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Film / Silver Streak

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"Getting on the Silver Streak is easy. Staying on is the problem."

A 1976 American comedy/action/mystery film directed by Arthur Hiller, written by Colin Higgins, and starring Gene Wilder with Jill Clayburgh, Richard Pryor, and Patrick McGoohan.

George Caldwell (Wilder) is a book editor traveling from Los Angeles to Chicago via a passenger train nicknamed the "Silver Streak". On board, he meets a garrulous vitamin salesman named Bob Sweet (Ned Beatty) and an alluring secretary named Hilly Burns (Clayburgh), the latter whom he quickly romances.

While getting intimate with Hilly, George sees the body of Hilly's employer, Professor Schreiner, falling from the roof of their car. When George attempts to investigate, he too is thrown off the train. Eventually making his way back onto the train, George tells Bob Sweet what happened, and Sweet reveals that he's actually an FBI agent who's been tailing international art dealer Roger Devereau (McGoohan), whom he believes to be the one responsible for Schreiner's death. Schreiner's new book on Rembrandt would have exposed several of Devereau's prized pieces as frauds. Devereau's henchmen kill Sweet and attempt to kill George, who escapes the train hoping to inform the authorities. Unfortunately, Devereau has already framed George for Sweet's death. Evading the police with the aid of a thief named Grover T. Muldoon (Pryor), George must find a way back aboard the Silver Streak in order to stop Devereau and rescue Hilly.

This was the first of four films that Wilder and Pryor appeared in together, though Pryor plays only a supporting character this time.

Tropes seen in Silver Streak:

