Saturday, September 10, 2016
I do remember fondly their first pairing, Silver Streak, released in 1976, and directed by Arthur Hiller (who also passed away this summer). It is kind of a Hitchcockian comedy, in that while definitely comedic, the central storyline is a murder (or two or three).
Wilder plays George Caldwell, a mild-mannered book editor who is taking the title train from Los Angeles to Chicago (even in 1976, there had to be many script insertions to explain why so many people are still taking the train). He meets an attractive woman (Jill Clayburgh) who is the secretary of a professor who has just written a controversial book on Rembrandt. During lovemaking, Wilder spots the very same professor dangling dead outside his window.
Though Silver Streak is highly preposterous (is there really that much violence in the world of museum curation?) it's an enjoyable lark. Wilder plays straight man most of the time, especially when Pryor is introduced about halfway through the film as a career criminal who decides to help him. (Oddly, Pryor is particularly restrained as well. He had recently been kicked off/quit another film, so perhaps was overboard in minding his P's and Q's). Wilder's big comedic moment, unfortunate to look at today, is when he pretends to be a black man, covering his face with shoe polish and trying to jive. But he does slip in a line that he parroted from Young Frankenstein: a shoeshine man, who has sold him his radio, Kangol cap, and shoe polish, asks him if he wants anything else. "Nothing!" Wilder practically shouts, reminding us of his refusal of beverages from Frau Blucher.
Still, this film is fun, and Wilder walks a fine line between romantic hero and buffoon. He is thrown off the train three times, and always punctuates his exit with a robust, "Son of a bitch!" But the romance between he and Clayburgh is weak. She has a nice couple of seduction scenes, but spends the rest of the film being dragged around by the bad guys. Another bit of lunacy comes when, at the climax, federal agents give Wilder a gun and let him participate in the concluding shootout. Really?
I'm glad this film held up for me, because it was a favorite when I saw it forty years ago. A few interesting faces pop up, like Fred Willard, who looks impossibly young. It was a pretty good moneymaker, and again, inspired a short but vibrant team-up between Wilder and Pryor, who don't sound good together on paper, but did on film.