Movies We Like
The train movie has always been a favorite genre of mine (Horror Express, Runaway Train, Narrow Margin, Emperor of the North Pole, etc). Going back to the silents (The Great Train Robbery) the train trip has been used famously as a murder mystery setting (Murder on the Orient Express, The Lady Vanishes), a place for romance (North by Northwest), action (The Cassandra Crossing, Breakheart Pass), comedy (The General), and horror (Terror Train). In 1976 director Arthur Hiller wasn’t exactly sure what genre he wanted - romance, action, comedy. Though sometimes messy, his Silver Streak did mange to breathe some life into the train picture and it ended up being a perfect piece of genre-bending entertainment.
With a screenplay by Colin Higgins, who had written the cult flick Harold and Maude and would go on to write and direct another solid romantic-action-comedy, Foul Play with Chevy Chase, Silver Streak stars Gene Wilder. As one of the era’s most unique comic talents, the role feels very un-Wilder-like. Mater of fact it could have been Chase, Elliott Gould, George Segal, Burt Reynolds or any leading man of the mid '70s. It’s not until just over the half way mark when Richard Pryor enters and infuses the film with a fresh energy, bringing out the more manic Wilder that audiences had grown to love. After getting a co-screenwriting credit on the Wilder flick Blazing Saddles, but nixed as an actor, Silver Streak would mark Pryor and Wilder’s first onscreen comedy together. They would follow it with the sometimes hilarious Stir Crazy and then the mostly terrible Another You and See No Evil, Hear No Evil. But Silver Streak is the film that really best showcases the yin and yang of their different comic styles.
On a cross country train ride from LA to Chicago low-key book editor George Caldwell (Wilder) just wants to get some work done, but he ends up having a one-night cuddle affair with a secretary, Hilly Burns (Jill Clayburgh, a brief big star as a thinking man’s sex symbol). That night he spots a dead body tossed from the train which turns out to be her boss, an art professor. Briefly the film becomes about George trying to prove a man was killed, but it turns out Hilly and her boss were victims in a murder plot concerning forged Rembrandts and a corrupt art dealer, Roger Devereau (Patrick McGoohan), who killed him to keep his heist covered (or something like that). Devereau’s henchman (Ray Walston) has his giant goon (Richard Kiel from The Longest Yard and most famous as Jaws in two James Bond flicks) throw George off the train. After a little cross country detour George manages to get back on the train where the misunderstanding is corrected until he learns from an undercover FBI agent (Ned Beatty), posing as a '70s swinging leech, what’s really going on. When the G-Man is killed, George is mistaken as the gunman and now it’s a flick about a man trying to prove his innocence.
Off the train, George is arrested but escapes with a car thief, Grover T. Muldoon (Pryor). The two race to get back on the train to clear George’s name and save Hilly from her abductors. Now that George is the focus of a police manhunt, Grover helps disguise him as as black man in a train station bathroom, leading to the film's most famous scene and most inspired piece of comedy. Wilder, in totally offensive soul-man “black face” asks, Wwill we make it past the cops?” Pryor responds, “Oh, we’ll make it past the cops. I just hope we don’t see no Muslims.” The film moves on and off the train, with bad guys, feds, shoot-outs, Fred Willard, chases, a runaway train and finally an impressive train crash into Chicago’s terminal (though the whole film and the collision were actually all shot in Canada).
While Silver Streak brings to a close Wilder’s reign as the comedy king of the early 1970s, it marks the beginning of Pryor’s more (white) audience friendly film roles. Though he was already a stand-up legend from his comedy albums and television appearances (including a controversial hosting gig on Saturday Night Live the year before) and a respected actor (Lady Sing The Blues), those big screen performances were mostly in “black” films. Silver Streak helped bring Pryor into the mainstream and later with roles in films like California Suite, Superman III, The Toy, his three more pairings with Wilder, and his landmark concert films, Richard Pryor Live in Concert and Live on the Sunset Strip, would make Pryor a big star before health issues forced him to retire from leading roles by the 1990s and his eventual death in 2005. Though his filmography is a mixed bag, his impact on comedy was enormous and Silver Streak still stands as one of his best roles.
In 1976, Silver Streak bridged the gap between those prestigious, light suspense flicks that ended on romance, like How To Steal a Million or Charade, with the bigger, loud comedies that were starting to gaining popularity and usually ended with million dollar destruction, like National Lampoon’s Animal House or The Blues Brothers. Less than a year before Silver Streak hit the big screen, Saturday Night Live premiered on television and was beginning to take hold. As Gene Wilder's creative run as the decade’s preeminent American comic actor was coming to an end, a new generation of funny performers were about to take comedy to a different place. Not to weigh too heavily on Silver Streak, but besides being wonderful entertainment, maybe it deserves some kind of monument in honor of its historical significance.
Silver Streak was nominated for an Oscar for Best Sound.