Film poster, artwork by George Gross
|Directed by||Arthur Hiller|
|Written by||Colin Higgins|
|Music by||Henry Mancini|
|Cinematography||David M. Walsh|
|Edited by||David Bretherton|
|Distributed by||20th Century Fox|
|Budget||$5.5 million or $6.5 million|
|Box office||$51.1 million|
Silver Streak is a 1976 American buddy comedy thriller film about a murder on a Los Angeles-to-Chicago train journey. It was directed by Arthur Hiller and stars Gene Wilder, Jill Clayburgh, and Richard Pryor, with Patrick McGoohan, Ned Beatty, Clifton James, and Richard Kiel in supporting roles. The film score is by Henry Mancini. This film marked the first pairing of Wilder and Pryor, who were later paired in three more films.
Book editor George Caldwell travels from Los Angeles to Chicago for his sister's wedding aboard a train called the Silver Streak. On board, George meets a vitamin salesman named Bob Sweet and a woman named Hilly Burns. Hilly works for Professor Schreiner, a well-known but reclusive art historian who is on a publicity tour for his new book on Rembrandt.
George sees a dead body dangling outside the window and then falling away, but he is drunk and Hilly insists he must have imagined it. In the morning, he sees Schreiner's book, with the author's photo: he was the dead man. Inside the book is an envelope. Schreiner's killers are Johnson, Whiney, and Reace. George goes to Schreiner's room, and Reace throws him off the train. George meets a farmer and they overtake the train in her biplane.
George sees Hilly with Johnson (who is impersonating Schreiner), Whiney, and art dealer Devereau. Devereau apologizes to George for the "misunderstanding" involving Reace. After mentioning "the Rembrandt letters," Johnson says he will return to his room for a glass of scotch.
George goes to the club car and begins drinking, confiding in Sweet about his situation. Sweet reveals himself as an undercover FBI agent named Stevens. He confirms George's suspicions: the real Schreiner did not drink alcohol. Devereau is a criminal who passes himself off as an art expert, and Whiney, Reace, and Johnson work for him. His plan is to have Johnson, disguised as Schreiner, discredit the book that exposes Devereau for authenticating two forgeries as original Rembrandts. They find the envelope George saw. It contains letters written by Rembrandt, proving Devereau's guilt. But then Reace kills Stevens and tries to kill George. Their fight ends on the roof, where George shoots Reace but is knocked off the train by an overhanging signal.
On foot again, George finds the local sheriff, but is accused of murdering Stevens. He escapes, stealing a patrol car which was transporting thief Grover T. Muldoon. George and Grover work together to reach the train at Kansas City. Grover disguises George as a black man and he gets by police and reboards the train.
George is captured, but he and Hilly are rescued from Devereau's room by Grover, disguised as a steward. After a shootout, George and Grover jump off the train and are arrested and taken to a train station, where federal agent Donaldson explains that he planted the Stevens murder story to protect George. George tells Donaldson about Devereau's plan, and Donaldson arranges for the train to be stopped by his men. Meanwhile, Devereau burns the Rembrandt letters.
Once the train has stopped and the passengers are off, another intense shootout ensues. George boards the train a fourth time, with Grover, as Devereau climbs onto the locomotive and orders the engineer to start moving. An agent shoots Whiney, George shoots Johnson, and Devereau shoots the engineer and places a toolbox on the dead man's switch to keep the engine running. Devereau is then shot by Donaldson, falls, and is hit by an oncoming train.
With no one alive in the locomotive cab, the throttle wide open, and the dead man's switch held down by a toolbox, the train is running wild. Devereau's men had also disabled the emergency brakes. With the help of a steward (Scatman Crothers), George uncouples the passenger cars from the engine. The runaway engine roars at full speed into Chicago's Union Station, smashes through the end-of-track barrier, and on into the terminal, destroying everything in its path. The uncoupled passenger cars glide safely into the station. Grover steals a sports car and drives away, and George and Hilly leave together.
The film was based on an original screenplay by Colin Higgins, who at the time was best known for writing Harold and Maude. He wrote Silver Streak "because I had always wanted to get on a train and meet some blonde. It never happened, so I wrote a script."
He wrote Silver Streak for the producers of The Devil's Daughter, a TV film Higgins had written. Both they and Higgins wanted to get into television. Colin Higgins' script was sent out to auction. It was set on an Amtrak train and Paramount was interested, but wanted Amtrak to give its approval. Alan Ladd Jr and Frank Yablans at 20th Century Fox didn't want to wait and bought the script for a then-record $400,000. Ladd said "It was like the old Laurel and Hardy comedies. The hero is Laurel, he falls off the train, stumbles about, makes a fool of himself, but still gets the pretty girl. Audiences have identified with that since Buster Keaton."
Colin Higgins wanted George Segal for the hero - the character's name is George - but Fox preferred Gene Wilder. "He's younger (Wilder was actually a year older than Segal), more identifiable for the younger audience. And he's so average, so ordinary, and he gets caught up in all these crazy adventures."
Colin Higgins claimed the producers did not want Richard Pryor cast because Pryor had recently walked off The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings; he says the producer at one stage considered casting another black actor as a backup. However, Pryor was very professional during the shoot.
The film grossed over $51 million at the box office and was praised by critics, including Roger Ebert. It maintains an 80% approval rating at Rotten Tomatoes from 20 reviews.Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune, however, called the film "a needlessly convoluted mystery yarn, which calls everyone's identity into question except Wilder's." Siskel, who gave the film just two stars, added that "the story isn't easy to follow" and that "I'm still not sure whether Clayburgh's character, secretary to Devereaux, was in on the hustle from the beginning."
Quotations related to Silver Streak at Wikiquote