Let's take a look at three things that are important to a movie's success in relation to Silver Streak:
The first thing is Promotion.
Obviously promotion is important to any movie's success. Not only in the existance of promotion at all (if nobody's ever heard of your movie, no one will watch it) but also in how the movie is promoted. When a movie is called a "Hitchcockian-influenced cross country adventure [that] is as funny as it is suspenseful," you expect a certain thing. When a movie is promoted as "starring Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor," you expect a certain thing.
Now, I'm not certain that I'd call Silver Streak "Hitchcockian." In fact, I'm not sure if I'd call anything "Hitchcockian." That's not a word I use because I tend to speak like a simpleton. But I do know that parts of it were funny, parts of it were suspenseful and parts of it left my brain numb, which I guess are all things Alfred Hitchcock movies tend to do. I'm not sure if Silver Streak pulled all of those things off in a good way, but we'll leave that 'til the next section.
I will say that I wouldn't describe a movie as "starring ... Richard Pryor" when he doesn't show up until an hour of the movie has alredy happened. That's not "starring," that's "featuring." Which is too bad, because the movie really picked up when Pryor showed up. I don't think I'd ever seen him in a movie before, but I'm going to be inclined to from now on. Not only did he make the movie more entertaining, he's pretty much where all the funny was living.
So, to sum up, Silver Streak's promotion was midleading at best. Irritating but certainly not unheard of.
The second subject I'd like to discuss is Tone.
Now, I cannot categorically say that violence in movies is never funny. Especially since I think violence, and even death, in movies is often very, very funny. Clue, for instance, revolves entirely around murder and it is one of the funniest movies I've ever seen.
You'd think they could have shared their secret with Silver Streak. (Except Clue came out about a decade later, so I guess they couldn't have.)
I'm not a movie expert but I do know that it takes a lot to make the chemistry of a movie work, and if something is off it can ruin everything. Something was off in Silver Streak. It could have been so perfect; there was action, there was suspense and there was some humor, and those are all things I like. But the proportions were off.
The humor didn't mesh well with the death. At one point, the movie's hero, a regular guy on the way to his sister's wedding, kills a man (who was sent to kill him) with a spear gun and he feels no guilt about what he did. I don't care if he was trying to kill you, an average guy can't kill someone that easily and casually.
Later deaths are more serious and off-screenly gruesome and I'm surprised by how much they upset me (considering I find things like slasher movies very enjoyable and sometimes very funny).
It's all in the tone, and Silver Streak's tone was off. It was hard to find the funny bits funny because of the upsetting suspenseful bits, and the suspenseful bits were made unusually upsetting because of the funny bits.
The third subject I'd like to address is Audience Perception. In response to Silver Streak, this subject is entirely personal but I'm sure it can be adapted to fit other people's responses to other movies.
I know it's an unpopular opinion, but I don't like Gene Wilder. I kind of want to; I know he's considered a comedic genius. But, you see, I saw Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory at a young age (maybe four or five), before I saw Wilder in anything else. So, thanks to my being highly impressionable at the time and my tendency to hold grudges forever, I look at Gene Wilder and I see a mean, unpleasant man who kills children. In Silver Streak, he plays the aforementioned regular, everyday guy hero of the film.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have Patrick McGoohan who, thanks to The Prisoner (which I first saw when I was twelve, another highly impressionable age) I see as trustworthy, brave and a true hero. I admire and adore him, there's something about him that just screams "inherently good" to me. In Silver Streak, he plays not only the villain, but a wicked, wretched villain who slaps women, orders his flunkys to kill people and does a lot of killing people himself. He's mean and manipulative, thinks only of himself, threatens everyone and at one point hurls a racial slur at Richard Pryor so viciously it stung something inside me.
They took my own personal audience expectation (Gene Wilder = mean; Patrick McGoohan = hero) and flipped it over on me. And so on a level exclusive only to me, Silver Streak was incredibly hard to watch.
On the plus side, I think I'd like it a lot more if I watched it again, now that I know what to expect. I'd have my footing the second time around and, therefore, would probably be able to see more of the humor.
Plus, Richard Pryor and Scatman Crothers were both high points of the movie for me. I'm not terribly familiar with either of them (the only other movie I'd seen Crothers in was The Shining, which we all know I'm not a fan of) but Scatman Crothers was given some good lines and, like I said before, Richard Pryor was the high point of the film.
Oh, and there's a shot in the movie when Gene Wilder's character is on the roof of a train and grabs onto a signal post and hangs there while the train drives away without him. They used that shot in the opeining credits of The Fall Guy, which has one of the best theme songs ever (The Unknown Stuntman).
I have to wonder, if I had this hard a time watching Patrick McGoohan be a villain, how am I going to make it through Braveheart or (assuming I ever find a copy) Hell Drivers?
End of line.