  • Always Save the Girl: George's reason for getting back on the train the second and third times.
  • And a Diet Coke: The '70s version: we see two very hefty men in the dining car drinking Tab with their meals.
  • Artistic License – Law: The Feds bring George along to an armed confrontation between police and the villains and even give him a loaded revolver to use. Police would never do this, but we need to keep the protagonists in the action.
  • Berserk Button: Grover's reaction to Devereau dropping the N-Bomb on him... priceless!
  • Blackface: There's a somewhat infamous scene in which Grover convinces George to bypass a police checkpoint by donning blackface and acting in a stereotypically black manner.
  • Blood from the Mouth: Bob Sweet after being shot dies this way while talking to George.
  • Book Ends: Provided by the train porter, Ralston:
    "Goodbye, L.A., goodbye!"
    "Hello, Chicago, hello!"
  • Buzzing the Deck: Rita's "just itchin'" to buzz some sheep. George is somewhat less enthused.
  • Car Meets House: The film ends with the engine of the Silver Streak ploughing through the wall of Chicago's Union Station and into the terminal.
  • Chess Master: Devereau certainly fancies himself as one, although his supposed mastery is mostly one Indy Ploy after another. Bob Sweet (a.k.a. Agent Stevens) is one of these, of the Crouching Moron, Hidden Badass variety.
    • If it hadn't been for the Contrived Coincidence of Reace showing up just after Sweet buzzed for the porter from George's cabin, Sweet's plan to have Devereau, Whiney, and Johnson locked up would have succeeded and the letters would have been saved, not to mention that the runaway train situation at the end would have been prevented. Instead, he answers George's door just as they enter a tunnel and is mistakenly shot by Reace, who thinks he's killing George.
  • Clear My Name: As if George didn't have enough to worry about, he's framed for Sweet's murder.
  • Cloud Cuckoo Lander: Rita Babtree, who encourages George to "take a tit in each hand and let nature take its course," takes him on a sheep-buzzing dive despite his clear discomfort with flying, and simply cannot get his name right.
    Rita: So long, Steve!
    George: (over his shoulder, running for the train) GEORGE!
    • Bob Sweet is pretending to be this, but really, he's the Chess Master.
  • Cool Car: The Jaguar XK-E that Grover steals from the used car lot, and the Fiat he liberates after the Union Station crash at the end.
    George: Are you crazy? I thought we were gonna take the Chevy in the back?
    Grover: Chevy? That's a jerk-off, man! This here is pure pussy!
    George: "Pure pussy"? I'll tell that to the judge!
  • Cool Old Lady: Lucille Benson (who specialized in that kind of role) as Rita Babtree, the crop-duster pilot who gives George a lift after he's ejected from the train the first time.
  • Crooks Are Better Armed: The Feds have revolvers. Devereau and his men have what appear to be AR-18s.
  • Deadfoot Leadfoot: Devereau is killed after taking over the train, but unfortunately there's still a heavy toolbox sitting on the dead-man's pedal (Which would otherwise apply the emergency brakes if not constantly held down.). Modern locomotives use an intermittent alerter system to avoid this potential for abuse.
  • Dumb Muscle: Devereau claims Reace is "like a child."
  • Evil Knockoff: Devereau has an Evil Minion who can impersonate Professor Schreiner.
  • Fictional Counterpart: AMRoad, for Amtrak. The "Silver Streak" itself is presumably based on Amtrak's "Southwest Chief" train (though the train scenes were actually filmed using the thinly disguised Canadian Pacific Railway "Canadian").
  • Foreshadowing: The Feds inform George that Devereau once crashed an airliner full of passengers to kill one man, in order to cover up a crime. When his original plan is derailed, Devereau resorts to crashing the train into the station to cover up his tracks.
  • Genre-Busting: It's a comedy-mystery-suspense film with a romantic subplot, hints of Blaxpoitation, and a disaster movie ending.
  • Giant Mook: Reace, played by 7'2" Richard Kiel.
  • Gory Discretion Shot: Devereau is (presumably) decapitated by another train; it's not shown onscreen (it's a PG film, after all), but George does see it, and prevents Hilly from looking.
  • Harpoon Gun: George finds one in the cargo car before confronting Reace on top of the train and shooting him with it.
  • Hidden Depths: Bob Sweet, who at first seems to be an obnoxious, womanizing buffoon, is actually an undercover government agent chasing the Big Bad. In fact, given his first conversation with George, he may even be the Chess Master. Hinted at by how much he knows about Devereau.
  • Implausible Deniability: George repeatedly denies being afraid of flying, but when we see him in a plane, he's clearly very uncomfortable. Granted, the fact that the pilot briefly puts the plane into what must, to him, appear to be a suicidal dive may have something to do with it.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Grover, a car thief that George encounters and helps free from arrest about halfway through the film, goes out of his way to help George rescue Hilly instead of simply thinking about his own freedom.
    Grover: You forgot your wallet.
    George: Thanks. Some thief you are!
  • Lingerie Scene: The first time we (and George) see Hilly, she's in a mini-slip as George innocently opens the door between their adjoining compartments while she's dressing.
    George: (as he fumbles with the stuck door latch) I'm sorry... I'm not doing it on purpose.
  • Low Clearance: George is knocked off the top of the train by a signal light.
  • Magic Brakes: Surprisingly accurate: uncoupling the cars causes the air lines to break, thus setting off the emergency brakes...for the coaches, at least.
  • Meaningful Name: Bob Sweet is a jovial, friendly, talkative, and somewhat buffoonish guy on the surface.
  • Mistaken for Cheating: Hilly, when George sees her with Devereau. Granted, they'd only met the night before, but the hurt on George's face is so obvious, even the apparently-besotted Sweet comments on it.
