 / 100