Last night, I sat down and watched Silver Streak. I was kind of excited actually. I hadn’t seen the film since I was in high school. And much later, I read a screenwriting book by Syd Field. In it, he talked a lot about the film and clearly thought that it was a great script. Even at the time, I thought that was a stretch. I didn’t recall it as much more than a vehicle for Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor. So I was interested to see what I had missed.
The short answer to that query is, “Not much.” But I see why Field liked it! It is very well structured. The first act ends with Wilder getting thrown off the train. The third act starts with Wilder and Pryor jumping off the train. What’s more, the second act is divided into two parts by Wilder—Can you guess—getting removed from the moving train. I’m not saying that the script is bad because of this. But I’m also not saying that the script is good because of this.
What most bothers me about the script is that it goes for realism and yet is full of plot holes. I don’t mind all the cute coincidences; that’s totally in keeping with style of the film. I don’t even mind that Pryor’s character clearly was supposed to leave at the beginning of the third act, but was brought back because he is absolutely the best thing in the movie. But I do mind that the FBI acted stupidly throughout the film so that there was a film. And I do mind that the villain doesn’t have anything close to a plan that would allow him to get away.
Basically, Devereau kills the professor to get the Rembrandt letters because they will prove that two paintings that Devereau purchased are forgeries. So his plan is to substitute a lookalike for the professor. Okay. The professor’s picture is on the book and obviously his publisher and other people would know, but I can accept it. But when things go wrong and Wilder finds out, they just try to kill him and leave his body on the train. Under the best of circumstances, no one is going to be allowed off the train until the police search everyone and everything. Of course, that isn’t the only murder. And at the end, we have Devereau running around with a rifle shooting cops in helicopters. Yeah, those snobby art collectors are know to be very good at gun play.
All of that wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t for the totally illogical behavior of the feds. When the agent who is on the train gets killed, the first thing the authorities would have done is check him for ID and they would have found his badge. And then, they could have just waited for the train to stop at a regular stop, got on board and taken Devereau and his men into custody. After all, they were the only people on board with guns!
I can appreciate what Colin Higgins was trying to do in the screenplay. But I don’t actually think it works. The first act is a romance. The second act is a comedy. The third act is action. And that first act is the killer because that’s the one that gets you into the mood of thinking this movie will have something to do with reality. Contrast that to another Arthur Hiller film, The In-Laws, which is preposterous from the first minute. Of course, the film works because Wilder and Pryor are great together. But this film is going a very long way out of the way to have a good second act with these characters.
There is another problem with the film for modern audiences. It is sexist and racist. The two women on the train are apparently sex starved. And the heroine is consistently a prop who can only moisten the foreheads of men who have been clubbed. Blacks in this universe are either AMTRAK employees or Pryor, who plays a petty criminal. In fact, even after the train crash, he steals a car and goes on his merry. The one exception to this was still a stereotype: the shoeshine man in the train station. He was, however, part of a very telling moment. Wilder is in the bathroom having put shoeshine on his face and is now trying to learn how to walk in rhythm to the music. The shoeshiner comes upon him and says, “You must be in pretty big trouble, fella. But for God’s sake, learn to keep time!” In our segregated society, that’s very true. In general, a white guy would equate “trouble” with “bad guy.” The black guy knows that trouble doesn’t mean you’ve done anything wrong. This is, of course, a lesson that more and more white people are learning each day.
I understand that I’m focusing on the film’s failings. The truth is that the second act is really good. And if that’s what you want, you should watch Stir Crazy. It has the advantage of being silly from beginning to end.