Publisher George Caldwell (Gene Wilder) boards the Silver Streak cross-country train in Los Angeles looking forward to a boring journey so he can catch up on some work while waiting his arrival in Chicago for his sister's wedding. There's a slight mishap when he opens the connecting door of his compartment and sees a woman, Hilly (Jill Clayburgh), in her underwear, but a faulty latch notwithstanding, it looks as if things will be pretty quiet for George. That evening, he meets a vitamin salesman in the bar calling himself Bob Sweet (Ned Beatty) who informs him that the Silver Streak is a great place to pick up women, and to prove it he goes over to Hilly and tries his luck with her only to have her drink poured down his trousers. George will be more fortunate - at least until he catches sight of a body hanging outside a compartment window...
Silver Streak was made when the Alfred Hitchcock homages of the nineteen sixties and seventies were in full swing, and was favourably thought of by audiences, if less so by critics due to its derivative nature. Scripted by Colin Higgins, it pits old fashioned thrills of the innocent man caught up in deadly plotting kind against the new strain of comedy (well, new for the seventies, anyway) that made it seem up to the minute. Perhaps that is why the film doesn't come over as quite as fresh now that we've had a plethora of such comedy thrillers, but it still amuses fairly consistently.
It also starts out making moves to be a classy romantic comedy rather than the coarser suspense movie it turns into, although George gets pretty far with Hilly that fateful night. She is the secretary of an arts professor who is about to publish a new, long researched, book on Rembrandt, and he, according to the picture George sees on the back of the book she carries in her luggage, is the man George witnesses being thrown dead off the train. Hilly persuades him he's seeing things due to too much champagne, but the next morning he won't be deterred and makes his way along to the professor's compartment which, predictably, lands him in hot water.
A running joke has George frequently thrown off the train and endeavouring to re-board it, and so it is that he is ejected by none other than towering henchman Richard Kiel, complete with metal dental work - someone on the next James Bond project must have enjoyed this film. Our hapless hero realises that Hilly is in danger, and wanders the desert tracks for a while until he finds a farm which houses an earthy farmer (Lucille Benson) who invites him to milk a cow then flies him to the station where he gets back on the train. George is steadily drawn into the scheming against his meek nature and the story has him act on a par with one of the villains with great reluctance, even mistaken for one of the real killers, but necessarily to keep things speeding along.
Unusually, the film introduces one of its stars as the film is around halfway over, but he certainly gives the affair a kick. He's Richard Pryor playing opportunistic thief Grover, and with his appearance the laughs really flow; this was the first teaming of Wilder and Pryor, and probably the best. After being thrown off again and stealing a police car, George is shocked to find Grover in the back of it, but his wily cunning is a great help. So we are offered scenes such as Grover assisting George in avoiding the police by putting him in the world's worst disguise, a very seventies moment of humour, but one which is still funny thanks to the playing. Patrick McGoohan is a hissable villain, and has a whole array of baddies to back him up, and the twists prove that the art world was far more exciting than you ever imagined. It all climaxes with a spectacular act of destruction, and in spite of showing its age more than its influences nowadays, Silver Streak benefits most from the chemistry between its thoroughly likeable trio of stars. Music by Henry Mancini.