Friday, July 10, 2009


With an unexpected day off yesterday, I divided my time between sitting slack-jawed in front of the computer and sitting slack-jawed in front of the TV. Two hours of that TV time was spent reacquainting myself with the 1976 comedy-thriller Silver Streak.

This movie seemed enormously entertaining back when I was eleven, and I remember enjoying it a couple times since, but I hadn't seen it in years. It doesn't have much of a reputation, except as the initial pairing of Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor, and it was made by a team of familiar hacks, including director Arthur Hiller (the auteur of Love Story) and writer Colin Higgins (of Foul Play and Nine To Five infamy). Nonetheless, I thought it would be a pleasant time-killer, and I thought it might be further proof that even the most routine pictures from the seventies had a basic quality of craftsmanship, a respect for the audience, that you simply don't see today.

Boy, was I wrong. Absolutely nothing about Silver Streak works. Its racial attitudes seem to come from the pre-civil rights era (Pryor character is a petty thief, and every other black actor with a speaking part plays a porter, waiter or shoe-shine guy!), its sexual politics are wince-inducing, its comedy is rooted in stereotypes (Clifton James plays a variation of the dumb redneck cop he so unamusingly portrayed in Live And Let Die) and the suspense sequences are so maladroit all you can do is sit there and marvel at the sheer incompetence.

About the only fun to be had is counting all the seventies signifiers, from a briefly glimpsed Alka-Seltzer "Plop, plop, fizz fizz" ad to Wilder's flared pants and ankle boots, which are treated to an almost fetishistic series of close-ups. There's also some fun to be had for fans of seventies James Bond pictures, since in addition to James, we also get a pre-Jaws Richard Kiel as another lurching henchman with weird dental work...but when a movie has nothing to recommend it other than how it reminds you of other, marginally better movies, something is very wrong.

Yet Silver Streak remains a typical movie of its era. Critics like to view seventies cinema as some sort of lost Golden Age, when the likes of Robert Altman and Martin Scorsese were free to follow their muses wherever they would go. In fact, most films of that time were Big Dumb Entertainments like Silver Streak--or like so many movies now. The only difference is, however mind-numbingly silly something like Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen may be, it at least trusts its audience to follow along. With Silver Streak, a good fifteen minutes could be shaved off its protracted running time if you cut out all the endless re-stating of expository dialogue. (Wilder has to explain the premise of why he's taking a train instead of flying at least half a dozen times!) How stupid did they think viewers were? Did they think anyone cared about the plot in the first place?

Unfortunately, since there seems to be some newly-enacted law decreeing that every single movie from the seventies needs to be remade, we'll no doubt someday get a new version of Silver Streak that will combine the lazy plotting and stereotyped characters of the original with the quick-cut shaky-cam aesthetic of modern action cinema. I'd jokingly suggest it as a vehicle for Adam Sandler and Chris Rock, but I have a feeling that could actually happen, and I don't want to give anyone ideas...