Thursday, October 23, 2008

The art professor vanishes

Tonight at 8:00 PM ET, the Fox Movie Channel is showing the 1976 comedy Silver Streak. It's a wonderful homage to the railway movies of the past, as well as the Alfred Hitchcock suspense movies.

Gene Wilder stars as George Caldwell, an editor taking the train from Los Angeles to Chicago just to get a few days' peace. In the compartment next to his, he meets Hilly Burns (played by Jill Clayburgh), secretary to a noted but reclusive art historian. The historian has just written a biography of Rembrandt that will have some revelations about which of Rembrandt's works are authentic and which aren't, and there are apparently other people on the train who know this as well, and are out to get the man. Caldwell discovers this when, during foreplay with his new lady-friend, he sees her boss falling off the roof of the train.

Or does he really see it? Naturally, nobody believes him, except of course for the bad guys, who know what the truth is -- and they have no interest in telling him he's onto something. Still, they (in the form of Richard Kiel, the man who played Jaws in two of the Bond movies) literally throw Caldwell from the train, and this is where the fun really begins, as Caldwell finds himself teamed with an old lady rancher trying to help him get back on the train.

He gets on again -- and off, thanks to another dead body, and not getting any help from the local police, Caldwell gets help from a petty thief played by Richard Pryor. After all, he's got nothing to lose, already being a criminal. One of the best scenes in the movie involves Pryor trying to help Wilder evade the police, who are at the train station looking for him. Pryor helps by having Wilder disguise himself in blackface! Wilder, of course, has no rhythm, which is what makes the scene so funny.

The story itself is more than adequate, but it is the relationship between Pryor and Wilder that is the highlight of the movie. They have excellent chemistry, and impeccable comedic timing together, in the rich tradition of Hitchcock's black comedy. The movie, however, is a more modern movie, as evidenced by the sex and bad language, which really make it unsuitable for the kids. Adults will enjoy it, though, and not only for the pairing of Wilder and Pryor. The supporting cast includes several names we've all seen before, including Patrick McGoohan as the bad guy; Scatman Crothers as a train porter; and people like Ned Beatty, Fred Willard, and Ray Walston. The score, by Henry Mancini, is not so much memorable as it is thoroughly evocative of the 1970s, and fits the movie like a glove.

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