Silver Streak (1976)
Dir: Arthur Hiller
Scr: Colin Higgins
Let’s file Silver Streak into the “films as old as me that I had not seen until now”-folder. As I’m writing this on August 13th 2017, I’ve turned 41 – the movie opened on December of 1976 so technically it’s a few months younger but that’s just semantics. I have been aware of the films existence – the first memory I have is seeing a trailer for it playing on a TV screen at some video-store (VHS, baby!) in…I wanna say the latter half of the 80’s and I remember seeing Richard Kiel on screen and thinking “oh, so is this like a James Bond-picture or what…?“.
Yeah – I wasn’t very film-savvy back then.
And the VHS-era really was pretty much where Silver Streak stayed; I sure as hell haven’t seen any DVD-release for it here in Finland (had to check, and I was right: only a UK-import DVD has been available and gone out of print long ago) and if it has played on TV, I’ve missed the occasion. But, thanks to the wondrous world of internet I managed to catch it now.
The amusing thing about the movie is that as it has very clear four-act structure, every act is played almost in a totally different genre, so instead of doing the usual plot run-through I decided to look at each act as a separate piece, so here we go (DISCLAIMER: IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THIS; TURN AWAY AS I’M GONNA SPOIL THE EVERLOVING HELL OUT OF THIS ONE):
ACT ONE: THE HITCHCOCKIAN SETUP
We are introduced to our main character, book editor George Caldwell (Gene Wilder), who takes the titular train “Silver Streak” from Los Angeles to Chicago. He is going to his sister’s wedding and plans to use the longer trip to get some work done. Of course, as the road to hell is paved with best intentions, he never gets any work done; instead he meets a horny vitamin sales-rep named Bob Sweet (Ned Beatty) who implants an idea to George’s head that these train-rides are a really good opportunity to get laid. George meets up with a woman from the adjoining cabin, Hilly (Jill Clayburgh) and the two end up having a long lunch, with mucho alcohol spent. They then retire to their cabin, which has a removable wall in the middle and becomes quite a nice place after that is take care of. Their intimate moment is interrupted, as George sees a bloodied body of a man hanging outside the window before it drops off the train. The next morning George recognizes from a photograph, that the dead man was in fact Hilly’s boss, an art-historian named Professor Schreiner (Stefan Gierasch). Hilly doesn’t believe George’s story and thinks he was imagining the whole thing – but George wants to go check the Professor’s cabin. As he gets there, he finds some shady thugs ransacking the room. One of them, Whiney (Ray Walston) orders another one, Reace (Richard Kiel, looking very much like Jaws from the Bond-pictures) to throw George out of the train.
This first act plays very much like a Hitchcock-film; an everyman hero is introduced, he meets some of the supporting characters like the sex-starved Sweet and the friendly Porter Ralston (Scatman Crothers) and of course the leading lady. It plays as the kind of romantic comedic film right up until the hero sees a horrific act of murder, but as he has been drinking quite a lot before, no one believes his outlandish story. So he has to investigate it by himself. I’d say that this part is the most like the movies that Wilder had been known for before, only he’s maybe slightly more subdued than usual: sort of an everyman character, charming, witty, romantic, clumsy. I read some reviews where people complained that Clayburgh felt underwritten or miscast: I disagree – I found the repartee between her and Wilder very entertaining. Especially their foreplay that is pretty much dialogue about gardening. If anything, it’s after this first act that her character sort of fades in the background and becomes more of a traditional “damsel in distress”. And Ned Beatty is…Ned Beatty. In my books, the man has never given a bad performance in his life.
ACT TWO: THE CHASE & MYSTERY
After George gets thrown off the train, he makes it into a nearby farm. The owner, Rita Babtree (the wonderful Lucille Benson who I remember from Steven Spielberg‘s Duel and 1941), who after some confusion – and a hilarious attempt by George to milk a cow – agrees to take George into the next town the train will stop in. By car? Oh no – she has a biplane so the trip won’t take much time at all. Back in the train, George meets Sweet in the diner car and spots Hilly talking to a wealthy art-dealer named Roger Devereau (Patrick McGoohan). Following Hilly, George makes it back to their Cabin and as he’s trying to explain to Hilly what he saw earlier, Whiney shows up. George is very confused until Devereau comes in and apologizes him for the “misunderstanding”. And then the Professor show up – very much alive! They explain to him that Devereau is in the middle of some business with the Professor and Whiney and Reace were just trying to find something in his cabin and got a little bit carried away. Embarrassed, George makes his way into the club car and begins to drink. He then tells the entire crazy story to Sweet, who believes him – and the reveals himself to be an FBI Agent named Stevens and he has been investigating Devereau for years now: apparently the professor had discovered some letters from Rembrandt which he intended to go public with and this would’ve exposed Devereau as a fraud, so he had him killed and intended to have one of his henchmen – posing as the professor – to foil the publication (incidentally, The Naked Gun 2 1/2 kinda sorta used this exact type of doppelganger plot-device again years later). The letters are clearly the McGuffin of the picture and Deverau’s men are desperately trying to find them now – as it turns out, George unknowingly already found them earlier and just threw them in his briefcase. As the two go to get them, the train goes into a tunnel and Stevens gets shot. George is then chased to the roof by Reace but he manages to shoot him with a speargun, but accidentally falls off the train AGAIN.
