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 more current 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” (click here for my review) and “Silver Streak.” I’ll look at “Silver Streak” today. It’s a murder mystery on a train and the main character winds up chasing the train for part of the film. I have no doubt you’ll enjoy it.
(1976; 114 minutes; rated PG; directed by Arthur Hiller and starring Gene Wilder, Richard Pryor and Jill Clayburgh)
GENE WILDER SAVES THE DAY
(NOTE: I expanded this review with additional opinion and trivia and the updating of links on March 22, 2020.)
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 the glacially-paced “Chariots of Fire” (read a “British film” – click here for my review), but it’s also not slam-bang action like in the degradingly vile “Shoot ’Em Up” (click here for my look at it).
The plot here is that Wilder as “George Caldwell” 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 as “Grover T. Muldoon” before everything winds up in a destroyed Chicago train station.
The streamlined description of the plot doesn’t do justice to the nice details, dialogue and executive of both that makes this movie work. The actors do a good job, the director does a good job and the production, while looking like the 1970s, doesn’t detract in any way. That all adds up to a positive review.
Now, let me look at some of the primary cast …
- A two-time Oscar nominee (not for this one), Wilder was coming off two classic comedies from Mel Brooks in 1974: “Blazing Saddles” (click here for my review) and the quirky “Young Frankenstein.” In this one, I’d say that deep comedic roots help him breeze through the film with just the right amount of drama leavened by his ability to make you laugh at the drop of a dime. Although no Oscar nomination here, Wilder was nominated for a Golden Globe with this one. You’ll remember him from “Wily Wonka & the Chocolate Factory” and he had slim resume of only 37 credits spanning five decades. He was nominated for writing for “Young Frankenstein” and for best supporting actor in original film production of “The Producers.” Wilder died in 2016 at 83 from complications from Alzheimer’s Disease.
- While Wilder gets the most camera time here, Clayburgh, who was a two-time Oscar nominee (not for this one), 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). Clayburgh spit out curses galore in an uneven effort with Burt Reynolds and Kris Kristofferson in “Semi-Tough” (click here for my review) and was also nominated for “Starting Over” with Reynolds. I also liked her in a small role in the light comedy “Fools Rush In.”
- A Primetime Emmy winner and three-time nominee, Pryor, who was co-writer along with Mel Brooks and two others of the “Blazing Saddles” screenplay, doesn’t get much of a chance to show much of his talents in this one, 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 – but would be derided today. 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 (click here for my review). He won his Emmy as part of a 13-person writing team (including Lorne Michaels and Lily Tomlin) for “Lily.” He wasn’t great, but was watchable with legendary entertainer Jackie Gleason in “The Toy” (click here for my review). Pryor died at 65 in 2005 of a heart attack.
- The most efficient actor in “Silver Streak” is smooth and suave Patrick McGoohan, a two-time Primetime Emmy winner who plays murderous rich man “Roger Deveraux.” McGoohan, 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. He won is Emmys for separate episodes on the iconic “Columbo” TV series. McGoohan died at 80 in 2009.
A few supporting characters are worthy of note, too …
- An Oscar nominee (not for this one), 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 “FBI Agent Stevens,” whose undercover name is “Bob Sweet” and he’s on McGoohan’s trail. Beatty, who also did a voice-over for “Toy Story 3,” turns in his usual solid job here. He was nominated for “Network” and has a prolific 167 acting credits spanning five decades with the last being in 2013. He was simply wonderful in drama in “The Big Easy” (click here for my review), but he could also do comedy (try for good with “Back to School” with Rodney Dangerfield – click here for my review – or in a terrible effort with Burt Reynolds in “Stroker Ace” – click here for my review).
- Kind of cast out of character is two-time Primetime Emmy winner and nominee Ray (“My Favorite Martian”) Walston. Instead of the genial alien from the famous TV show, Walston plays “Edgar 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. He won his Emmys and got his nomination for the series “Picket Fences.” Walston was in “The Sting” with Robert Redford and Paul Newman but is likely most recognized as longsuffering teacher “Mr. Hand” in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” He had a prolific career of 155 credits from the first in 1954 and the last was in 2001, which was the year he died at 86 of lupus.
- Another 007 supporting character in “Silver Streak” is Clifton James, who plays “Sheriff Oliver Chauncey” here. James played redneck Louisiana sheriff “J.W. Pepper” in two Bond films, “Live and Let Die” (click here for my review) and “The Man With the Golden Gun” (click here for my review). Despite his cornpone antics, James has also notched some roles in dramatic films such as “Cool Hand Luke” with Paul Newman. He died at 96 in 2017 of complications from diabetes.
- Finally, I come to Richard Kiel, who plays tough-guy “Rece.” Kiel is most famously “Jaws” in the “James Bond” film franchise and gust 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). Kiel wasn’t just some metal-mouthed villain. He was in comedy (Adam Sandler’s “Happy Gilmore” – click here for my review); drama (Clint Eastwood’s “Pale Rider”); on television (“Out of this World”); and even voiced video games. He died at 74 in 2014 of a “possible” heart attack, according to com.
Overall, I grade this one out as solid entertainment. There’s no insult to your intelligence such as you’ll find in all too many of offerings today and the filmmakers just weren’t looking for a way to speed you to the next scene where they can use CGI.
You’ll have to relax a little because this one doesn’t move along crisply at all times. However, don’t worry. You’ll probably not even notice (even though I’ve pointed it out to you).
“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 for 1976, “Silver Streak” earned $51 million on a budget of $6.5 million, according to Wiki, and was the eighth-ranked movie in ticket sales. The No. 1 film was “Rocky” with $117.2 million. Here are other films from 1976 that I’ve reviewed for my blog:
- “All the President’s Men” (political drama) – click here for my review
- “The Enforcer” (tepid ‘Dirty Harry’) – click here for my review
- “The Gumball Rally” (outstanding car flick) – click here for my review
- “Midway” (classic WWII flick) – click here for my review
- “The Omen” (excellent horror) – click here for my review
- “The Outlaw Josey Wales” (Clint’s best western) – click here for my review
- “The Shootist” (John Wayne’s last film) – click here for my review
- “Two-Minute Warning” (so-so thriller) – click here for my review
Assorted cast and film notes via IMDb.com:
- “Silver Streak” was nominated for an Oscar! It was for best sound, but at least that’s an Oscar nomination.
- The film was penned by Colin Higgins, who wrote “Harold and Maude” and followed this one up with “Foul Play,” “Nine to Five” (click here for my review) and “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.”
- 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 with filmmakers, fearing a poor reception of train operations, so it was filmed in Canada with the cooperation of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Amtrak officials afraid of bad PR? America’s corporate weasels have been and will always be weasels, won’t they?
- 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.
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