A box-office hit that gave birth to the on-again/off-again screen duo of funnymen Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor, Silver Streak is impossible to take seriously for the same reason it’s impossible to dislike: The movie forgoes credibility in order to entertain viewers by any means possible. Essentially a Hitchcock-type thriller played for laughs, the movie follows an unassuming book editor (Wilder) during a cross-country train trip filled with unexpected danger, intrigue, and romance. As the tale grows more and more absurd, George stumbles into a dalliance with a sexy secretary (Jill Clayburgh), gets caught in the crosshairs of an evil conspirator (Patrick McGoohan), befriends a jive-talkin’ thief (Pryor), and survives accidents and near-misses in airplanes, cars, and trains. He gets arrested, chased, framed, shot at, thrown off a moving train, and targeted for murder, and yet he displays great moral character by striving to save his new lover and triumph over the bad guys.
It’s all very silly, especially with the contrived McGuffin plot device relating to priceless letters written by Rembrant, but everyone involved in Silver Streak approaches their work with the same lighthearted attitude. Director Arthur Hiller keeps things moving briskly, creating comfortable spaces in which his actors can showcase their likeable personalities, and writer-producer Colin Higgins, whose gift for character-driven comedy distinguished ’70s movies like the great Harold and Maude (1971) and the effervescent Foul Play (1978), pumps the movie full of amusing one-liners. So, even though the picture drags on far too long and gets mired in bland action sequences like the elaborate shootout during the climax, Silver Streak is consistently watchable.
Much of the credit goes to Wilder, who mostly eschews his signature hysterics while playing a straightforward romantic lead; he’s surprisingly believable as a dashing man of the world sharing flirtatious banter with Clayburgh, and his reaction shots whenever things get wild are priceless. Clayburgh is appealing in her mostly decorative role, while Pryor slides into an easy buddy-movie rapport with Wilder. Their obvious shtick, predicated on the differences between a streetwise African-American and an uptight honky, is epitomized in the famous scene of Pryor covering Wilder’s face with shoe polish and teaching Wilder to act like a “brother.” There’s no denying the humor of Wilder emulating urban swagger, but there’s also no denying the way the scene perpetuates demeaning stereotypes. Still, Silver Streak is too milquetoast to seem offensive: The racially insensitive gags are just tools the movie uses to elicit cheap laughs, and it’s hard to get angry at a picture whose only goal is making viewers happy.
Silver Streak: GROOVY