Sunday, March 05, 2017


And now, a dispatch from the Favorites of Youth Revisited Department.

After a long day at work a couple nights ago I sunk into my chair and threw on Silver Streak (1976), courtesy of Netflix Streaming, having not seen it in probably 30 years, at least. You know, one of my favorite things is going back to check out a movie I liked as a kid and discovering that it holds up well, that the things which tickled me about it way back before I became the sophisticated aesthete I am today (…) are still a source of guiltless pleasure. Unfortunately, outside of the presence of Richard Pryor, who doesn't show up until around minute 65 of this nearly two-hour picture, Silver Streak has precious little to recommend to the unrepentant nostalgiac in 2017.

Because for an action-comedy/Hitchcock pastiche, or more accurately an action-comedy movie with a few cursory nods toward the “Hitchcock tradition” (a.k.a. some well-worn plot devices favored by the director), this is a surprisingly flaccid, suspense-parched affair. Most of that Pryor-less first hour is taken up by a steam-free romance between Gene Wilder, a publisher of art books taking an aimless holiday, and Jill Clayburgh, assistant to a famous art professor who just happens to be on board the same passenger train. Their interminably paced flirtation and eventual kissy time is diluted even further by intercut montages of the titular train moving across the landscape in long-shot to the sleepy strains of Henry Mancini's John Williams-in-disaster-romance-mode-esque score. (A little of that one theme goes a loooong way in this picture.)

But even when the gears of the did-he-see-a-murder-or-didn't-he? plot finally kick in (it’s Clayburgh’s boss who may or may not have been glimpsed dangling from the roof of the train on his way to eternity), the movie still never gathers up its slack-- director Arthur Hiller, a determined anti-stylist, was never one to get the pulse pounding, and the limp trajectory of this would-be thriller suggests heavy sedation on his part.

The Pryor character's seemingly random insertion into Colin Higgins' script is welcome, but outside of that famous bit in the train station, this is a pretty tepid pairing. (For the easily triggered and/or the foggy of memory, that scene involves shoe polish, a radio and a lot of shuck and jive-- on her way to bed, my daughter stopped and watched in horror, completely confused by whatever weird movie I'd decided to suffer through this time.) Higgins never figures out what to do with his team besides black guy keeping white guy company, despite a few isolated moments (perhaps improvised?) when Pryor shows us a flash of the anger underneath his genial persona that would never get a chance to rage outside of his concert films, and consequently Wilder and Pryor never really get many sparks going. (I seem to recall that they had a better connection in Stir Crazy, but after this time-travel experiment I'm not entirely eager to find out if my memory is correct.) The thing that their pairing in Silver Streak did make me think of was the missed opportunity, due to studio nerves, to see them together two years earlier in Blazing Saddles, along with the fact that of all the great comics in movie history Pryor’s specific talents as a satirist, or even just a physical performer, might be among the most ill-used.

Pryor, however, remains the best reason to see Silver Streak, outside of the brief cameo by everyone's favorite desert dweller, Lucille Benson ("Where you goin', Steve??!!")—a friend suggests, rightly I think, that however dull Silver Streak might be, it’s probably the closest movie audiences ever came to getting what they really wanted from Pryor, even after having had to wait so long to get it. But on just about every other count this alleged express is one logy ride—even Gene Wilder’s occasional apoplexy seems uninspired-- and it doesn't hold a candle to the delirious trashy fun of a doomed all-star train voyage like the one undertaken in The Cassandra Crossing, which came out a year later and—surprise, surprise—holds up just fine. No, better to ignore the ease of access Netflix has afforded Silver Streak and just rent Cassandra (if you can find it), or go straight back to the source and see The 39 Steps, or North by Northwest, or The Lady Vanishes instead. But then, you already knew that, didn't you?


1 comment:

Roger said...

Hi, Dennis,

I happened to revisit this as well late last year and had a different experience. Yes it's a product of its time; there was a weird wave of "Hitchcock-ian thrillers" then, from DePalma's run to the foldly remembered (by me) Eyewitness ('81). That was a "thing"). Gene Wilder was a leading man and they still didn't know what to do with Richard Pryor (besides letting him steal the whole thing).

Not as quirky as other Wilder films, but you hire Hiller (the guy who directed Love Story (although he gets a pass for In-Laws)) for a reason. Colin Higgins, the writer, said he was more interested in the train, the plot moving and that it couldn't be stopped. It does give this comedy a sense of momentum without any heavy lifting. (And is paid off literally in the end.)

I really liked the pace, although I was surprised Pryor isn't in the film for the first hour. Talk about not remembering correctly. Kind of like Bo Derek in "10" -- she's not in it for the first hour either, and then has like only 2 or 3 scenes!

Collin Higgens, clearly enamored by the genre, would go on to direct Foul Play.

Keep up the great work. Roger