    Sweet: Well, what do you expect? She's a hot little number, and he's very heavy competition.
  • Mood Whiplash: George and Hilly share a romantic and flirty dinner, then retire to bed with more champagne and clear intentions of having sex, when — complete with Scare Chord — George seels a figure "shot through the head" fall off the train outside the window.
    George: If this is what the DTs are like, I'm giving up the bottle for life!
  • No Honor Among Thieves: Devereau barely cares about what happened to Reace, and is amused when George mentions that he shot him, responding "Good for you." Later, when Whiney is injured in the shootout and is desperately trying to get back on board the train, Devereau stomps on his hand instead of helping him.
  • Obstructive Bureaucrat: Every official in the movie other than the Feds is thoroughly unhelpful in getting the plot rolling, forcing George to do almost everything himself. Even the Feds themselves run into this: when they – the police – call Chicago dispatch to warn them of the runaway train in the climax, they're met with a smarmy and incredulous middleman who refuses to cooperate until he gets absolute proof from his own people, and then can't even help them after he does. He does eventually pick up the pace in tracking down his boss, who's naturally taking his lunch break in the most remote part of the station.
  • Only Sane Man: George is a simple book editor with a love of gardening who, while traveling to his sister's wedding, suddenly finds himself caught in a web of intrigue between government agents, art forgers, and a random petty criminal who becomes his partner as he tries to stop the plot.
  • O.O.C. Is Serious Business: "Professor Schreiner" going to have a Scotch tips Stevens off that he's an Evil Knockoff.
  • Playing Possum: Grover plays dead during the final confrontation. When George checks on him and he pops back up perfectly fine, George curses and lets a table fall on Grover's head.
  • Police Are Useless: In play through most of the film. The Fed on the train gets himself killed almost immediately after revealing himself. George's efforts to explain Devereau's plot to The Sheriff prove ineffective, culminating in the Sheriff ignoring everything he's saying while accusing him of being a murderer. Later, the Feds are revealed to be onboard with George, but George and company are still left to do much of the thwarting and rescuing themselves.
  • Politically Incorrect Villain: Devereau drops the N-bomb on Grover after being driven into a Villainous Breakdown and gets read the riot act at gunpoint for it.
  • "Reason You Suck" Speech: George to the sheriff. "You stupid, ignorant son of a bitch, dumb bastard. Jesus Christ, I've met some dumb bastards in my time, but you outdo them all!"
  • Rule of Three: George is forced off the train three times. Each time he expresses his frustration with a loud "SONOFABITCH!!!"
  • Reckless Gun Usage: The local sheriff watches television clutching his service revolver with his finger on the trigger.
  • Runaway Train: Devereau has his men disable the emergency brakes as they prepare their escape, then kills the engineer and places a toolbox on the throttle.
  • Scary Teeth: They're hardly ever seen but Reace has the same teeth as Jaws.
  • Serial Killings, Specific Target: According to the Feds, Devereau once engineered a plane crash in Cologne, Germany that killed a hundred people just to get one man, in order to cover up Devereau’s involvement with a scandal at the Metropolitan Gallery.
  • "Shaggy Dog" Story: Devereau burns the Rembrandt letters shortly before the climax, which are the whole reason for the conflict in the first place.
  • Shoe Shine, Mister?: The police are looking for George, so Grover buys some shoe polish from a shoeshiner at a stand at the train station to use to disguise him as a black man.
  • Shout-Out: This line from Grover to George:
  • Spanner in the Works: Devereau's plot would've probably gone off smoothly had George not taken it upon himself to investigate and gotten Grover involved; the duo (mostly because of George's stubborn determination) wind up taking down Devereau and his men (though as explained below Devereau still accomplished his actual goal).
  • The Bad Guy Wins: In a manner of speaking. While he ends up dead, Devereau burned the real Rembrandt letters and without them, Professor Schriner's book would largely be dismissed by scholars as a crank work.
  • The Teetotaler: Professor Schreiner, which provides Stevens with an important clue to Devereau's plan.
  • This Is Reality: George is surprised as to how quickly a gun runs out of bullets. Possibly a Shout-Out to Blazing Saddles.
  • Thriller on the Express: The plot doesn't get confined to the train all the time but most is there and the events on the train generate the reasons for George not having anywhere else to go.
  • Token Trio: George, Hilly, and Grover.
  • Traintop Battle: George has one of these against Reace about halfway through the film. (Footage from the scene, with Wilder — or, rather, his stunt double — dangling from an overhead railroad signal, was later incorporated into the opening credits of The Fall Guy.)
  • Unusual Euphemism: "Yeah, I wanna lie back on the grass and have you teach me some more about gardening." Sold by George's reaction.
  • Vehicle Title: Silver Streak is the name of the train.
  • Villainous Breakdown: Grover's deliberate intervening bumbling causes Devereau to have one that causes him to throw a racial slur against him, which in turn prompts Grover to draw his revolver on him.
  • Villainous Plan Inertia: Devereau plants a toolbox on the train's gas pedal to keep it moving while he takes potshots at the heroes. When he's killed, the box is still on the gas pedal and there's no way to get to the engine before it crashes into Chicago's train station.
  • Would Hit a Girl: Devereau is revealed to be an actual villain when he slaps Hilly out of George's sight.