Silver Streak (1976, dir. Arthur Hiller)
George Caldwell (Gene Wilder) is taking the Silver Streak train from Los Angeles to Chicago. While onboard he meets and spends the night with Hilly Burns (Jill Clayburgh), the secretary to a prominent art professor. George claims he saw the professor dead and thrown from the roof of the train and his investigation the next morning leads to him crossing paths with paid goons and being tossed from the train. A conspiracy behind the professor’s work is uncovered and George must team up with Grover Muldoon (Richard Pryor), a thief who ends up drug into the mess.
When Silver Streak was released, Gene Wilder was at his career peak. He’d come off of Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein. Previously, Wilder had struggled to find a breakout role. In retrospect, films like The Producers and Willy Wonka are spoken of fondly but at the time they were considered box offices failures whose love only came later with home video in the 1980s and 90s. Richard Pryor was as big a name and arguably bigger than Wilder at the time. By 1976, he’d had three comedy albums that went gold and hosted what became one of the great Saturday Night Live episodes. Before that, he’d cut his teeth as a writer on Sanford and Son as well as Blazing Saddles. He was set to play the co-lead with Wilder in Saddles but his volatile nature connected to his drug use caused studio heads to nix that idea.
The film was directed by Arthur Hiller, one of the big directors of the 1970s with features like Love Story, The Out of Towners, and The In-Laws. He worked frequently with playwright Neil Simon, however, Silver Streak was the work of Colin Higgins. Higgins was the screenwriter behind Harold and Maude and would go on to write and direct Foul Play, 9 to 5, and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.
The biggest thing you’ll notice while watching Silver Streak is that Pryor doesn’t appear onscreen until a full hour into the film. He’s billed third behind Jill Clayburgh and this appears to be because his roll was not meant to be as stand out. After reading the script, Wilder told the producers that the only way to keep elements in the film from becoming offensive would be to hire Pryor for the Grover role and allow him to bring his personality and point of view to the role. He was exactly right because, in scenes like the blackface disguise moment, Pryor is able to comment on white people and their exploitation of blackface in a way that most certainly came from his own mind. It’s very apparent to see why Pryor and Wilder would be teamed together for the next 15 years because they do have a wonderful chemistry together.
Speaking of chemistry, the relationship between Wilder and Clayburgh is one of the most convincing I’ve seen in a film. There was a certain type of naturalistic acting that worked its way into mainstream cinema in the 1970s that I think is present in the interaction between these two actors. It doesn’t hurt that both of them just have very magnetic, genuine, and charming personalities. You just can’t help but smile during their flirtation because it feels like you’re watching a real moment between two people who are attracted to each other.
The supporting cast is one of those great character actor showcases: Ned Beatty, Scatman Crothers, Patrick McGoohan, Ray Walston, Clifton James, and Richard Kiel. The roles are not that meaty on the page, but the actors bring dimensionality to the characters through their choices. The film is also very well-paced with Wilder’s series of ejections from the train marking the act breaks in a very clever manner. This will definitely be the strongest of the four Pryor/Wilder films in the series and serve as a benchmark to compare the subsequent pictures.