In 1976 my parents (reluctantly) took me to see Freaky Friday in one of those newfangled twin cinemas that were starting to pop up around the country. Before the film began the theater showed a trailer for the movie playing next door, Silver Streak, which made my parents regret even more that they’d given in to my demands to see Freaky Friday.
You know that feeling you get when you’re watching a trailer for a movie that’s most certainly going to be better than the one you’re about to see? I know my folks felt that way about Silver Streak. And to a certain extent, as much as my 11-year-old self loved a good Jodie Foster Disney comedy, even I had a hunch I’d enjoy it more.
We confirmed our suspicions within a couple of weeks, though I suspect my parents were very concerned about all the sexual innuendoes in the film — none of which I understood, of course. Curiously, no mention was ever made of the fact that a dude dangling halfway out of a moving train gets his head removed by another train coming from the opposite direction, which lingered in my young mind much longer than whatever Jill Clayburgh was supposedly doing to Gene Wilder.
Silver Streak was directed by Arthur Hiller, who went on to direct another great comedy, 1979’s The In-Laws, with Peter “Serpentine!” Falk and Alan “I have flames on my car!” Arkin. He was also president of the Directors Guild of America in 1989 and president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences from 1993 to 1997.
While Silver Streak is a well-directed movie, the real behind-the-scenes star is screenwriter Colin Higgins, who managed to write a Hitchcockian comedy-thriller that’s both suspenseful and outrageously funny at times. It’s also just about the only train movie I can think of in which the main character gets thrown off the same train no less than three times and still manages to finish the movie on said train. Higgins had previously written the excellent Harold and Maude (1971), and graduated to directing Foul Play (1978) and Nine to Five (1980), which he also cowrote, before dying of AIDS in 1988 at the all-too-young age of 47.
Silver Streak stars Gene Wilder as George Caldwell, a man who travels by train because he just wants to be bored; Jill Clayburgh as Hilly Burns, an assistant to an art historian who’s murdered on the train; Richard Pryor as Grover T. Muldoon, a car thief who gets caught up in the adventure; and Patrick McGoohan as Roger Devereau, an art dealer with the best delivery of the line “Keep your foot on the pedal” in the history of cinema. Rounding out the cast are many other charismatic actors, such as Ned Beatty, Ray Walston, Scatman Crothers, Clifton James, Lucille Benson, and Richard Kiel.
Of all the film’s strengths, the one thing you can’t stop thinking about is the insanely funny comedic pairing of Wilder and Pryor.
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When my parents and I left the theater we couldn’t wait to see those two in another movie. We’d have to wait until 1980 to see them paired up again, in the very funny Stir Crazy, directed by Sidney Poitier. Sadly, their remaining two collaborations — See No Evil, Hear No Evil (1989, also directed by Hiller) and Another You (1991) — never quite lived up to the initial promise displayed in Silver Streak.
One last thought: I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out the film’s terrific score by the late, great Henry Mancini. No one could write a tune like that guy. But what a lot of people don’t know is what a fantastic dramatic composer he was, and with the score to Silver Streak you get a nice balance of great tunes along with some exciting action music in the “Runaway Train” cue for the film’s climax. He was good at coming up with fun titles for cues throughout his career — only Mancini would have named one “Pure Pussy,” referring to a line in the film in which Pryor’s character explains why he’d rather steal a Jaguar than a Chevy. (This, by the way, was one of the innuendoes I didn’t get. I actually thought he was referring to a cat.)