Before watching the movie:
So here’s another Don Knotts vehicle. This time, corrupt politicians are trying to cover up their embezzlement by hiring the most inept bookkeeper so they can pin it on him. Unfortunately, they hired a Don Knotts character, and we all know Don Knotts characters are the blind pigs that find the motherlode of acorns.
I hope when he does figure it out, he’s more proactive. Knotts roles tend to just be buffeted by the sweep of plot and partnered with someone competent.
After watching the movie:
The Dalton city council has been embezzling money from the town for a long time, and in order to keep their tracks covered, they’ve fired the smarter three of their accountants and replaced them with a computer. The remaining accountant, Hollis Figg, is now in charge of inputting the numbers to the computer, and only the numbers the council gives him. However, when he demonstrates the computer for his garbageman friend with some figures out of the trash, he discovers a half-million dollar discrepancy, and reports it. Nearly caught out, the council promote him to keep him quiet and then set about pinning their embezzlement on him.
This movie finds a solution to the problem of how to make a Don Knotts chraracter, as perfected in sidekick Barney Fife, into a satisfying film lead (which is where The Shakiest Gun in the West failed). It primarily does this by giving him his own sidekick: Prentiss Gates. Pren is a simple-minded garbageman who’s there to ask questions, be impressed by Hollis’s intelligence, and innocently say things that spur Hollis’s epiphanies. He’s played by a 20-something Frank Welker, who’s better known for his voice work, and reminds me a bit of some of Buddy Hackett’s roles. Additionally, as alluded to, Hollis actually gets to figure things out mostly for himself, rather than having everything explained to him. Even if he’s the last person to work it out.
The plotting seems a bit loose. It’s more directed than an episodic story, but it meanders more than a linear one. It spends a lot of time building his relationship with waitress Ema Letha in the first two acts, but there’s no time dedicated to rebuilding it in act three, and she’s mainly shunted into reporting things to the state government so that the city council can hear about it from their mole and confound things. The computer is highly important at the beginning and the end, but disappears in act 2. I didn’t see the point of Pren until he became a valuable ally in act 3.
A couple of other ways in which this is odd for a Don Knotts vehicle seem to be a product of the time it was made. This is an early 70s film, and it’s slightly more risque than his other films at times, pushing against the previous decade’s wholesomeness. It also makes a big deal out of a room-filling computer, making it seem even more high-tech than The Reluctant Astronaut. There was an odd disconnect between the personification of the computer in the dialogue vs. how the computer was actually portrayed. By the end of the movie, they’ve talked about “LEO” being hurt, putting in effort for them, and sacrificing itself, and its portrayal never goes beyond flashing lights and beeping.
This appears to be Don Knotts’s last movie as the lead, which I think is too bad, since this really comes close to dialing in the right mix of comic hero and Barney Fife, and reacts to changing times without being fundamentally changed by them. I was skeptical when I saw a “story by” credit for Knotts and the producer, but this was definitely on the right track. It just needed a bit more focus.