Monday 1 February 2021

An Obscure Gem: The Silent Partner (1978)

A few weeks back, intrigued by the write-up, I decided to give The Silent Partner a chance and recorded it from the excellent Talking Pictures TV (through whom I discovered the wonderful The Beach Girls (which I wrote about here).  I'm so glad I did - what a fantastic, obscure little gem of a film it turned out to be!

Elliot Gould plays Miles Cullen, a mild-mannered bank teller who works at a branch inside a Toronto shopping centre.  After finding a discarded paying-in slip with a ransom demand written on it, Miles realises the bank will be robbed before the crime actually happens and uses this to his advantage.  When the criminal (Christopher Plummer) carries out the robbery, Miles creams off a substantial part of the loot, knowing the robber will be blamed for taking it all.  Unfortunately, the outraged crook is a psychotic who doesn’t take kindly to being outsmarted or losing most of his haul.  As he plots revenge, an increasingly deranged game of cat and mouse develops between the pair.

The film is based on the 1969 novel Think Of A Number by Danish writer Anders Boldelsen, a former law and economics student who liked Patricia Highsmith and Georges Simenon and his book was adapted into a 1969 film by Palle Kjærulff-Schmidt, which starred Bibi Andersson and Henning Moritzen.

The 1978 version has impeccable credentials, both behind and in front of the camera.  Curtis Hanson, who optioned the book and wrote the screenplay on spec hoping to direct it, would go on to write and/or direct The Bedroom Window (1987), The Hand That Rocks The Cradle (1992), The River Wild (1994), LA Confidential (1997), Wonder Boys (2000) and 8 Mile (2002).  His script is tight and smart (Roger Ebert called it ‘the most audaciously clockwork plot I've seen in a long time’) and filled with complex characters who constantly ring true, even as the stakes rise.

The producers wouldn’t let him direct and, instead, went with Canadian Daryl Duke, who’d previously made Payday (1973) and would go on to achieve fame for The Thorn Birds in 1983.  His precise direction tells the story briskly and efficiently, with plenty of scope for the little details that paint character along the way (Miles’ chess set and his beloved fish, especially).  In an interview with Kim Morgan, Elliot Gould spoke highly of Duke, saying “Daryl was wonderful.  We had a very good work relationship [and] talked about doing other things together. Daryl was a friend.”  The film looks marvellous and makes full use of its Toronto locations, a superb display in mood and lighting from Billy Williams who contributed to some terrific films over his career and won an Oscar for Gandhi (1982).  As Gould told Kim Morgan, “Billy Williams is first class.”  The soundtrack is the only film work of celebrated jazz pianist and composer Oscar Peterson, coincidentally a schoolmate of Plummer.  In an interview with Mark R. Hasan, Peterson explained the producer Joel Michael approached him to write the music but, with time constraints, he laid “out the melodic end and [Michael] brought out a gentleman [Ken Wannberg] to score it.”

The film was financed under Canada’s Capital Cost Allowance incentive, whereby film productions were allowed to act as tax shelters for investors, providing they utilised majority Canadian talent in all positions.  It’s worth noting that for all the people who scammed this scheme (apparently, hundreds of films were made under it but never shown), it helped launch the likes of David Cronenberg, Ivan Reitman and many others, fostering the ‘Canuxploitation’ era of 1974-1982.  The Silent Partner was the first film to be produced by Carolco Pictures, who would go on to enjoy great success in the 80s and 90s with the likes of the Rambo and Terminator series and Basic Instinct.

“I’m just going to give you a little time to try to be reasonable.  If you decide you’re not going to be reasonable, then one night when you come home you’ll find me inside, waiting for you.  And that will be the night you’ll wish you’d never been born.”

The cast is a huge asset to the film.  Elliot Gould plays Cullen in a very naturalistic way and his transformation from slightly awkward and often underestimated (and, therefore, instantly identifiable) everyman into a kind of criminal mastermind is very well done.  He clearly enjoyed the character - he called it “the best script I've read since The Touch” - and still speaks fondly of both the film and the process of making it, as per his interview with Kim Morgan.  He’s equally matched by Christopher Plummer, as the bank robber Harry Reikle, who projects menace from the first moment you see him and proved a revelation for me - I’ve never seen him portray anything close to the sadist he does here.  He’s very handsome, with manicured nails and mascara’d eyes, but you can almost see the poison simmering below this glamorous front and his soft-spoken approach just unsettles all the more.  Once the relationship between him and Gould gets going - late night phone calls, face-to-face meetings, threats that clearly aren’t idle and a terrifying encounter with a fishtank - you know things are going to end badly, you just don’t know how.  Gould told Kim Morgan, “Plummer was a very, very creepy guy in that part, [he] was great and gave me a touch of class.” 
The male leads are ably supported by Susannah York and Celine Lomez, both of whom create thorough characters as real people in roles that could, quite easily, have become token romantic parts.  York arguably has the harder job, bringing a tone of damaged British elegance to Julie, Cullen’s feisty and independent colleague (and love interest).  Involved in a dead-end affair with the banks manager, she’s clearly seeking some excitement in her life and she’s also sharp enough to realise what’s going on (and gets Miles out of a sticky situation or two). In a nice touch, Cullen uses a Superman lunchbox to hide the money in and Susannah York had just played Superman’s mum in the 1978 film.  Celine Lomez plays the mysterious Elaine, who Miles meets at the funeral of his father.  It quickly becomes apparent she’s telling lies and as the affair between her and Cullen picks up pace, it’s clear her loyalties are divided.  Lomez sparkles with life and energy, a sensual character who entrances both Cullen and the viewer, calculating her way through a plan of her own.  Lomez, who began acting in Canada aged 15 and was due to star in Charlie’s Angels before being deemed “too sexy for prime time”, was also a pop star.

