Friday, June 5, 2009

Talk Of Plots And Scenarios

I can remember watching SILVER STREAK on TV numerous times when I was a kid but for whatever reason I have absolutely no recollection of seeing it from the beginning until a number of years later. It’s not that it’s all that difficult a movie to come into after the first reel or so—it’s a train movie so we know it started somewhere, we know it’ll end somewhere and we can tell that Gene Wilder is on the run for some reason and everybody is always talking about some McGuffin called the Rembrandt letters. Oh, and there’s a girl in it, but never mind about her. Also, Richard Pryor doesn’t turn up until past the halfway mark and for a kid that’s when all the funny stuff starts anyway, right? I like SILVER STREAK—hell, I always liked SILVER STREAK. After all, it’s a train movie, something that always gets me interested, it’s clearly going for a NORTH BY NORTHWEST sort of vibe and it’s got a Henry Mancini score. So I still like it even though watching it now it does seem a little more slapdash than I remember—not all of the humor works, little of the plot seems to matter much at all in the end and the so-called romance barely seems to exist. But I still like it. It’s hard for me not to like it.

George Caldwell (Gene Wilder) is a book editor traveling to Chicago by train on the AMRoad Silver Streak for no reason other than that he’s looking to “be bored for a few days.” After spending some time chatting up on-the-make vitamin salesman Bob Sweet (Ned Beatty) he soon meets Hilly Burns (Jill Clayburgh, with a name that I guess is almost a FRONT PAGE reference), the secretary to a famous art historian also onboard and they fall for each other immediately, winding up horizontal in their adjoining cabins. Later that night George thinks he sees a body fall off past his window but decides he must be seeing things until he realizes the photo of Hilly’s boss on book he has written is in fact the same person. Snooping around the train for some answers gets him thrown off and when he finally makes it back onboard he finds himself in the middle of a plot instigated by famous art dealer Roger Deverau (Patrick McGoohan) to acquire the “Rembrandt Letters” which results in George getting framed for a murder that soon occurs. After a series of adventures, George teams up with thief Grover Muldoon who just might be able to help him save Hilly and clear George’s name.

Written by Colin Higgins of HAROLD AND MAUDE immortality, SILVER STREAK has the skeleton of a Hitchcock-wrong man scenario but in really paying attention to the thing I wonder if either the script never got the rewrite it needed or if it was at one time a more airtight plot that began to be disassembled by director Arthur Hiller, taking advantage of certain things that happened during shooting—chiefly, Richard Pryor. It’s possible that what Pryor brought to the table with his character, presumably intended to be no more than supporting comic relief, changed the rhythm of things so much (it’s like we’re watching a more energetic film right from his first line, “I’m a thief.”) that Hiller had no choice but to take advantage of this. And it makes everything more enjoyable than it would have been otherwise. But it’s also a case of a film with an alleged female lead whose role is mostly confined to the first half-hour, after which we mostly just hear about her, not to mention that she’s played by an actress who, in the context of a comedy-thriller anyway, doesn’t make all that much of an impression. I suppose Clayburgh’s iciness makes her resemble Eva Marie Saint in a way that seemed appropriate but here she seems to disappear even whenever she’s on camera. There are probably people who’ve seen SILVER STREAK multiple times and remember Fred Willard from his thirty second role near the end but couldn’t tell you the name of who plays the female lead. Higgins wrote FOUL PLAY a few years after this and the homage-nature of each film means that there are a few definite similarities, but Pryor’s emergence in the second half here is almost as if Dudley Moore’s character in the latter film wound up teaming up with Goldie Hawn in that film, meaning that Chevy Chase wouldn’t have much to do beyond show up at the climax for the final kiss. Not the most perfect comparison and in the case of SILVER STREAK the right choices were mostly made in terms of entertainment value, but it does mean that the story ultimately isn’t as strong. That includes an art forgery plot involving a lookalike for someone who has been killed and a “Rembrandt letters” McGuffin that never really amounts to anything in the end beyond just an excuse for the movie to exist. The McGuffin in question is ultimately dispensed with so casually that most people might not even notice (FOUL PLAY did this in a similar, but much more clever, way). It doesn’t kill the movie for me, but it does make the whole thing feel awfully thin in the end, as fun as some of it is. The climactic setpiece (spoiler alert, even though it’s on the damn poster) that culminates in the train crashing into Chicago’s Union Station (called “Central Station” for some reason) is interesting not only because it seems to become a mini-disaster film all of a sudden but also in how it feels like an early version of what would later become commonplace as Hollywood films pretty much chucked out the plot in favor of going for the spectacle near the end. It’s definitely a fun spectacle, but it’s an ending that doesn’t have much to do with anything that came before

