Revisiting Childhood Movies Part XIX:

Silver Streak

  • The film is a lot better than the poster would make you think.

    The film is a lot better than the poster would make you think.

    Director:  Arthur Hiller

  • Writer:  Colin Higgins
  • Producer:  Edward K. Milkis  /  Thomas L. Miller
  • Stars:  Gene Wilder, Jill Clayburgh, Richard Pryor, Patrick McGoohan, Ned Beatty
  • Studio:  20th Century-Fox
  • Award Nominations:  Oscars – Sound; Globes – Actor – Comedy; WGA – Original Comedy
  • Length:  114 min
  • Genre:  Comedy
  • MPAA Rating:  PG
  • Release Date:  8 December 1976
  • Box Office Gross:  $51.07 mil
  • My Rating:  ***.5
  • My Rank:  #18 (year)
  • Nighthawk Globe Nominations:  Picture – Comedy, Original Screenplay – Comedy, Supporting Actor – Comedy
  • Nighthawk Notables:  Best Film to Watch Over and Over, Best Scene (stopping the train)
  • First Watched:  sometime on television
  • Number of Times Watched as a Kid:  more than 5

As a Kid:  There was a goofy television show in the early 80’s called The Fall Guy.  I don’t remember much of it, but I do remember the opening credits.  The song was called “The Unknown Stuntman” and it was actually sung by star Lee Majors (I think that’s how my family ended up watching it – we had been big fans of The Six Million Dollar Man).  It featured several stunts from movies, with the notion that this unknown stuntman that the show was about (played by Majors) had really been the person performing those stunts.  One of them involved a person on top of a train hitting a light switch and being dragged off the train (it’s just 20 seconds in).

I think, even the first time I ever saw it, that I knew that stunt was from Silver Streak.  My older brother Kelly was a big fan of the two Gene Wilder / Richard Pryor films (Stir Crazy was the other one at the time).  As this was the film not rated R (Stir Crazy had a lot of adult language in it) I watched this film a lot growing up.  I think I missed the starting a lot (even this time watching it, for the umpteenth time, I didn’t remember why Wilder was on the train), but I always made certain I was there for the ending.

There were various bits of comedy throughout the film (Wilder gets thrown off the train once, gets knocked off once and jumps off once) and Pryor has some great lines (“Is this how you killed your victims?  You put them in a car and bounced them to death?”).  But no matter how much I enjoyed the film (and it was a lot), it was always the end that was the key part to watch.

At the conclusion of the film, through a variety of circumstances (more on that in the Adult portion), we have four characters on a train that is headed into Union Station in Chicago.  It is out of control, it is going at something like 50 miles an hour and, like one character says “in ten minutes you’re going to have 200 tons of locomotive smashing into Central Station on its way to Marshall Fields!”  Those four need to stop the train, which involves pulling the bar that connects the cars and then jump back so you’re not on the part still barreling forward.  It’s a magnificent stunt, and as you can see here, it really did involve the actual actors.  Every time I watch it, even though I’ve seen it dozens of times, it still makes me feel as excited as when I was a little kid.

As an Adult:  I rate this film at the very bottom of ***.5.  So, that means it’s a very good film and enters my Best Picture list (not very high, as its the #18 film of the year, but in a weak year for Comedies it does earn a Nighthawk nomination for Best Picture – Comedy) but there are some significant weaknesses.

The first is that this film is ridiculously implausible.  Watching it as a kid, I could be swept away by the silliness (Wilder getting thrown off the train), the fun (Pryor coming back to help Wilder because he forgot his wallet – “some thief you are” Wilder tells him) and the excitement (the final race towards Union Station).  But almost none of this film works on a logical level.  When Wilder gets thrown off the train, there’s no way he has enough time to catch up to it.  When he falls off, he seems to spend even more time before catching up to it again and there’s no way he should be able to do that.  Not to mention the whole criminal aspect of it.  Why don’t the Feds stop the train?  Why weren’t there more agents aboard?  Why would they bring Wilder with them to stop the train, let alone give him a gun?  As a kid, I went with the flow and the film is enjoyable enough that I still go a bit with the flow, but the implausibilities really go too far.