The supporting cast are uniformly solid and help give the film a lived-in quality, especially with all the little aspects of worklife we see.  The bank’s security guard is played by Sean Sullivan, who was Christopher Walken’s dad in The Dead Zone (1983) and the film introduced John Candy in a small role as a bank employee who rushes into a quick marriage after his wife/colleague is apparently made pregnant by a workmate.

* * *
Made entirely in Toronto, there are plenty of Canadian references throughout and, as someone lucky enough to have visited the country (only briefly, unfortunately) and loved both it and the people, I thoroughly enjoyed them.  In fact, their love of the British way of life - the only people in my entire trip to the US who called their mothers ‘mum’ and knew what brown sauce was - made me think the film was set in London until I saw the mall.
The main location is the Eaton Centre, apparently Toronto's most famous shopping mall.  It was opened a few months before the film was shot and, according to Canuxploitation, was “still the most-visited shopping mall in North America” as of 2015.  The bank branch was real - Cullen works for the fictitious First Bank Of Toronto - and “located on the first level near a small fountain that has since been removed”.  The mall’s nameksake department store, Eaton’s, went bankrupt and closed in 1999.

Geoff Pevere, in his book Toronto On Film, says the film “remains a pivotal work in capturing Toronto’s transition from a stuffy WASP burgh to the country’s largest and wealthiest city”, calling it “Toronto’s answer to the urban decay movies made in America in the early 1970s.”

* * *
A problem arose after filming ended, that resulted in Daryl Duke leaving the film.  The producers wanted to include a scene where Elaine - SPOILER ALERT - is beheaded and Duke didn’t want to film it.  “I was not happy that he was taken off the picture,” Gould told Kim Morgan.  “He wouldn’t do the beheading scene and they took [him] off the picture so they could shoot it.  It was never in the script.”  Nothing else of Duke’s cut was changed, according to Gould and while you can debate the ethics, the sequence has a nasty quality that strengthens the sadism of Plummer’s character.  Hanson said, in a 2002 interview with Sandra Hebron at the National Film Theatre in London, “I ended up finishing the movie. I was brought back by the producers to do a week of pick-up shots and all of the post-production.”

This scene aside, Gould was very pleased with what had turned into a Hitchcockian thriller.  He met the great director in 1977, while co-hosting the Photoplay Awards on TV and since his dressing room was closest to the stage, he was asked if Sir Alfred Hitchcock (there to collect an award) could use his room.  Gould readily agreed and the two men chatted, as he told Kim Morgan.  “I asked if he was going to make another film” to which Hitchcock replied “I don’t know if the audience still wants my fantasy”.  After insisting they did, “we talked a little bit about The Silent Partner, and he knew it. I went off to prepare to do [the film and] wrote Mr. Hitchcock a couple of cards because I knew I wanted to keep that in mind. I wanted it to be a sort of Hitchcockian story. He was a perfect reference.  And then, coincidentally, the next year, I did The Lady Vanishes with Angela Lansbury and Cybill Shepherd – that’s when I started to communicate with Mr. Hitchcock and got the chance to spend some real quality time with him.”  He later held a private screening for Hitchcock who apparently loved the film.

The Silent Partner was released in Canada on November 3rd 1978 (curiously, it was released in the UK on September 7th) and performed well in its home country, becoming a sleeper hit in the USA.  Critical opinion was generally very good.

Nominated for eleven Etrogs (the Canadian equivalent of the Oscars), it won six, for Best Picture (producers Garth Drabinsky, Joel Michaels and Stephen Young), Best Director, Sound Recording (David Lee), Sound Editing (Bruce Nyznik), Original Music and Best Editing (George Appleby).
A proper under-the-radar film, this isn’t easy to find - its only Blu Ray edition is a Region 1 release from Kino Lorber - and yet does everything it sets out to do perfectly.  There’s the touch of Hitchcock, a twisty plot that keeps the viewer on their toes, great characterisation and acting, assured direction, a tight script and the slightly sleazy feel you get from 1970s thrillers.  In addition, it’s set at Christmas and takes full advantage of the season with the shopping centre full of patrons buying into the bright commerciality, while the melancholic undertones of the holiday are also acknowledged.  In fact, I think this has replaced Die Hard as my favourite Christmas movie!

If you like smart, intelligent thrillers - especially ones from the 70s - and well made, well acted films, you really should try and find this.  A cracking piece of work, it does everything the poster tagline promises - “a chilling story interwoven with comedy, sex and terror” - and what more you could want than that?


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