The second act starts much more action-oriented, with the biplane chasing the train and whatnot. There’s great interplay between Wilder and Benson (who could be as well playing the snake lady from Duel again – maybe after her snake farm was mauled by the truck in that movie she moved somewhere else). Then we get introduced to the main villain – and Patrick McGoohan is just as slimy as he is in all of those appearances he made in Columbo over the years – he could do this kinda stuff in his sleep, I presume. With the various different plot-twists and character-reveals, this segment is also much more fast-paced than the slow buildup of the first act. The fate of Richard Kiel – death with a speargun! That will get referred again by characters because of the sheer clever insanity of it – and Wilder getting knocked off the train for the simple reason of not minding his surroundings and getting hit by an overhanging signal end this act in a rather slapstick-y manner and now we see that Wilder yelling “son of a bitch!!!” after being thrown off is turning into a running gag.
ACT THREE: THE BUDDY-COMEDY
George stumbles into a nearby town and meets Sheriff Pepper – okay, it’s really “Sheriff Chauncey” but he’s played by Clifton James (another James Bond-connection this film has!) and pretty much has the same characteristics as that particular lawman. As George is – once again – trying to explain his ever-more-outrageous story, the sheriff get a call: turns out that Deverau has framed George for the murder of Agent Stevens (and as George tries to explain, he ends up indicting himself for the deaths of the professor and Reace as well). Fortunately, the Sheriff was dumb enough to leave his gun on his desk while answering the phone, so George manages to grab that and hijack a patrol car that arrives to the station. As he drives away, Grover T. Muldoon rises from the backseat and scares him almost to death – hello, Richard Pryor! -Grover is a thief and a hustler, but he has a certain code of honor so as George helped him escape he agrees to now help George get to the trains next stop: Kansas City. After they wreck the patrol car while going through a roadblock, they steal a sports car and get to KC in not time. But the station is now swarming with cops and feds, so Grover sneaks George past them by camouflaging him with a blackface via shoe-polish (this was probably a pretty eyebrow-raising scene even at the time, but I think Wilder’s certain type of wide-eyed innocence makes it work). They make it into the train, but George gets captured soon after by the remaining Devereau thugs. Grover, posing as a waiter, manages to save him and Hilly, but after the situation breaks into a firefight inside a cargo car, the two are forced to jump off – cue another “son of a bitch!” by Wilder.
Here’s where the movie takes the most noticeable genre-switch, as Pryor enters the picture. Note, that he shares the top billing with Wilder even though his arrival is about midway through the story; but he was THE comedy-superstar at the time so he sure earned that prerogative. Now, Wilder and Pryor ALMOST co-starred in a movie before – the part of Sheriff Bart in Blazing Saddles was very much meant for Pryor (as he was one of the writers in that film), but his drug-fueled antics were already pretty infamous at the time so the studio vetoed that. But the two have an amazing chemistry together – it’s no wonder that this was the start of a teaming that would produce three more pictures after this; Stir Crazy (1980), See no evil, Hear no evil (1989) and Another You (1991). It’s like the picture gets almost struck by lightning as these two start their verbal sparring. This act also amps up the action quota with the car chases, car crashes and gunfights. And “amping up the action” segues us nicely into:
ACT FOUR: THE DISASTER MOVIE
After they have jumped off, George and Grover get arrested and taken to the feds, where the lead Agent named Donaldson (Len Birman) explains that they in fact faked the murder charge just so they could talk to George. George tells the whole story and the feds arrange for the train to be stopped. Grover is released, while George wants to go to with the feds to try and save Hilly from any harm. Donaldson actually gives him a gun – here’s where the story goes into fantasyland a bit; why in the HELL would a Federal Agent give a civilian a gun? But, that’s movie magic for ‘ya. As the train is stopped and the passengers evacuated, Devereau burn the McGuffins (letters) and as he and his crew prepare to depart, they see George arrive with the feds. A gunfight ensues, Whiney and Johnson (the one posing as the professor) are killed. Devereau manages to get the train moving while George and Grover – the ever-loyal companion who followed them – get on board. Donaldson, chasing the train via helicopter, shoots Devereau. But as he has tampered with the “dead man’s switch”, the train does not stop but accelerates full-speed towards the station at the end of the line. With the help of Porter Ralston George, Grover and Hilly manage to detach the last car just in time before the train crashes into the station, causing massive destruction. While George and Hilly plan to have a much-delayed dinner, Grover drives away with a sports car that was on display at the station.
The fourth act is the most action-oriented one, an it does showcase some excellent stuntwork and helicopter-work. The end-crash looks incredibly realistic – to the point that you kinda wonder how in the hell didn’t dozens of people die amidst that carnage. I thought it was done with miniatures and some trick photography but as I did some checking, it turned out they used real-size replicas of the train and the station and filmed the whole thing in an airplane hangar. The crash seems to kinda come from nowhere and fells a bit out of place. My theory is that because this was the mid-seventies and the disaster movie-craze was at it’s peak, they wanted to do a scene like this.
So, how did I like the movie? I have to say I enjoyed the hell out of it. Shame it took this long to see it but better late than never, right? It’s kinda amazing that with all these different genre elements and the twisty-turny plot it all holds together, but I have to give director Arthur Hiller the credit for making that happen. It’s funny, it’s thrilling, it’s exciting, it’s action-packed (actually surprisingly graphically violent at times, but hey – that’s the mid-seventies PG for you!), has one hell of a cast and a very groovy score by the maestro Henry Mancini himself, so whats not to like?.
The story actually has a lot of similarities to screenwriter Colin Higgins‘ following film Foul Play (1978); a thriller-comedy with a sprawling conspiracy-plot, two comedians as leads (Goldie Hawn and Chevy Chase). And even a sex-crazed supporting character (Dudley Moore in that one). Come to think of it – the two films might make a good double feature…