There are other issues—some of the comedy involving screaming women and overweight people making their way through the narrow train corridors is pretty crass, Clifton James’ idiot small-town Sheriff feels like something we’ve seen before (probably because of the similar character he played in the Bond films) and it does uncomfortably date things to see all the black stewards and porters on the train, as much as that might have been the case even in those days—Pryor plays off that stereotype for purposes of the plot and it comes off as pointed but still doesn’t entirely diminish that uncomfortable feeling. But there’s still the huge enjoyment I get out of watching a comedy-thriller set on a train with a fun movie-movie kind of plot backed by an immensely hummable Henry Mancini score (even if the main love theme is reprised about twenty times—in the sixties, there would have been lyrics written for it). And yeah, once Richard Pryor shows up it’s obvious immediately how well he and Wilder play off of each other, bringing a terrific energy to the second half of the film—Pryor makes both the film and Wilder better as a result. The famous scene of disguising Wilder in blackface might not be all that P.C. these days but Pryor’s deadpan disbelief at the other actors’s over-exaggerated performance is what sells it about as much as anything. As for all the train stuff, the action scenes occurring up on the roof are still pretty cool even if it’s pretty easy to tell when it’s a stuntman (anyone remember one of the key shots being used in the opening credits of THE FALL GUY?). And even though the plot has been jettisoned by that point, those last fifteen minutes work terrific with the payoff to it all pretty spectacular. SILVER STREAK isn’t perfect but it’s too much fun for me to ever dislike all that much.

Backing up the stars are a number of familiar faces including Beatty, Willard, Ray Walston, Lucille Benson, Richard Kiel, Valerie Curtin and especially Patrick McGoohan (“and Patrick McGoohan as Roger Deveraux” as the credits tell us) as the icily cool bad guy who adds immensely to whatever credibility the story has, even if he’s as overshadowed as everyone else is by Pryor and the big finale. When he finally shares the screen with the actor who’s taken over the movie (spitting out the “N” word at him—it’s an unexpected pleasure to see these two guys in the same frame) you could almost believe that McGoohan agreed to play this part in a normal thriller with no idea that this was going to happen and, when the scene goes in a different direction, his surprise seems as genuine as the character he’s playing.

Yeah, some of the movie did seem funnier when I was a kid. Even writing this I can think of a few more satisfying directions the plot could have taken and still wound up with the same climax of destruction, but never mind. It’s SILVER STREAK, a train movie with a Henry Mancini score, a comfortable and enjoyable reminder of a type of film I used to watch on TV while growing up, one that doesn’t really get made anymore. Uneven as it is, its determination to entertain is obvious and the flaws aren’t enough to keep me from always thinking of it fondly.


Anonymous said...

Well written! I remember this being a huge hit in its original release. McGoohan is very sinister as the villain. He adds a real & nasty flavor to the proceedings. This film is as you've written, a nice easygoing way to spend some time in front of the TV. Makes me wonder just how many Hitchcock homage films there were in the '70's. Certainly DePalma and "High Anxiety" (& "Foul Play" as you mentioned). Who else?

- Bob

Unknown said...

De Palma's THE FURY always struck me as having Hitchcockian touches to it and we all know what a huge fan of the man De Palma was (is).

Anonymous said...

Good stuff. You beat me to my own mini-write up of my favorite Wilder-Pryor pairing. This film is a lot of fun and I like how Higgins mixes violence with humor. I adore the Mancini score (own it on CD) and the 70's "feel."

Of course, the scene in the washroom is absolutely classic ("I'm a macaroni.")and I still think it's the best reason to see this -- Richard Pryor actually became a movie star in this film at that moment. And Wilder is always great, especially his disbelief everytime he's thrown off the train...

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

Thanks guys, glad you liked it. Christian, I've got that CD as well and as a Mancini junkie I'm very glad it's part of my collection. It's one of a number of things about this movie that really takes me back to another time and it's a good one to slip back into the DVD player every now and then.