The recent passing of Gene Wilder left a lot of people reeling, having lost yet another inspirational figure from our collective youth and popular culture experience. Wilder was a gentle, kind man by all accounts and that inherent decency shone through every performance he gave, although the key to his comic genius is how this amiable Jimmy Stewart type could be pushed by the forces of plot and character and situation into the most absurd and often emotionally violent outbursts of desperation. Wilder’s comedy played best on a slow boil, often as the character who was determined to make sense of any given situation, despite all the absurdities life presented. His performance in Arthur Hiller’s 1976 film Silver Streak is one of his best, and underrated, combining all of what made him great as an actor with much of what made him great as a comedian.
Silver Streak isn’t necessarily a comedy. It certainly doesn’t read like one when viewed today. It’s more of a Hitchcock pastiche, complete with blonde femme fatale, intricate twists and turns of plot and counterplot, a classic Macguffin (in this case, letters allegedly written by Rembrandt) and a serial narrative set on a train (the “silver streak”) of the title, journeying from Los Angeles to Chicago. Wilder plays George Caldwell, a kind, soft-spoken publisher who is travelling to Chicago for a wedding. On the train, he meets a garrulous “salesman” (played by Ned Beatty as only he can) and a fetching young secretary, Hilly (Jill Clayburgh). In true seventies fashion, drinks are served, and then some more, and fairly soon Wilder is being serviced by Clayburgh in her cabin (they have adjoining cabins, by coincidence) and just as things are getting interesting, Wilder witnesses a murder, specifically a man being thrown from the moving train. Events escalate from there, and Hilly is sometimes a friend, sometimes a rival and seems to be in league with all interested parties, as poor George gets repeatedly thrown from the train and must find his way back on in order to protect his new love interest and solve a mystery steadily growing in complexity.
For the first hour of the film, there are very few jokes. Wilder plays George as a steady leading man, just out of his element, but holding the drama together with the force of his authentic personality. We never doubt that George Caldwell is a real person, and Jill Clayburgh matches Wilder every step of the way with her natural, easy acting style. We even have Patrick McGoohan as the mustache-twirling villain and Richard “Jaws” Kiel as the “muscle”. Other than a few very underplayed moments, such as when Clayburgh reveals that she can’t type or take notes very well, but still work as a secretary, Silver Streak plays out like an action-thriller. It’s only deep into the film’s third act that we meet Clifton James playing (of course) a small-town Sheriff that things start to tilt more directly into comedy, with the classic line, “You killed Rembrandt!”
This film is usually billed as the first in the long line of Gene Wilder-Richard Pryor team-ups, but Pryor doesn’t show up here until around the 1 hour 10 minute mark, and even then he doesn’t completely dominate the action. Unlike later appearances, Pryor plays it fairly straight here, never showing off, addressing racial issues (his character is a wanted criminal) without really hitting any stereotype on the nose. It’s as if he was emulating Wilder’s assured acting style, and the two have obvious chemistry and respect for each other as performers from their first moments together on screen.
The scene most people remember from the film is when Wilder and Pryor have to come up with a way to get Wilder back on the Silver Streak even though he is now a wanted murderer and his photo is at every train station in the United States. Pryor’s solution – to have Wilder “black up” his face with shoe polish and adopt mid-70s African American mannerisms – is a great comedic notion, but credit has to go to both actors for making the gag work. Wilder goes well over the top in his play-acting of a black man, swaggering with unconvincing rhythm and an even less convincing attitude, brought on from anxiety more than determination. And it’s important to watch how Pryor responds to this, namely with clear-eyed wariness and mild disgust. This would set the tone for Wilder and Pryor’s most successful collaborations, particularly the film they made together next, Stir Crazy: Wilder’s naiveté and enthusiasm, balanced by Pryor’s cultural knowledge and caution. In his 1982 standup special, Pryor himself references how when he and Wilder went to visit a penitentiary for research, Wilder dove right into the inmates’ world, asking them questions and trying to make friends, whereas Pryor took a wise step back from these rapists and murderers. When Wilder laughingly asked Pryor later, “Hey, Ritchie, what do you think these guys would do if we were here?”, Pryor responded emphatically and seriously, “Fuck us.” That’s the dynamic that the two would ride to success, with Pryor essentially acting as the good-natured by innocent Wilder’s guide through the dark parts of America’s racial divide.
In Silver Streak, Pryor and Wilder are simply friends, and they play so well together that the mutual respect and admiration must have come from a real-life place. In a scene late in the film, the two characters wish each other a fond farewell, and it’s as real a moment as has ever appeared in films, especially between two characters of different races, one of whom is supposed to be the leading man, and the other the comic foil. Instead of cliche, they come off as an ideal performing pair: two halves of a perfect whole. There’s a palpable sense beaming from them both of “Oh, we’re onto something here.” And they were.
Though their collaboration would end on a down note (1991’s Another You, in which Pryor’s struggles with MS had limited what he could give as a performer and Wilder gamely but not successfully trying to make up the difference), Pryor and Wilder created something special. And it’s in their first film as actors together (Pryor had co-written Blazing Saddles, in which Wilder starred), it was clearly, in Hollywood-speak, the beginning of a beautiful friendship.