Our Fall '97 Film Series, in which all films must have trains (or the word "train" in the title) has its first entry in 1976's Silver Streak, a vehicle for the then-hot property Gene Wilder. You may remember Wilder from Blazing Saddles or Young Frankenstein, and though he has disappeared from the Hollywood firmament as of late, there was a time when he was one of the funniest men on film.
Silver Streak is the movie where a train crashes through the wall of a station with spectacular results. And if you're close to our age (and the statistics indicate you probably are) this is an indelible image from your childhood. Of course we weren't allowed to see it till years and years later, due to the colorful metaphors some of the character use. The same thing happened to us with Alien. Of course by today's standard neither movie is nothing special in the crudity or violence department, but hey, things change.
The film's major focus is George Caldwell (Wilder), who takes a train trip to Chicago. Unexpectedly, he has a torrid affair with the beautiful Hilly Burns (veteran actress Jill Clayburgh), an art historian's assistant. The process of their mutual seduction is entrancing; Wilder makes an unlikely but charming suitor to Clayburgh's sweet-yet-wiley coquette. Their lovemaking is interrupted, however, by George's sudden glimpse of Hilly's employer, Professor Schreiner, hanging dead outside their compartment window. Shaken, Hilly bids George to forget about this vision, which must be an hallucination, and they let it go till morning.
In the morning, however, it becomes clear that Caldwell was probably not hallucinating. Strange men hover around the professor's compartment, and when George attempts to discover the truth, he is thrown bodily from the train. From there it's up to George to catch up to the train, solve the mystery, rescue Hilly, and stop the evil Patrick McGoohan character from carrying out his evil plans.
It should be mentioned this movie was shot and takes place in the Seventies. The height of the Seventies. You have been warned. You watch this movie and you will be subjected to music by Henry Mancini, people wearing flared trousers, and some of the butt-ugliest Jaguars ever to grace the asphault. The memories will come crashing back, as welcome as an avalanche of chilled fish heads.
No one could deny the debt this movie (directed by Arthur Hiller, before he made his bid to be a 'Yahoo Serious' look-a-like) owes to various Hitchcock movies, mainly The Lady Vanishes and North By Northwest, as well as appropriating a couple of gags from Buster Keaton. But Silver Streak also has a weird synergy with the James Bond movies of the Seventies. First of all, Clifton James reprises his signature role of the annoying redneck sheriff that he played in the first two James Bond movies starring Roger Moore. It was touch and go there for a while, but luckily Sheriff Pepper didn't appear in more than Live and Let Die and Man With the Golden Gun. Here James plays Sheriff Chauncey, but it's the same shtick and it's just as unwelcome here as in the Bond films.
Not nearly as unwelcome is Richard Kiel, playing a thug with bad dental work. In other words, Jaws from The Spy Who Loved Me. Oddly, in this case Silver Streak predates Kiel's role in The Spy Who Loved Me by a year. And let us just add that Richard Kiel is a joy to watch in what ever movie he's in, whether it's the Human Duplicators or Moonraker. In another crucial supporting role is Ned Beatty, the greatest actor of this or any other generation (according to Jay Sherman). He doesn't really do much here, but it's nice that he's present anyway.
Silver Streak was a fitting beginning to our series of train films: it's funny, has an interesting story, and even features a coherent Richard Pryor. If all Gene Wilder/Richard Pryor films had been as good as this one, they might still be making movies today.
Review date: 10/10/97
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