Friday, November 12, 2010

SILVER STREAK: A Genre is Revived, and A Star Actress and StarTeam are Born

Today's TotED post is dedicated to Jill Clayburgh, who died on November 7th, 2010 at the age of 66, after a 21-year battle with chronic leukemia. Ms. Clayburgh’s 1970s and early 1980s films were part of my generation’s youth. She will be sorely missed.
When I first saw the 1976 comedy-thriller Silver Streak during its original theatrical run, I was a fresh-faced lass of 13.  Although I’d gotten a few Alfred Hitchcock movies under my belt by then, at that point I’d still seen more Hitchcock pastiches (Stanley Donen’s Charade and Arabesque were among my favorites) than original Hitchcock films. I was eager to see more of The Master’s work, but at that point in time, few if any of us Average Joes and Josies owned VHS players, and DVDs weren’t even a twinkle in technology’s eye yet. Therefore, if I wanted to watch honest-to-God classic Hitchcock movies, I had to wait for them to turn up on TV, often in the wee hours of the night (see, or if I was really lucky, at one of the many revival theaters operating in my hometown of New York City back then. Believe it or not, I first saw the Hitchcock film destined to become my favorite film of all time in a tiny movie theater in midtown Manhattan. Appropriately enough, it was called The Mini Cinema. As I recall, it was in a brownstone; I only remember maybe twenty seats in the screening room. I was there to see North by Northwest, having heard it was one of Hitchcock’s very best films. They had me at Saul Bass’s sleek green skyscraper opening credits! The print was excellent, and all of us in the audience were enthralled. By the time the film ended and I emerged into the sunshine, I was in love. So a short time later, when my mom took my friends and me to see Silver Streak at East Tremont Avenue’s now-defunct Interboro Theatre — so named because it straddled the Bronx/Manhattan border — I was just film-savvy enough to pick up on Silver Streak’s tips-of-the-hat to Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes, Strangers on a Train, and of course, North by Northwest.

Looks like George doesn't support his local sheriff!
Silver Streak starts out as a perfectly enjoyable little Hitchcock pastiche, and for the most part keeps getting better from there. If screenwriter Colin Higgins of Harold and Maude fame wasn’t a Hitchcock fan, then he clearly did his homework. Both Silver Streak and Higgins’s 1978 comedy-thriller Foul Play spoofed Hitchcock with great skill and, more importantly, great affection. Of course, in both films, Higgins couldn’t resist adding some racy-bordering-on-coarse humor, like Bob Sweet (Ned Beatty) trying to sell Vitamin E supplements to our mild-mannered hero George Caldwell (Gene Wilder): “Great for the ol’ pecker.” Then there’s Lucille Benson as jolly rancher Rita Babtree, who ropes city boy George into helping her milk her cows: “You’re a grown man; I’m sure you’ve had some similar experience.”  Even a sheep-buzzing session is sprinkled with sexual innuendo as Rita rhapsodizes, “They talk of the joy of sex, but it don’t last like the fun of flyin’.” But hey, it was the ’70s, and besides, Hitchcock himself was no stranger to puckish, saucy humor.
"Is that a gun in your hand, or are you just startled to see me?"

Wilder is his usual neurotically endearing self as George, a gentle book publisher and divorcĂ©. “I just want to be bored,” George says, prepared to bury himself in his work during his leisurely cross-country train trip from L.A. to Chicago. Aw, it’s so cute that he thinks he’ll get rest and relaxation in a movie like this! Before George can say “20th Century Limited,” the classic Hitchcock tropes are flying thick and fast. First he’s embroiled in a sweet yet sensuous romance with free-spirited secretary Hilly Burns, played by Jill Clayburgh shortly before she became one of the most popular, renowned actresses of the late 1970s and early 1980s. I found the chemistry between Clayburgh and Wilder both sexy and tender. 

