The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Friday, November 2, 2012

Silver Streak

This spring I reviewed Stir Crazy starring Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor and liked it a lot, the complete random nature of the comedy appealing to me. I didn't want to rush into other Wilder-Pryor pairings though, letting it breathe a bet, so recently after a several month wait, I dove back in, watching 1976's Silver Streak, the duo's first film pairing.

Traveling from Los Angeles to Chicago via the Silver Streak train, editor George Caldwell (Wilder) is looking forward to a couple days of quiet travel. Aboard the Streak, he meets Hilly (Jill Clayburgh), an assistant to an author traveling on-board, and they quickly hit it off. Back in George's sleeper bunk (uh-oh, adult situations!), George swears he sees a dead body, Hilly's boss, hanging outside his window but shakes it off as his head playing tricks on him. The next morning he goes to the boss' sleeper only to find a mysterious character (Ray Walston) rummaging through his bags. What the heck is going on in this train?

I don't know exactly what I was expecting out of this movie, but with Wilder and Pryor involved, I feel safe saying I expected a pretty funny flick. And you know what? It was. It's not a mile a minute laugh fest, but when I laughed, it was genuine. But overall, what a weird movie. The first 30 minutes are basically a slow burn as George and Hilly seduce each other. Then there's a murder, more murders, some investigating, new characters, shootouts, and a twist with a vicious, murdering art appraiser. I assure you that's the first time I've ever wrote that in a review. Director Arthur Hiller has an entertaining mess of a movie here, but it's a mess in a good way. A romantic, action-packed comedy. How often can you see those, and good ones at that?

What surprised me most was that Pryor doesn't appear until an hour-plus into the movie. What isn't surprising? The movie is at its best when Wilder and Pryor are on-screen together. There is a natural, easy-going and very funny chemistry between them that most actors and duos can only aspire to. Pryor plays Grover T. Muldoon, a small-time crook who ends up helping Wilder's George in his efforts to save Hilly. How do you ask? George is thrown off or falls off the Silver Streak three or four times, meeting Grover in the process. For no other reason than the story requires it, Grover helps the efforts, teaching this very un-criminal-like George how to be a crook. Things get crazier and crazier, but through it all the hijinks and shenanigans from Wilder and Pryor keep this one going at its frenetic pace.

The bits do come fast and furious after the dramatic, mystery scenes. A running bit with George being suspected as a rapist is hilarious in its bizarre oddness and inherent darkness. The highlight though is obvious; George -- being looked for by the police for's a long story -- is forced to pretend to be a black man. Courtesy of some shoe polish, a Rastafarian hat, a shiny jacket, and some "cool" lessons from Grover, George tries to embrace his inner cool black guy with some obviously politically incorrect but truly funny scenes. That's probably the biggest laugh, but most of the humor comes from a simple line delivery or a perfectly expressed facial reaction. It doesn't always have to be a big laugh to be effective, it just has to work for what it is.

I loved the Wilder-Pryor duo, but the cast here is nothing to shake your head at. Clayburgh does her best as the damsel in distress, having some surprising chemistry with Wilder. Because he always played a bad guy, Patrick McGoohan plays the Bad Guy, the conniving, murdering art appraiser with Walston, Bond villain Richard Kiel and Stefan Gierasch as his henchmen. Ned Beatty has a very funny supporting part as Bob Sweet, a vitamin salesman who strikes it up with George aboard the train, waiting to deliver a twist. Also look for Clifton James, Lucille Benson, Scatman Crothers and a young Fred Willard in supporting parts. 

Another winner for Wilder and Pryor, a definitively different, unique comedy that wasn't quite what I was expecting. Off-the-point expectations aside, this was a winner with a good cast, a lot of laughs, and just a good old-fashioned goofy comedy.

Silver Streak <---trailer (1976): ***/****

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