Silver Streak (1976)
Silver Streak (1976)

Genre: Adventure and Crime Comedy Running Time: 1 hr. 54 min.

Release Date: December 3rd, 1976 MPAA Rating: PG

Director: Arthur Hiller Actors: Gene Wilder, Jill Clayburgh, Richard Pryor, Patrick McGoohan, Ned Beatty, Clifton James, Ray Walston, Lucille Benson, Scatman Crothers, Richard Kiel, Fred Willard

 


 

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on-fiction publisher George Caldwell (Gene Wilder) hops out of a Los Angeles cab to board the Silver Streak train all the way to Chicago, carrying a few bags and a briefcase for his First Class, two-and-a-half-day voyage – to attend his sister’s wedding. When he makes it into his room, he’s shocked and delighted to accidentally open the adjoining cabin door to see a half-dressed, attractive woman, who isn’t all that dismayed to be on the receiving end of his stare. “It’s a cathouse on wheels!”

“This is the first time I’ve ever taken a train.” In the bar, George meets vitamin salesman Bob Sweet (Ned Beatty), who suggests that all the women aboard are anxious to hook up. But Bob isn’t so smooth, especially when he targets a woman named Hildegard “Hilly” Burns (Jill Clayburgh) – the very woman whom George saw earlier, partially-clothed – only to end up with his trousers full of ice. Hilly then proceeds to join George instead, segueing into dinner and some bottles of champagne, before returning to their connected rooms for some nocturnal activities.

The dialogue is immediately hilarious; Hilly’s flirting skills are superb, while George has a way with comical observations and double entendres. It recalls some of the conversations from “North By Northwest,” while intermittently poking fun at “Narrow Margin” (both versions), alternating between funny and downright romantic. Henry Mancini’s music also helps, whipping up a sense of adventure in the midst of the intrigue.

“This man has been murdered!” What begins as a light comedy transitions into something decidedly more sinister when Richard Kiel shows up as a towering bodyguard, complete with metal teeth like his most famous role in the James Bond series (though this film arrived first, marking the toothy giant’s character as an inexplicable coincidence), beating the sense out of targets and then hurling George right off the train when he starts nosing around. There’s a murder/mystery afoot, but, perhaps in a Hitchcockian fashion, George is ill-prepared for coping. Along the way, he also ends up in a series of bizarrely blithe misadventures – from milking a cow (a gag that ends abruptly, as if an incomplete joke) to flying in a two-seat plane to running and jumping back aboard the Silver Streak.

All the while, a great deal of suspicious characters appear, mixed up in something nearly as complex as the ordeals on the Orient Express. A wealthy jet-setter (Patrick McGoohan), a weaselly goon (Ray Walston), and a doppelgänger professor (Stefan Gierasch) are involved in a cover-up  – and even Hilly and Bob are somehow part of the conspiracy. Nobody is trustworthy, yet George continues to believe everyone’s wild tales. And this is long before one of the headlining stars, Richard Pryor, even shows up (more than an hour in, fulfilling a turn more akin to a cameo).

“You sure you’re not makin’ this up as you go along?” Like a Mel Brooks comic spellbinder, merged with some of the flavor of Inspector Clouseau, this madcap farce boasts plenty of unintentional James Bond daredevilry, panic and chaos of the nonsensically disorderly kind, and sensible scenarios of slapstick. The repetition of key events, the exceptional ineptitude of authority figures (never better represented than with Clifton James, yet another 007 holdover), and the goofy spin on the “wrong man” theme further create a consistently entertaining hybrid of genres. “I’m gonna make a criminal out of you yet.”

Part heist, part thriller, part road movie, part buddy-cop chuckler, part actioner, part crime caper, part murder-mystery, and part romantic comedy – with a number of other elements sprinkled on top – “Silver Streak” moves swiftly and unpredictably, keeping up the amusement even with its overlong running time and the steady diminishment of jokes in favor of heightening suspense. Normally, the fusion of so many genres would make all of them less effective, but Wilder is convincing as an everyman, a fish-out-of-water investigator, a man-of-action, and a Casanova, imparting a genuineness that supersedes the pervasive foolishness. He also manages the most over-the-top, hysterical blackface sequence ever committed to film – a scene so outlandish and laugh-out-loud funny (inappropriate as it may be) that it proves more memorable than anything else in the picture (especially when it comes to the finale, which starts to resemble a real James Bond adventure, complete with a jaw-dropping villain demise, the rescuing of a damsel in distress, and a destructive runaway train set piece).

– Mike Massie

  • 7/10