Sunday 28 October 2018

Movie Review: Silver Streak (1976)

A comedy thriller with buddy elements, Silver Streak is a reasonably slick production but too goofy as a thriller and not funny enough as a comedy.

Book publisher George Caldwell (Gene Wilder) boards the Silver Streak train in Los Angeles for a relaxing two day trip to Chicago, where he plans to attend his sister's wedding. On board he first meets vitamin salesman Bob Sweet (Ned Beatty), and then flirts with secretary Hilly Burns (Jill Clayburgh). In the middle of a passionate encounter with Hilly, George glimpses her boss Professor Schreiner, a Rembrandt scholar, being thrown to his death from the roof of the train.

Nobody seems to believe George but he doggedly investigates, and discovers that Schreiner was about to publish revelations harmful to corrupt businessman Roger Devereau (Patrick McGoohan). George finds himself threatened by Devereau's goons and repeatedly thrown off the train. With the body count mounting, he teams up with street thief Grover T. Muldoon (Richard Pryor) to rescue Hilly and crack the case.

Directed by Arthur Hiller, Silver Streak aims for a madcap action-filled tone, but only rarely flickers to life. A sloppy script by Colin Higgins does not even pretend to care about characters or logic, and so offers a tweedy book publisher happy to fire spearguns and handguns at bad guys without pausing to bat an eyelid. The central plot of the evil Devereau intent on silencing a meek professor does not stand up to even rudimentary scrutiny, and the supposed romance between George and Hilly remains shallow and suffers from a distinct lack of chemistry.

Hiller does better with some of the attempts at humour. The running gag has George repeatedly bundled off the moving train and forced to scramble his way back. An interlude with a crusty farmer (Lucille Benson) works well, but the frantic attempts to re-board the train with Grover feature an unfortunate and clumsy blackface incident.

The laughs dry up as the plot runs out of ideas and Higgins piles on the nonsense, including federal agents supplying Caldwell with a gun and ammunition and inviting him to join the climactic confrontation. Hiller has more budget than good material to work with, and the film ends with a soulless over-the-top helicopter / train chase and a spectacular crash. Silver Streak rolls along the tracks at a fast pace and features plenty of scenery, but delivers a glossy trip to blandsville.

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