Hanky Panky (1982) Selected by Owen Williams, contributor
1982’s Hanky Panky was the second of two films Gene Wilder made with director Sidney Poitier, following the almost-classic Stir Crazy. It flopped on release, and now seems almost a footnote on the way to The Woman In Red (which Wilder directed himself two years later). But it does contain one perfect moment of Wilder, in his unique, inimitable way, losing his shit.
You can see the pitch. Hanky Panky was supposed to be a Hitchcockian caper: a North
By Northwest riff involving murder, mistaken identity and high-level espionage. Wilder is the innocent man accused of killing a mysterious woman in possession of an important Macguffin. As he goes on the run cross-country, various shady government types in pursuit, he hooks up with a lady played by Gilda Radner: this is the film on which the famous couple first met. And about an hour into proceedings, events conspire to place the pair on a pilotless light aircraft over the Grand Canyon.
It’s all going fine, with pilot Pat Corley suffering a grotesque belching attack that initially amuses the plane’s occupants. Then Corley dies, at which point Wilder goes into full meltdown, refusing to acknowledge the crisis despite Radner’s insistence on the truth of what’s happening. “He’s dead!” she yells. “He’s not dead, he just has gas!” Wilder screams back, against the evidence of the corpse lolling next to him. What follows is a masterclass in sustained, hysterical absurdity, with Wilder eventually refusing to even look at the body, relaying questions to the deceased pilot through the exasperated Radner. “Why didn’t he say anything?” “BECAUSE HE’S DEAD!” “Stop saying that!”
Somehow they land safely, and the film plods on as before. But it’s one more fine tribute to Wilder: even in a pedestrian project he could find a moment of crazed genius.