Choo choo! Hello gumchewers, it’s Burl, here with a mile-long review of a 1970s train picture! I’m not talking about The Cassandra Crossing - ha ha, I have yet to see that one, but one day perhaps I will - nor The Great Train Robbery, nor Murder on the Orient Express! This one does feature murder, and there is also some robbery involved, and the picture in question is of course Silver Streak!
This is the kind of movie they did well in the 70s, and by that I mean movies with some sort of hook to attract the Evel Knevel-and-Superdome-besotted young people of the day! Here we have the train itself, called the Silver Streak though there’s nothing special about its speed or appearance, and the climax in which the engine crashes spectacularly through its Chicago terminus! Leading up to this great moment is a plot I won’t get into, because when bad guy Patrick McGoohan explains his nefarious scheme near the end of the picture, I didn’t understand a word of it! Ha ha!
Our main character is George, a mild-mannered editor of gardening books played by Gene Wilder, who’s taking the train to get some rest and relaxation! He first meets an obnoxious vitamin salesman (or so we think!) played by the excellent Ned Beatty from Rolling Vengeance, and then hooks up with prettylady Jill Clayburgh, known from It’s My Turn and several similar movies, here essaying the role of - well, to be honest, I was never sure exactly what her character was meant to be! Soon George witnesses an apparent murder, then is repeatedly thrown off the train by a pair of goons, Ray Walston from Galaxy of Terror and Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and Richard Kiel, playing the same spangle-toothed killer giant he does in The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker!
Eventually, more than an hour in to the picture, none other than Richard Pryor shows up! Ha ha, we certainly recall him from his adventures in Brewster’s Millions! He gives the proceedings a shot of energy they badly need and, by this point, barely deserve! Don’t get me wrong: the movie is generally entertaining even without Pryor, but Pauline Kael’s observation that Pryor briefly makes the movie into the comedy its makers had hoped it would be is well taken! However a scene in which Pryor tries to help his little white frizzy-haired buddy evade capture by smearing him with shoe polish and teaching him how to “act Black” nearly destroys the whole endeavor: only the movie’s profound, essential, guileless unhipness helps it survive this ill-considered passage! Ha ha!
Of course it’s all a big tribute to Hitch, and especially to North By Northwest; but the Wrong Man scenario is not played up as much as I was expecting it to be, which was something of a relief! The director, Arthur Hiller, who would use the success of this and his subsequent picture, The In-Laws, to launch a brave stab at eco-horror with Nightwing, keeps it all moving with the stolid momentum of a freight train, though if he’d pushed the throttle up to bullet train speeds, who knows what we might have had!
As you can see, the cast is generally great, with a properly cold-eyed performance from McGoohan, whom we recall from Scanners and Escape From Alcatraz! Ha ha, his demise is certainly a tent-capper! Clifton James from Juggernaut shows up, playing an only slightly less cartoony cracker sheriff than the one he essays in Bond pictures like Live and Let Die and The Man With the Golden Gun! We also get Stefan Gierasch from Blood Beach, Fred Willard from Moving Violations, and the great Scatman Crothers from The King of Marvin Gardens and The Shining, playing a porter of course! And there is a trio of obnoxious conventioneers played by Canadian acting staples Henry Beckman from The Brood, Steve Weston from Sudden Fury, and Harvey Atkin from Funeral Home! (Obnoxious conventioneers are themselves a convention in movies like this - ha ha, just look at Airport ’75, where the analogous triumvirate is played by Norman Fell, Conrad Janis and Jerry Stiller!)
There are some laffs here and there, for example in George’s repeated cries of “Son of a bitch!” whenever he’s thrown off the train, which is frequently! But there are tone-deaf scenes too, like the aforementioned blackface debacle; and another in which Wilder, in an effort either on his part or on the part of Colin Higgins’ script to make him seem unexpectedly virile and manly and domineering and bristling with alpha confidence, instructs Clayburgh on every pre-coital step as though he’s a director blocking her in a scene! Maybe it was a gay man’s imagining of straight foreplay, or maybe it was meant to show a hint of steel in George’s spine, or maybe Wilder demanded extra toughness in his character, but whatever the case it didn’t work for me!
But the big climax did! Tons of gunfire, helicopters buzzing around, a racing train smashing through the station, ha ha, it’s all pretty good! George personally kills two people dead in the picture, one of them with a harpoon, and this is not behavior we expect from Gene Wilder! So it gets points for that too, ha ha! As middlebrow comedy-suspense-action pictures go, it’s one of them and no mistake! I give Silver Streak two Rembrandt Letters!