Don't you hate it when corpses interrupt your sexy-time?
The romance hits a snag when George sees a body fall outside his compartment window. Accompanied by the evocative music of Henry Mancini, hapless George gets thrown off the train several times by suave art-collector villain Roger Devereau (Suave Hall of Famer Patrick McGoohan) and his henchmen Edgar Whiney (Ray Walston) and Reace (Richard Kiel), and then he’s framed for murder. The film’s climax with the runaway train demolishing the station rivals the spectacular disaster scenes that end Hitchcock’s Rebecca, Foreign Correspondent, and Strangers on a Train. And of course, don’t forget the time-honored paranoid explanation, in which our flustered hero tries to explain the crazy trouble he’s in, only to have his account come out funny and surreal, leaving his would-be saviors confused and suspicious while leaving us movie lovers laughing and sympathizing with him at the same time. Also, Higgins couldn’t resist slipping the old “Plop, plop, fizz, fizz” Alka-Seltzer TV commercial into the Sheriff’s scene; it showed up in Foul Play, too, as heroine Goldie Hawn is startled by a scarfaced would-be assassin.
Being a master of disguise is harder than it looks!
Entertaining as Silver Streak already is, it shifts into high gear once Richard Pryor comes along. As streetwise but amiable car thief Grover T. Muldoon, Pryor proved he was indeed a thief, because he steals the whole movie just by showing up! Pryor and Wilder’s quirky buddy chemistry sparkles. Heck, it’s worth the price of admission (so to speak) to sit through the entire film just to see the classic “Who shot Rembrandt?” and “I can’t pass for black” scenes. Pryor and Wilder made four films together, with Silver Streak and 1980’s Stir Crazy being their biggest hits. I’m tickled by the role Hitchcockian traditions played in bestowing stardom on a promising ingĂ©nue and a new comedy team.


  1. I came across this anecdote from the IMDb that I thought you'd enjoy as much as I did: "When meeting Gene Wilder after having seen SILVER STREAK, Cary Grant asked him if the script had been in any way inspired by NORTH BY NORTHWEST. As Wilder admitted it was correct, Grant then added, "I knew it! Have you noticed that each time you take ordinary people, like you and me, then take them in a situation way above their heads, it makes a great thriller?" Considering that Cary Grant grew up in poverty as Archibald Leach and never forgot his humble beginnings, I find it both charming and unsurprising that he considered himself -- and Gene Wilder, for that matter -- to be "ordinary people." :-)

  2. Sitting here trying to imagine Cary Grant remarking "Why I'm just an ordinary person" in that patented voice of his.

    (Yes . . . why I embrace Leslie Caron just the same as any ordinary man would.)


    Interesting that you should cite SILVER STREAK as your entrance into appreciating the films of Hitchcock. I don't think I could go back and point to the exact moment the lightning struck me. It was just that I would see stills of scenes (such as the Mt. Rushmore scene in NORTH BY NORTHWEST, or the Statue Of Liberty scene in SABOTEUR), and I knew I wanted to experience the movies those scenes were a part of.

  3. Michael, I couldn't have said it better myself! Seeing stills and scenes from Hitchcock's greatest films definitely had me thinking, "Wow! Gotta see this movie at my first opportunity!" As I've said in previous blog posts, STRANGERS ON A TRAIN was essentially my gateway drug, Hitchcock-wise. Seeing well-done Hitchcock pastiches like SILVER STREAK and Stanley Donen's stylish comedy-thrillers whet my appetite for more, kind of like Daffy Duck's line from SHOW BIZ BUGS: "If they like that mess, they're starvin' for some real hoofin'!" :-)

  4. I love your Daffy Duck line, but then, I'm mad about Daffy. (Who else but you would quote Daffy Duck?) HA! Love it.

    Well, I was less enthused than you about SILVER STREAK, as you know from my recent post. But on the whole, I remain thankful for the Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder pairing. Classic.

    As always, enjoyed reading your point of view, Dorian.:)

  5. Yvette, I'm delighted we were able to share each other's blog posts about SILVER STREAK, even if I liked the flick a little more than you did! But as you've undoubtedly realized by now, I'm ridiculously easy to please! :-)

    I'm tickled that you enjoyed my Daffy Duck quote, too; he cracks me up, though I admit I prefer the wacky, zany Daffy to the greedy, craven little coward Daffy. But either way, he cracks me up!

    Always fun to read your point of view, too, dear friend! Have a fab weekend!

  6. I remember this was a fun movie but somehow I wouldn't have thought of it in the Hitchcock genre. I do love train flicks though--Darjeeling Limited, Transiberian, Unstoppable, Midnight Run,The Black Cat and Murder on the Orient Express just to name a few. I think White Christmas even has some fun scenes on a train. I love trains. Pryor was a genius and I've always loved Wilder. My favorite Hitchcock movies were Rear Window and The Birds, but anyway, thanks for the update on this classic.

    1. Eve, you're a gal after our own collective heart! True, many folks just think of SILVER STREAK as simply a comedy-thriller, but I can spot an Alfred Hitchcock motif a mile away. Screenwriter Colin Higgins (who also wrote the offbeat 1971 comedy HAROLD AND MAUDE, among others) clearly had a great affection for such playful Hitchcockian thrillers as THE LADY VANISHES, NORTH BY NORTHWEST, REAR WINDOW, and THE BIRDS. We've seen TRANSIBERIAN, too; that's another great train-centric film more people should discover. :-) Thanks for joining in the SILVER STREAK conversation, Eve; we're always happy to have you drop by TotED and hang out with us!