There is also a significant problem with the pacing.  At the end of the film, it has magnificent pacing and editing, jumping back and forth between the train and the station assistant (a young Fred Willard which made Veronica smile) racing to get his boss.  But earlier in the film, either the director or the editor is far too impressed with Henry Mancini’s score and the vistas, because the shots of Wilder simply walking along with the score playing happen too often and go on for too long.  We fast-forwarded through a lot of those scenes.

There are also things I wouldn’t have noticed as a kid.  I figured there were lots of stuntmen involved (fewer than I thought, given the Ebert interview linked to above), but the only one I blatantly noticed was when “Ned Beatty” is running back across the top of the train (more ridiculous implausibilities) and the hair makes it clear that it’s not him.  When Wilder and Pryor are driving into “Kansas City”, I turned to Veronica and asked her what city it really was and she took one long look at the CN Tower and said “Toronto”.

But none of it matters when it comes to the final chase.  Even if you thought there were stuntmen for some of it, it’s clear it’s the actors themselves hanging off the train in a lot of those shots, racing through the outskirts of Chicago, coming straight into Union Station.  I may wonder why they didn’t just reach out from the side that they needed to be on rather than have to make the jump, but it’s damn exciting to watch, with Willard racing against time and the train coming smashing through.  When I get to the ending, all the ridiculousness of the movie disappears and I just sit back and enjoy it.

Post-Script:  I wrote this review back at the end of February.  It has been sitting since then because I use the RCM reviews partially as a way of providing another post between Nighthawk Awards posts because these take only a little time to write and those take quite a while.  Also because the last four RCM posts were timed to specific Nighthawk Awards years (1978, 1981, 1984, 1987), I didn’t need to use this one yet.  Normally, I wouldn’t bother to point this out (a lot of my RCM and Great Read posts sit for a while before going up) except a couple of things happened.  The first is that the director, Arthur Hiller, died last month.  Mythical Monkey posted a little piece about that and I commented that Silver Streak is one of his best films.  I felt then I should finally put this post up, but I wanted to do the Five Doctors piece first and that delayed things.  Then, last week, Gene Wilder died.  Then I really felt I needed to get this post up, so here it is, as I try to get the next Nighthawk Awards and Adapted Screenplay posts done.

Two other things in relation to those.  The first is that Mythical Monkey commented “when I was a teenage boy, Jill Clayburgh was right in my wheelhouse.”  I very much understand that.  Clayburgh, like Sally Field at the same time, was a good actress and was attractive in a very down-to-earth way, nothing at all like the sexual presence of Jane Fonda, Liv Ullmann, Faye Dunaway or Julie Christie.  Clayburgh was an actress you could have a crush on who felt like she could be real, not just some distant Hollywood fantasy.  Since the big Hollywood crush for me in the 80’s was Debra Winger, who I think of in the same way, I can very much understand.

The other thing is that this post may make people wonder if at some point I would do what would seem a natural RCM post: Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.  I might, someday, but it’s certainly not going to be anytime soon.  That’s mainly because, in spite of the colorful art direction and very good performance from Wilder, I don’t think very highly of the film.  I don’t have the fond memories that other people do (yes, I saw it as a kid but never thought it was very good) and I’m not in the mood to write a review tearing it down now that Wilder has just died.  I much prefer his performances in the Mel Brooks films.  In fact think of this: in my 1974 Nighthawk Awards, Gene Wilder won Best Actor – Comedy (Young Frankenstein), Best Supporting Actor – Comedy (Blazing Saddles), earned a second nomination for Best Actor – Comedy (Rhinoceros) and actually was the co-winner of Best Adapted Screenplay – Comedy because he also co-wrote Young Frankenstein.  If you want to remember Wilder for being Willy Wonka, I very much understand that, but he was so much more and for a decade, starting with The Producers and ending with Silver Streak, he, along with Mel Brooks (who he worked with a lot) and Woody Allen (who he worked with once) made American film comedy a wonderful thing to behold.  He made 11 films during that stretch and I have seen all of them.  They are of variable quality, but his performances make them all worth watching at least once.