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George Caldwell (Gene Wilder) is a book editor traveling from Los Angeles to Chicago to attend his sister’s wedding, booked on the Silver Streak, a sleeper train where he is hoping to do some work. His cabin has an adjoining room he discovers when he inadvertently opens the jammed door and walks in on a woman undressing. Good start. Her name is Hilly Burns (Jill Clayburgh), and the two are instantly attracted. The two meet up later in the diner car, and he learns that she works for art historian on a tour to promote his latest book about famed painter Rembrandt. This will have great significance as the story unfolds.
Caldwell also meets a vitamin salesmen named Bob Sweet (Ned Beatty), who seems to be looking for some action. But it’s George who hooks up first as he and Hilly go back to her cabin. They begin to get romantic but just as things get heated up, George sees a dead man dangling out the train window. It falls away before Hilly can see it and she convinces him that, having been drinking, he might not have seen exactly what he thinks it was. He relents and decides to let it go.
The next morning though, he sees the art book and the author’s photograph and claims he is the same man he saw fall past the window. But then he meets Hilly’s boss and the author is alive. Or is he? It is here meets debonair and lofty art dealer Roger Devereau (Patrick McGoohan) and it’s not long before George comes face to face with one of Devereau’s henchman, a giant of a man named Reace (Richard Kiel), who throws George off the train. It won’t be the last time. Clearly, something is up.
Directed by Arthur Hiller, Silver Streak is a rare gem, a comedy on the outside but a tense action thriller on the inside. With Wilder in the lead, and his reputation for absurdist humor, one might immediately suspect it would follow in line with other films he made famous, such as Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein. Then add Richard Pryor to the cast and it would be easy to think that this is a straight-up comedy though it’s anything but. While there are some truly funny moments, and Wilder and Pryor (in their first of four film pairings) are exceptionally gifted comedians, there is a surprising amount of drama to the film, and even the humor isn’t so unbelievable.
Pryor plays Grover T. Muldoon, a thief that ends up helping Caldwell get back on the train and save the women he has fallen in love with. Pryor doesn’t have the same amount of screen time as Wilder, but is sensationally effective as a smooth-talking man of the streets who has a few surprises of his own when it comes to the rescue game. Wilder and Pryor are a remarkable duo, comically gifted of course, but their dynamic runs deeper than laughs. Most comedy teams rely on the straight man trope to carry the jokes, but Wilder and Pryor play off each other in less obvious ways, switching roles scene after scene, and then gliding effortlessly back into the drama. It’s a rare thing to see such mastery of this technique and there is an argument to be made that these were the greatest there ever was.
What works best is the organic nature of the humor and tension. Nothing feels contrived, with every joke and action moment given proper weight and time to hit their mark. Consider the famous shoe polish scene where Caldwell applies black shoe polish on his face to appear like a black man. There is much about the way this moment builds and lasts that is a testament to the director, but mostly the actors (Pryor rewrote the scene after some concern with the original, even walking off set). Blackface is always a troublesome stunt, but Pryor and Wilder make it work.
The real heart of the story though is actually the Silver Streak herself, a fictional train refitted to appear like a real passenger train of the era. An ever-present part of the story, its constant motion and confined spaces make it a unique setting that few directors manage to capture well. There is something majestic about the beautifully designed engine and long line of cars. It has a terrific personality as each of the cars seem to have their own individuality, the continuous clickety-clack on the track almost become comforting as the story progresses. Any fan of thrillers and comedy will surely enjoy this supremely-made movie, but lovers of the railway will be doubly entertained. A true classic.
Director: Arthur Hiller
Writer: Colin Higgins
Stars: Gene Wilder, Richard Pryor, Jill Clayburgh, Patrick McGoohan, Ned Beatty