Hanky Panky

I realized going in to Hanky Panky that I had never seen one of Sidney Poitier’s half-dozen-or-so directed films. Having seen it, I still feel like disqualifying myself, for surely Hanky Panky has not been directed by anyone, and if it has, who on earth would want to take credit for such a fiasco? Poitier had a monster hit with his previous film, Stir Crazy, which I’ve always managed to avoid seeing, even on its Showtime run; did he use his clout and riding-high status to make this?

The screenplay presents a bald ripoff of North by Northwest that could conceivably have been polished and livened up by a great director, but Sidney Poitier doesn’t seem to be that. The opening sequence, of a crazed suicide, is so inept that it seems to have been directed by a high-school film buff who has some very clichéd ideas about suspense. The movie is cheap-looking, and the cast is poorly handled, too. Of course Richard Widmark can always curl a lip when playing a villain, but that’s all he does here; and Kathleen Quinlan acts as though she were in a different movie from the other actors, although in Hanky Panky that’s perfectly all right.

Gene Wilder does his Gene Wilder thing, which has provided many moments of pleasure in films past, but there is the sense here that it’s being extended over one film too many (and his director has nothing new to add to Wilder’s shtick this time round). The movie camera does not like Gilda Radner, and she is playing someone who is supposed to be normal; whereas anyone who has ever seen Radner’s “Judy Miller Show” on “Saturday Night Live” knows that this is no normal person and should not be treated like one.

Even the much-celebrated real-life romance between Wilder and Radner does not come across on the screen; there are no To Have and Have Not-like frissons during which we glimpse two people falling in love in real life even as they are in the movie. But maybe Sidney Poitier didn’t notice. He doesn’t translate any behavioral idiosyncrasy to the screen, and maybe he doesn’t see any in the world around him. I mean, we’re talking about a director who zooms into a candleflame at the end of a love scene so he can dissolve to a crackling blaze in the fireplace. And with that kind of directorial sensibility at work, it’s the audience that winds up getting burned.

First published in The Informer, June 1982

Sheesh. I suppose “audience getting burned” is just as labored a transition as the flame-to-the-fireplace bit. Well, it’s understood, I hope, that saying Radner should not be treated like a normal person is a compliment to a very special comedian; she was frequently uncanny on “SNL.” Poitier, a splendid actor, of course notices behavioral idiosyncrasy in the world around him, despite my comment, but this is a really badly directed movie. In the Wilder-Radner canon, Haunted Honeymoon was no prize either, unfortunately. It’s hard to believe two glorious performers could team up to create such inert movies. And yet there they are.

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