Gene Wilder seems destined to be defined by Willy Wonka. That’s no great sin, but it’s a shame people forget just how ripe the ’70s were for him, when he appeared in a succession of smart comedies that played off his type, freakish as it was (and is) among Hollywood leading men. Nervy, cartoonish, yet doe-eyed and vulnerable, he cut a figure that really hasn’t been replicated since.

But what elevated him to greatness were the comic actors that gathered around him, as they do in his directorial debut, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother. Wilder stars as Sigerson Holmes, the less competent and more hubristic of the two Holmes brothers. When Sherlock is forced to go undercover, Siggy puts aside his jealousy and eagerly accepts one of his brother’s blackmail cases-with more to it than meets the eye. Wilder plays Holmes with a mix of insecurity and egotism, with one often feeding off the other. He doesn’t stumble on to clues so much as pounces on them, a great big “AH-HA!” lighting up his face before realizing his convoluted theories are leading nowhere.

Assisting him is Sgt. Orville Stanley Sacker (Marty Feldman), a kind of human encyclopedia who can recall entire conversations verbatim with just a smack to the head. There’s also Holmes’ client, Jenny Hill, played by the great Madeline Kahn as an endearingly neurotic sexpot (“My name is Jenny Hill, and I am simultaneously funny and sad”). The trio play off each other flawlessly, and the first time they’re brought into a room together is a flurry of perfectly timed reactions and quips that rivals their work together on Young Frankenstein.

Like with Frankenstein and other Mel Brooks comedies, the humor tends to lean a little heavy on the slapstick (you may grow weary of a little dance number known as The “Kangaroo Hop”). But most of the jokes are delivered through absurd dialogue, and even then, it’s not what’s being said so much as how it’s being said. Case in point: a ridiculous opera at the climax of the film where Wilder sings a key line - “Why don’t we all drink / Some very sexy wine” - and somehow keeps himself from cracking up.

The opera also shows off Dom DeLuise, the film’s most surprising delight. His role as an Italian opera singer is a wonderful, overstuffed cannoli of a part, even if it cribs more than a little from Chico Marx. He’s another figure whose pop-cultural legacy is somewhat forgotten. Try not to think of him as just the host of Candid Camera; remember him here, hamming it up with an absurd accent and playing off the villainous Moriarty (Leo McKern, who does a fair job in the ham department himself).

By the end of the film, the only mystery left to solve is why Wilder wrote and directed so little of his own material. Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother is by no means perfect, but there’s so much brilliance here, one can’t help but wonder why Wilder’s name didn’t continue to be synonymous with ’70s comedy-not only as an actor, but as a filmmaker.

Andrew Good is a film critic and writer living in San Diego.

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