Wilder plays non-fiction book publisher George Caldwell, who in Los Angeles boards the AllRoad Silver Streak train (modeled after Amtrack's Desert Wind) bound for Chicago. Recently divorced, he wants nothing more than two days of pleasant boredom. Instead, he quickly becomes romantically involved with fellow passenger Hilly Burns (Jill Clayburgh) and, in the midst of their lovemaking, is horrified to see a murdered man apparently fall past Hilly's stateroom window.
Further checking suggests the murdered man is Hilly's boss, an art historian named Professor Schreiner. When George goes to Schreiner's stateroom, he's confronted by gangster-type Edgar Whiney (Ray Walston) and thug Reace (7'2" Richard Kiel, wearing silver teeth one year before playing Jaws in The Spy Who Loved Me). Reace grabs George and abruptly throws him off the train.
George eventually gets back on board, only to find Hilly acting strangely, Professor Schreiner (Stefan Gierasch) mysteriously alive and well, and erudite art dealer Roger Devereau (Patrick McGoohan) offering a perfectly logical explanation for George's "hallucinations." Had he imagined everything?
Silver Streak is basically Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes (a conspiracy aboard a train so well executed that the protagonist's accusations seem foolish to everyone else) and North by Northwest (man framed for murder who becomes involved with a fellow train passenger while trying to prove his innocence) with the comic aspects only very slightly amplified. One of the strengths of Higgins's (Harold and Maude) script is that while the mystery-thriller aspects are derivative they're still superior to most "serious" thrillers. In other words, you could take out all the comedy and you'd still have a pretty good movie.
The filmmakers were also wise to play its first half-hour essentially straight, carefully establishing the characters and the mystery and thus allowing the comedy pay off later on. This kind of patience is refreshing partly because it's so rare in Hollywood movies today that write down to their ADD audiences, plus there are few actors who can move as effortlessly from the relative seriousness of the first act to the broad farce later on as Gene Wilder. He's extremely good throughout, creating a character that's an entirely believable everyman caught up in complex murder plot and swept up in a whirlwind romance. Wilder was so good at this sort of thing it's a shame he's never won an Oscar (though he was nominated for a Golden Globe for his work on Silver Streak).
It's interesting that everyone remembers Silver Streak as the first of four features in which Wilder was teamed with Richard Pryor, given the fact that the latter doesn't appear until the film is more than half over. But the pairing of streetwise Pryor and hopelessly un-hip Wilder made a big impression on audiences, partly because of their natural chemistry and the obvious affection they share both as characters and as actors.
The rest of the cast is equally impressive. Clayburgh deliberately recalls Eva Marie Saint's Eve Kendall in North by Northwest, while the always excellent McGoohan's intellectual villain is the equal of James Mason in Hitchcock's film. Walston, Gierasch, and Keil lend find support, while Scatman Crothers' role as Ralston the porter kicked off a mini-Renaissance for that veteran character player. Clifton James appears in yet another variation of his redneck sheriff character from the Bond movies, while Lucille Benson adds to her long list of charmingly dotty old ladies.
Video & Audio
Fox has given Silver Streak a decent 16:9 transfer at 1.77:1, approximating its original 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio. The image is sharp with good color. The audio, typical of its era, is available in 2.0 English mono and stereo, with mono tracks also available in French and Spanish, along with English and Spanish subtitles.
The only supplement is a spoiler-filled Trailer, also 16:9, best watched after you've seen the movie.
You wouldn't think a comedy as seemingly mild as Silver Streak still would prove so immensely enjoyable today, but it is. Its expert cast, led by the irreplaceable Gene Wilder, and Colin Higgins's solidly constructed script keep it grounded, and it's as funny and enjoyable as it was when it was new.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.