Taking Alfred Hitchcock‘s concept of a man in far over his head in North by Northwest to absurd levels, director Arthur Hiller’s Silver Streak provided not only an enjoyable comedic thriller but also the first opportunity to pair Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor on-screen together. And, once again proving my Train Theory (that all things being equal, movies with trains are better than similiar movies without), this is still their best collaboration.
When George Caldwell (Wilder) boards the Silver Streak, a train from Los Angeles to Chicago, on his way to his sister’s wedding, looking for no more than two days of relaxation and boredom he has no idea the journey he is actually embarking on. On the train he meets the lovely Hilly Burns (Jill Clayburgh) and during a romantic night in his cabin a rather drunk and distracted George sees the body of Hilly’s boss Professor Gierasch (Stefan Gierasch) fall from the roof of the train.
Convinced by Hilly that he might have imagined the whole thing, George sets out to finds the professor which gets him thrown of the train for the first (but certainly not last) time in the movie by two thugs (Richard Kiel, Ray Walston) working for the devilish Roger Devereau (Patrick McGoohan). Two more murders and two trips off the train later, George, Hilly, and small town thief Grover Muldoon (Pryor) work to try and catch Devereau and his men and find a way off the runaway train before it hits Chicago.
Wilder’s madcap hysterical humor is a joy to watch. The scene where George tries to explain the ridiculous situation to an incredulous small town sheriff (Clifton James) and ends up stealing his gun and car is comic gold. And for you comedy movie connoisseurs, listen carefully for a recurring joke that is stolen and used quite well years later by Kevin Kline in A Fish Called Wanda.
Although Pryor doesn’t make his first appearance until nearly halfway through the film, his scenes with Wilder carry the second half of the movie. The iconic scene where Pryor teaches Wilder how to pose as a black man almost never happened as Pryor thought the scene was racist and nearly backed out of the film. Rewritten by Pryor and Wilder, the scene is still pretty politically incorrect by today’s standards, but matches the absurd comedy of the rest of the film and delivers one of the best sequences of the pair together on screen.
Much like the movie that inspired it, Silver Streak puts a normal man in an extraordinary situation of lies, deceit, and murder (although to an exacerbated madcap effect). The first of Pryor and Wilder’s collaborations remains their best. Re-released on DVD and now available on Blu-ray for the first time, the home video versions are sadly lacking in even a single extra or featurette. Still, it’s an easy recommendation to make.