Penn Central train #487, the "Judge Brett Cullum," is now departing from track 17, bound for Pittsburgh via Reading, Harrisburg, Altoona, and Latrobe. All aboard!
George Caldwell: I can't pass for black.
Silver Streak is an action comedy from 1976 that is notable for a couple of reasons. It marks the first time Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor were ever teamed together in a movie, a combination that resulted in three more pictures with them sharing the screen (Stir Crazy, See No Evil Hear No Evil, and Another You). The finale displays one of the best train wrecks ever caught on celluloid without any computer generated help. Silver Streak can be found at slot number 95 on AFI's 100 Years 100 Laughs list, even though it's definitely not just a straight-ahead comedy. The script was written by Collin Higgins, who spoofed Alfred Hitchcock in this film and also in his script for Foul Play. And it's just a whole lot of fun to boot!
George Caldwell (Gene Wilder) is a flirty book publisher who meets a sexy secretary named Hilly (Jill Clayburgh, It's My Turn) on a train ride from Los Angeles to Chicago. He says he wants to be bored, but soon finds himself seducing her with tidbits of gardening information he has gleaned from his years of editing (seriously). It looks like Silver Streak is headed into light romantic comedy land until a dead body dangles outside the window of George and Hilly's first class cabin. Only George sees it, and Hilly tries to convince him he just had a little too much champagne. Turns out the man he saw is Hilly's boss, an art professor who is about to publish a book on Rembrandt. On board the train are some shady types who don't want the book to come out, and they'll stop at nothing to make sure the professor's proof never sees the light of day. Soon the two find themselves in a Hitchcockian plot trying to avoid the killers. George is thrown off the train several times, and ends up hooking up with Grover Muldoon (Richard Pryor), a thief, who has to help him get back on board the Silver Streak and save Hilly.
The movie is an odd mix of comedy and flat-out adventure. It's never really all that funny until Pryor hits the screen about an hour into it. Pryor was not originally cast in the role, and it seems amazingly serendipitous that he was finally asked to be in it. Wilder and Pryor are gold together, and their chemistry is what makes the film interesting even thirty years after it was released. Pryor demanded some reshoots to the infamous "shoe polish" scene; he was concerned how it would come off to black audiences. To show his disapproval he made Arthur Hiller, the director, reshoot the sequence. It ends up being one of the funniest sequences in the film. You may also notice some nods to James Bond in a couple of sequences. Richard Kiel (Jaws in The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker) makes an appearance as a thug with metal teeth (a full year before his first Bond appearance with the same character). Also in the mix is Clifton James (as a redneck sheriff), who also appeared in two Roger Moore Bond flicks: Live and Let Die and The Man With the Golden Gun. Also along for the train ride is Ned Beatty (Superman, Deliverance) and Patrick McGoohan (Scanners). Scatman Crothers plays a porter who gets smacked in the head, much like his poor character in The Shining—is this in his contract, or does the man just have a thick skull?
Before we get too technical about the DVD, let's get the train geek information out of the way. The engines used in the movie are Canadian Pacific Railway (CP Rail) EMD FP7s 4070 and 4067, which were probably built around 1952. There is a technical error in the movie—even though the two engines are together, the nose end would have a door and you would be able to get to the engine through the train's body. Amtrak would not allow the producers to film on its trains because they feared the movie would hurt their image, so the film is pretty much shot entirely in Canada. If you watch closely, you'll notice that the train leaves from Toronto and arrives in Toronto again. You can also see some Canadian logos on some wheat silos as Wilder and Pryor drive through the countryside.
The DVD is a bare-bones affair without any special features, save for a very grainy spoiler-ridden trailer that is like watching the whole movie in two minutes. The transfer is widescreen and anamorphic, but it suffers from a large amount of grain and some edge enhancement which ranges from tolerable to severe. The '70s color palette looks washed out, and little has been done to this gem to bring it into the digital age. About the only difference in watching this now versus seeing it on cable is that here you get it in widescreen with a stereo mix. Black levels are not great either. Fox usually delivers stellar transfers, but here they really fail to do justice to a pretty fun little movie that could use some tender loving care in the transfer. And no extras? What's that about? Thank goodness this title should cost you a little under ten bucks to get. It's a fun movie, and Silver Streak is definitely a nice movie to revisit or discover for the first time. Just don't expect a stellar transfer or any extras.
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