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TRAIN DOMINATES IN "SILVER STREAK"
By TOM SOTER
Why is suave Patrick McGoohan trying to eliminate plant-book editor Gene Wilder? Can it really be because of the Rembrandt letters which will prove McGoohan a lousy appraiser? On reflection, it does seem like a rather poor motive for murder. However, Silver Streakis not a film that frequently offers time for reflection; it is rather an entertaining throwaway that is somewhat reminiscent of the James Bond movies in their prime. Like the early 007 epics, Arthur Hiller's new film is relatively fast-paced and tongue-in-cheek. Unlike them, however, the emphasis is more on slapstick and one-liners than suspense and gadgetry.
The story involves a rather quiet man who takes a train ride cross country because he wants "to be bored." Of course, he never is since almost from the moment he begins his· trip one unlikely thing after another happens. He is thrown off the train (not once but twice), chased by the police, pursued by the F.B.I., caught in a gun battle (not once but twice), and trapped on a speeding, driverless train which comes to a smashing (pun intended) end.
Obviously, screenwriter Colin Higgins' technique is of the everything-but-thekitchen-sink school. When the pace begins to sag, as it does quite noticeably a number of times (in Wilder's second expulsion from the train, or in his encounter with Louisiana sheriff Clifton James, for instance), Higgins introduces a new plot twist or character to help re-invigorate the story and get things rolling again. One example of this is the introduction of Richard Pryor, who appears at the right moment with the right casual approach, in the back of a police car Wilder has just stolen. Pryor congratulates the driver on the theft, tells him that he was a thief too and asks, "What'd they get you for?" Wilder replies "Murder;" and Pryor quickly says, “You can let me off at the next stop." Here it is not really the joke itself that gets the laughs, but the delivery,
Similarly, Pryor's standing up in the middle of a violent gun battle and angrIly asking, like a peeved consumer, "Who's in charge here?" is not very funny in the telling, but comes across quite effectively on the-screen. It is absurd, incongruous, and therefore, amusing.
Although Pryor gets the majority of the good lines, Wilder, at his frantic best, is a nice foil. Villain McGoohan is also quite good. He is polished and professional and, though painted a bit too blackly at the end, the most sane figure in a chaotic and caricatured world. Curiously, he is not done in by the well-intentioned if rather clownish heroes. of the film, but by the train: the symbol of the mechanized, established society of which he is so much a part.
This image of the train is constantly present. A love scene between Wilder and Jill Clayburgh is shot in a window's reflection so that we are continually aware of the speeding countryside outside and thus of the train's presence. And the conclusion, a slow-motion portrait of destruction as the Silver Streak line crashes into Chicago's Union Station, is as beautiful as it is improbable. That, combined with Clayburgh's last comment about the train, “It looks like it's smiling” (as indeed it does) is important. The train has be.en the catalyst –affecting but unaffected by all that has gone on about it. It has remained aloof and unchanged and ultimately has had the last laugh on all of the characters by giving each of them more than they bargained
for. As has been mentioned, there are a number of slow points, and a few jokes do fall flat. In addition, many of the improbabilities (Pryor's sticking with Wilder for so long, the convenient airplane used to catch up with the train) are never really explained.
But perhaps Goldfingerdirector Guy Hamilton said it best when talking about the Bond . films. He said, "we tell the audience, “Come with us for a glorious ride. But leave your brains under the seat and don't ask too many questions. Because if we have to stop and explain things we will lose momentum.” Silver Streakisn't exactly a glorious ride, but it certainly does a fair job at keeping up the momentum and the laughs. In a time when so much garbage passes for comedy, that's no small accomplishment.
Columbia Daily Spectator, February 2, 1977