Aug 21, 2012

Silver Streak

Silver Streak, a 1976 homage to Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes (1938), seems odd for a movie that I found "good beyond hope" as a teenager.  Homely, frizzy-blond Gene Wilder (Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory), plays mild-mannered but randy book editor George Caldwell.  He's traveling from L.A. to Chicago via train for some reason, and since this is the 1970s, where every conversation is about sex, he hooks up with a secretary (Jill Clayburgh), who admits that she can’t type or take shorthand but “gives great phone," while he brags that he edits sex manuals ("I know what goes where, and why").  Back at the cabin, preparing for "phone," George sees her boss, a renowned art professor (do art professors get renowned?) fall past the window, shot to death.

Hilly doesn’t believe that George saw anything, but art dealer Devereau (suave Patrick McGoohan) does; we discover that Devereau has masterminded many murders, and that he intends to kill Hilly as soon as the train reaches Chicago. But before George can help, Devereau’s henchmen toss him off the train.

Framed for the professor’s murder, George wanders through rural Oklahoma with every Sheriff Lobo in a dozen counties chasing him, and to evade arrest, he steals a police car – with car thief Grover Muldoon handcuffed in the back seat. Grover is played by Richard Pryor, star of a few blaxsploitation vehicles and writer for such programs as The Flip Wilson Show and Sanford and Son.

The two experience an immediate, jaw-dropping attraction. They can’t seem to stop grinning at each other like schoolboys in love, in spite of the danger of their situation.

 Their union quickly becomes permanent: after they evade a police barricade and reach the safety of Kansas, Grover has no reason to stick around, yet he helps George steal a second car and drives with him through gorgeously-photographed rural landscapes while Henry Mancini’s romantic theme plays in the background. And their relationship becomes increasing physical: when they reach the train station in Kansas City, Grover grabs George’s hand, then puts his arm around him and pulls him close (ostensible to pull him out of danger); George responds by laying his head on Grover’s shoulder. 


They reboard the train together, and when the evil Devereau recaptures George, Grover dons a porter’s disguise and rescues him.

 After a gunfight, they are thrown from the train again, and grab at each other as they fall into a river. 

 Only after George is cleared of the murder charge and joins a cadre of federal agents out to capture Devereau does Grover opt to end their union. The two clasp hands, and then forearms, gazing at each other with an intensity that is painful to watch. George tries to say something chummy: “If you ever need anything. . . .” But Grover knows that they have transcended words. He touches his hand to his heart, and they slowly pull apart.

But he can’t leave, not yet. As George and the federal agents stop the train and exchange gunfire with Devereau and his henchmen, Grover inexplicitly re-appears.

 George knocks him over in the fury of his embrace, and then they reboard the train yet again to rescue the girl.

Finally, when the runaway train has stopped by crashing into Chicago’s Union Station, and George and Hilly -- the girl he spent ten minutes with -- discuss their future together -- Grover realizes that he has no chance with George. This time he permits no long farewell aching with desire: he steals a car and scrams. 

On the lobby card, Gene Wilder stands facing the camera, his arm around Jill Clayburgh. Off to the side, Richard Pryor is staring at them, a patently fake grin on his face. He has been abandoned.

Many gay and gay-friendly artists collaborated to produce this poignant evocation of same-sex love that almost – but not quite – triumphs over frenetic skirt-chasing.  Gay screenwriter Colin Higgins infused Foul Play (1978), Nine to Five (1980), and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982) with a pleasantly low-key ambisexuality. Arthur Hiller directed many of the hunkfests of the 1960’s, such as The Rifleman and Route 66, and made an early attempt to portray gay men in a positive light in Making Love (1982). Richard Pryor was openly bisexual and supported many gay causes.  And Gene Wilder noted that he and Pryor had “an almost sexual relationship. It's like lovers. When we see each other on the set there's a certain nervousness, a little anticipation. . .People call [it] a chemistry, but I call it an energy, like a sexual energy. . .it's almost as if [we're] lovers who have just met.”