(director: Arthur Hiller; screenwriter: Colin Higgins; cinematographer: David M. Walsh; editor: David Bretherton; music: Henry Mancini; cast: Gene Wilder (George Caldwell), Jill Clayburgh (Hilly Burns), Richard Pryor (Grover Muldoon), Patrick McGoohan (Roger Devereau), Ned Beatty (Bob Sweet), Clifton James (Sheriff Oliver Chauncey), Ray Walston (Mr. Edgar Whiney), Scatman Crothers (Ralston), Richard Kiel (Reace–Goldtooth), Stefan Gierasch (Prof. Schreiner & Johnson), Lucille Benson (Rita, farmer/pilot); Runtime: 114; MPAA Rating: PG; producers: Edward K Milkis/Thomas L Miller; 20th Century Fox; 1976)

“It could have been a lot funnier if Wilder was a more gifted comic.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Arthur Hiller (“See No Evil, Hear No Evil”/”Love Story”/”Author! Author!”) directs and Colin Higgins writes this uneven adventure comedy, too much like a Bob Hope comedy for its own good, that has plenty of dead spots before it shows some life when the streetwise Richard Pryor enters the scene at the halfway point. It marks the initial teaming of Pryor with Gene Wilder, who made four films together.

The recently divorced, young, mild-mannered non-fiction book publisher George Caldwell (Gene Wilder), goes first-class on the Silver Streak from L.A. to Chicago to attend his sister’s wedding and hooks up with the hot secretary to an arts professor, Hilly Burns (Jill Clayburgh), for a bit of train board romance. While necking, George witnesses through the window a man shot through the head fall off the train roof. He’s soon identified as Hilly’s boss, who is on the verge of exposing a group of vicious art forgers by printing the Rembrandt papers in his latest book. In the morning, a now sober George checks the professor’s compartment to make sure he wasn’t just having an hallucination due to drinking too much champagne. In the prof’s compartment, George finds a nasty man named Mr. Whiney (Ray Walston) rifling through the professor’s belongings and when he persists in questioning Whiney another thug, a giant who goes 7’2″ with silver teeth, named Reace (Richard Kiel), throws him off the train (the film’s recurring joke will have George thrown off the train a few times and then trying to get back on board). When George boards the train again he hooks up with the lecherous vitamin salesman he met the day before, Bob Sweet (Ned Beatty), who turns out to be a federal agent trailing the suspicious sinister art world criminal Roger Devereau (Patrick McGoohan), the man the professor will expose in his book as a fraud. When Sweet gets killed by a bullet meant for George, the hapless publisher finds himself off the train again and to get back on hooks up with the opportunistic fast-talking thief, Grover (Richard Pryor). They get on the train in Kansas City, with George donning shoe polish to make a blackface in order to disguise himself as a black man since the porter (Scatman Crothers) mistakenly reported him as the murderer of the vitamin salesman and the police are searching for him. From hereon, it’s just a routine course comedy thriller leading to a runaway train climax at the Windy City’s Union Station.

It could have been a lot funnier if Wilder was a more gifted comic and Hiller a more gifted director. Boisterous comedy is the only thing it had going for it, as the suspense story was too weak to be effective (its takeoff on Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes is second-rate) and the romance tale had no sizzle. But the film was a crowd-pleaser and did a brisk box office, and an even brisker DVD rental business.