I’ve always enjoyed murder mysteries on TV, especially series such as TV’s “Columbo” and “Monk.” They’re enjoyable. I haven’t been a big fan of the same genre on the big screen despite classics like “Vertigo” or “Psycho” to today’s mysteries such as “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.” However, there’s a brief time in the mid- to late-70s when a few caught my eye including “Foul Play” and “Silver Streak.” I’ll look at “Silver Streak” today.
(1976; 114 minutes; rated PG; directed by Arthur Hiller and starring Gene Wilder, Richard Pryor and Jill Clayburgh)
GENE WILDER SAVES THE DAY
It’s always nice to see a murder mystery when it’s done right and the filmmakers and cast got it right with “Silver Streak,” a mid-1970s effort that teamed up Gene Wilder and comedian Richard Pryor in the case of a murdered professor aboard a train going from Los Angeles to Chicago.
The pacing on this one is evenly distributed so that none of the scenes appear hurried, there’s plenty of time for plot development, but it does get into gear when necessary. It’s not as slow as “Chariots of Fire,” but it’s also not slam-bang action like in “Shoot ‘Em Up.”
The plot here is that Wilder stumbles upon a murder while on the train and then spends the rest of the film either being thrown or jumping off the train and trying to catch up so he can save Jill Clayburgh, who plays the love interest “Hilly Burns.” Along the way he teams up with Pryor before everything winds up in a destroyed Chicago train station.
Wilder was coming off the classic comedy “Blazing Saddles” from 1974 and the quirky comedy “Young Frankenstein” the same year before working the more dramatic turn, but with comedy included, as “George Caldwell” in “Silver Streak.”
I believe his deep comedic roots help him breeze through this one with just the right amount of drama leavened by his ability to make you laugh at the drop of a dime. It doesn’t hurt that it is penned by Colin Higgins, who wrote “Harold and Maude” and followed this one up with “Foul Play,” “Nine to Five” and “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.”
While Wilder gets the most camera time here, Clayburgh comes in second and holds her end up well. She’s the murder victim’s secretary and helps Wilder through his adventure and does a smooth job in her part that is unlike her Oscar-nominated role in “An Unmarried Woman” in 1979 or her turn in the comedy “Bridesmaids” from 2011 (she died of leukemia in 2010 after shooting on “Bridesmaids” was complete).
Pryor, who was co-writer along with Mel Brooks and two others of the “Blazing Saddles” screenplay, doesn’t get to show much of his talents here, although the scene where he smears shoe polish on Wilder’s face and tries to coach him how to move like a black man is classic. He’s a worldly-wise crook who hooks up with Wilder, who steals a police car and finds Pryor inside. He would star again beside Wilder in “Stir Crazy” and have a showcase role in “Harlem Nights” with Eddie Murphy.
The most efficient actor in “Silver Streak” is suave Patrick McGoohan, who plays murderous rich man “Roger Deveraux.” McGoodhan, best known for TV’s “The Prisoner” and as the warden in Clint Eastwood’s “Escape from Alcatraz,” quietly delivers a solid performance that adds up pretty well by the closing credits.
A few other supporting characters are worthy of note, too.
Veteran TV and film character actor Ned Beatty, who has worked several times with Burt Reynolds and is mostly pitied for what he had to play in “Deliverance” (it was his first acting credit), plays an FBI agent on McGoohan’s trail. Beatty, who also did a voice-over for “Toy Story 3,” turns in his usual solid job here.
Kind of cast out of character is Ray (“My Favorite Martian”) Walston. Instead of the genial alien from the famous TV show, Walston plays “Mr. Whiney,” who is McGoohan’s enforcer (that’s right, he’s a tough guy here). Walston pulls off the role well and actually manages to convey menace.
Finally, I come to Richard Kiel, who plays tough-guy “Rece.” Kiel is most famously “Jaws” in the “James Bond” film franchise and guest spots on many TV shows, but he makes his appearance here in all his metal-mouth glory before his first role as a 007 villain the next year. Here, he tosses Wilder off the train once and is shot with a speargun (yes, a speargun on a train).
“Silver Streak” does have its dated moments, such as the bottle of Tab on a dinner table or the comment by a staff member about conventioneers aboard the train: “I thought it was bad enough with the hippies on board. Now we got their fathers.”
At the box office, “Silver Streak” earned $51 million on a budget of $6.5 million, according to Wiki, and was the eighth-ranked movie in ticket sales in 1976.
Some other cast notes (from myself and via IMDb.com):
- Another 007 supporting character in “Silver Streak” is Clifton James, who plays “Sheriff Chauncey” here. James was rural sheriff “J.W. Pepper” in two Bond films, “Live and Let Die” and “The Man With the Golden Gun.” Despite his cornpone antics, James has also notched some roles in dramatic films such as “Cool Hand Luke” with Paul Newman.
- The very busy and drastically funny Fred Willard, who has 264 acting credits on his resume, has a small part here as a train station administrator. Willard has had roles over six decades from TV shows such as “Love, American Style” to today’s “Modern Family” and has been a stuck-up father many times, including on TV’s “Everybody Loves Raymond” and the film “American Wedding.”
- The Amtrak organization refused to cooperate, fearing a poor reception of train operations, so it was filmed in Canada with the cooperation of the Canadian Pacific Railway.
- IMDb.com notes that Wilder’s character has a first name of “George” while Clayburgh’s has “Burns.” (Actor George Burns, get it?) and at one point one character asks someone, “Jack, have you seen Benny?” (Comedian Jack Benny, get it?) Ha. Ha.