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A somewhat daffy book editor on a rail trip from Los Angeles to Chicago thinks that he sees a murdered man thrown from the train. When he can find no one who will believe him, he starts doing some investigating of his own. But all that accomplishes is to get the killer after him. Written by
"Silver Streak" was released the very same year the Master of Suspense, Sir Alfred Hitchcock, released his black-comedy swan song, "Family Plot". Though Hitch was in the very twilight of his long, illustrious career, his playful style was alive and well, and well appropriated, in Hollywood. The Master didn't make this movie - Canadian Arthur ("Love Story") Hiller did - but the unmistakable fingerprints and shop-hewn template of Hitchcock's "North By Northwest" (amongst other classics) are in great display thanks to writer Colin ("Foul Play") Higgins in the cheery, breezy action comedy, "Silver Streak".
"Silver Streak" is the first of four Gene Wilder & Richard Pryor match-ups and certainly in retrospect, one of the best. Wilder is an ordinary Joe taking the titular Amtrak train across country. In the midst of his journey, he befriends and beds fellow passenger Jill ("An Unmarried Woman") Clayburgh, ends up witnessing a murder then is wrongly accused of the crime, and is thrown off the train many, many times in his pursuit to clear his name, save the girl from a mysterious villain and get to the other side of the country.
This is a very gentle but funny comedy that plays with the conventions of one of Hitch's favorite themes, the mistaken identity of everyday man in extraordinary circumstances. Wilder is wonderful, fitfully funny as usual and shines as both a romantic lead (!) and does his patented "crazy" guy when things start falling apart. Just watching Wilder's eyes as he exasperatedly tries to explain out the fantastic plot he's wrapped up in to unbelieving characters along the way is one of the film's funniest, simplest rewards.
The film's masterstroke, however, is the addition of Richard Pryor as a part-time thief. Pryor was in the midst of a very hot career in 1976, and although this film seems to restrain some of the imagination and language of his stage presence and TV specials, (this is a PG-rated movie, after all), he still creates an indelible extended 'cameo' that fuses film with a hip, perfectly cool counterbalance to Wilder's mania and confusion. When Pryor is on screen he not only steals the film, but also elevates this old-fashioned adventure-comedy concept to something otherwise original... and you can't take your eyes off the guy.
Filmed all across his native Canada (thanks IMDb for confirming this!), director Hiller pulls this fun little audience-pleasing gem along the rails to a bright and exciting climax. The supporting cast is loaded with wonderful character actors including Patrick MacGoohan, Ray (My Favorite Martian) Walston, Ned Beatty and Scatman Crothers amongst others. A very luxurious and memorable score by Henry Mancini is the capper to this sparkling comedy, perfect as a primer for, and a loving compendium of, many of the Hitchcock classics that wait for you to discover them on DVD, VHS or on the tube.
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