When Gene Wilder celebrated his 78th birthday last week, I suddenly realized that it’s now been twenty years since he starred in a theatrical feature film. It’s not often that a renowned celebrity officially retires from show business for good, but aside from the odd appearance here and there, Wilder has pretty much stayed completely out of the spotlight for the past two decades. Of course, many of his greatest films will live on forever, such as Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, The Producers and Young Frankenstein, but one of his best efforts that doesn’t seem to get much recognition today is the 1976 comedy-thriller, Silver Streak. Of course, this film is most notable for being the first teaming of one of cinema’s most popular comedy duos: Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor. The two actors teamed up together again four years later for the insanely successful Stir Crazy, which grossed about a gazillion dollars, and while their 1989 outing, See No Evil, Hear No Evil, was not a success with critics, it was still a hit at the box office and remains fairly popular with viewers today. Despite being a success on its initial release, Silver Streak remains somewhat overlooked today, maybe due to the fact that the initial teaming of Wilder and Pryor does not take place until an hour into the movie. However, as an overall film, Silver Streak is definitely the best of the Wilder-Pryor vehicles and is a first-rate mixture of comedy, suspense and action.
Directed by Arthur Hiller and written by Colin Higgins, Silver Streak makes no attempt to disguise the fact that it’s a pure Hitchcockian film and is assembled together from all the elements that the “Master of Suspense” loved so much. The “Silver Streak” of the title is the name of a large passenger train traveling from Los Angeles to Chicago. Mild-mannered editor George Caldwell (Gene Wilder) boards the Silver Streak for what he hopes will be a very relaxing trip, but soon finds himself embroiled in a very complicated murder plot. Things start out well for George when he meets a beautiful young passenger named Hilly (Jill Clayburgh) and they go back to their compartment for a night of romance. However, just as things are getting interesting, George suddenly looks out the window and sees what appears to be a body falling off the roof of the train. It turns out the victim may have been a famous art historian traveling on the Silver Streak, whom Hilly works as a secretary for. When George starts conducting his own investigation, he runs afoul of a suspicious art dealer named Roger Devereau (Patrick McGoohan), who may be responsible for the historian’s murder and is backed up by some vicious henchman that include the violent Mr. Whiney (Ray Walston) and the seven-foot Reace (Richard Kiel, who’d soon go on to great fame playing Jaws in the James Bond films). The bad luck starts piling up for George, as there are attempts on his life and he is falsely accused of murder himself, and thus begins an hilarious running gag where George is frequently thrown off the train by the bad guys, yet somehow always manages to find a way to get back on it later.
For its first hour, Silver Streak has been a fairly enjoyable and diverting (if unremarkable) Hitchcockian murder mystery, but it moves into another gear once George crosses paths with a petty thief named Grover (Richard Pryor), who becomes a very unlikely ally in helping him foil the bad guys’ plan and rescue Hilly. Wilder is a gifted enough comedian to carry the first hour of the film himself, but once he teams up with Pryor, their chemistry just leaps off the screen and it’s almost a shame the two actors couldn’t have been working together the entire movie. When the script for Silver Streak originally came to Wilder’s attention, he was quite keen on doing it, but was concerned about some of its racial elements. He believed that the only actor who could convincingly play Grover and prevent the role from beginning offensive was Richard Pryor, and thus their legendary teaming was born. The most famous sequence in Silver Streak involves George painting his face with shoe polish and disguising himself as a black man in order to avoid detection by the police. Needless to say, the scene is as politically incorrect as you can get and you would never, EVER see it in a major Hollywood film today, but Richard Pryor somehow knew to make it work. It was originally written in the script for a white character to walk in on George after he put on his blackface makeup and genuinely believe he was a black man. Pryor demanded that this be changed to a black character walking in on George and not being fooled by his disguise at all, and walked off the set until the director changed his mind. It’s no secret that Pryor was not the easiest actor to work with at this point (for a crazy drug-fueled Richard Pryor story, read my column on Blue Collar), but this is definitely a case where one of his temper tantrums served the greater good. Politically correct or not, you cannot deny that the scene is damn funny!
Even though Silver Streak is a comedy first and foremost, the thriller and action elements are also done very well. The stunts, chases and shootouts are all first-rate and the film delivers one hell of an exciting and spectacular climax involving the runaway Silver Streak crashing into a Chicago train station. I know I’ve made this same statement many times before, but the climax of Silver Streak is yet another example of an action sequence that would be done entirely with CGI today, but is way more exciting to watch when done in its old-school practical fashion. Incidentally, “Before They Were Stars” buffs should enjoy spotting a young Fred Willard in an early role as a train controller who nearly has a nervous breakdown when he finds out the Silver Streak is about to crash into his station. Anyway, I’ve never denied that quite a few of the films that I’ve featured in “Robin’s Underrated Gems” are pure formula films, but I’m always willing to pay tribute to formula films that are done really well. Because of its Hitchcockian influences, there isn’t much in Silver Streak that you haven’t seen before, and the Wilder-Pryor pairing resembles pretty much every other mismatched “odd couple” buddy team. However, I’ve always maintained that when these formulaic elements are skillfully handled and assembled together into a nice little package, they make for entertaining, unpretentious viewing. Silver Streak contains a lot of laughs, some great action sequences and wonderful chemistry between its two male leads, so what more can you really ask for? Even though its not the most well-know title in the filmographies of Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor, fans of both men owe it to themselves to check this one out.