Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The Private Eyes

Remember when Tim Conway was a movie star? Hot off his success as Carol Burnett’s impish second on her self-titled variety show, Conway moved into films, mostly with Disney (GUS, THE APPLE DUMPLING GANG) or Lang Elliott’s Atlanta-based International Picture Show Company (THE BILLION DOLLAR HOBO, THEY WENT THAT-A-WAY & THAT-A-WAY). Conway and fellow television sidekick Don Knotts (THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW) played well off one another as bumbling gunfighters in the APPLE DUMPLING GANG movies, so producer Elliott cast the comedy team in THE PRIZE FIGHTER as a bumbling (what else?) boxer and his trainer.

Unexpectedly, when released at Thanksgiving 1979, THE PRIZE FIGHTER became the top grossing film in the history of New World Pictures, spurring Roger Corman and Elliott to commission a pseudo-sequel, this time with Elliott also directing. THE PRIVATE EYES, which stars Conway and Knotts as bumbling (what else?) detectives, was somehow an even bigger hit than its predecessor — in fact, the biggest hit Corman’s New World ever released!

Conway and his PRIZE FIGHTER collaborator John Myhers wrote the screenplay, which casts Don and Tim as Inspector Winship and Doctor Tart, who work for Scotland Yard, even though they’re Americans and referred to as private eyes. The script shamelessly cribs YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN’s “Walk this way” joke and introduces a literal Chekhov’s (time) gun in the detectives’ first scene, so it’s perfectly suited to Conway’s and Knotts’, shall we say, less than subtle comic stylings.

Spoofing both Sherlock Holmes mysteries and Old Dark House thrillers, THE PRIVATE EYES is packed with sight gags, puns, pratfalls, and other cartoon slapstick aimed at kiddies and unassuming television watchers. The Yard sends Winship and Tart to the massive Morley Manor, where the lady and lord of the house were recently murdered by a hooded stalker who’s still skulking about the mansion’s secret rooms and passages.

Elliott serves up the requisite red herrings, which include stacked adopted daughter Trisha Noble (STRIKE FORCE), caretaker Stan Ross (WHOLLY MOSES!), maid Suzy Mandel (CONFESSIONS OF A DRIVING INSPECTOR), nanny Grace Zabriskie (TWIN PEAKS), chef John Fujioka (THEY CALL ME BRUCE?), groom Irwin Keyes (THE WARRIORS), and butler Bernard Fox (BEWITCHED). More bodies turn up, each accompanied by a note from the killer (one of Conway and Myhers’ funnier running gags), with the hapless Winship and Tart helpless to stop the killings.

Knotts and Conway, both of whom hosted eponymous variety shows in the 1970s, are experts at milking laughs from mediocre material, and what fun THE PRIVATE EYES offers comes from their mugging. Elliott shot on location at the remarkable Biltmore Estate in North Carolina, which is perfectly cast as an English manor. Carol Burnett’s bandleader, Peter Matz, composed the catchy score and theme for this PG-rated comedy. Though it was a major hit, Knotts and Conway didn’t do another sequel, though they and the rest of Burt Reynolds’ Rolodex made cameos in CANNONBALL RUN II.

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