One of the advantages of growing up before the internet was the discovery of hidden gems among video rentals and on cable tv.
The Silent Partner is one of those movies.
Cable, much like Netflix in the early days, was often starving for programming. Networks like HBO, that would later go on to define itself as one of the most prestigious premium channels available, initially needed to run the same film over and over to fill time. Luckily, smart programmers reached out for films, that for whatever reason, didn’t find an audience in theaters.
Many of those films later became video and cable cult classics.
Even upon its initial release back in 1978, The Silent Partner was already being called a sleeper. Both Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, the world’s biggest movie critiques at the time, both urged people to go see it before it got pulled from theaters.
To be fair, The Silent Partner wasn’t exactly an easy sell for exhibitors. In terms of genre, it’s been described as: a heist film, a dark satire, a crime drama, a workplace love triangle, and even a horror film. It’s often lumped in as simply a Canuxploitation film (B-films made in Canada that were marketable lowbrow). But being a hard to describe film is part of what makes The Silent Partner so great.
To begin with, The Silent Partner had great bones. It had a great writer, great director, and great cast led by unassuming everyman Elliott Gould.
Not enough can be said about Elliott Gould in the seventies. He was a unique leading man to say the least. He was a handsome movie star who didn’t look or act anything like a handsome movie star. His charm was always embodied by his vulnerability.
Most audiences today might only know Gould as Reuben Tishkoff, the comic Godfather figure to George Clooney’s gang in the Oceans movies, but I highly suggest seeking out some of his earlier work.
Here, Gould plays the mild-mannered Miles Cullen, an almost unseen bank employee who cleverly discovers the Toronto bank he works in was nearly the target of a robbery. After surmising the robber will try again the next day, Miles decides to seize the opportunity to steal the bulk of the money for himself, while easily laying the blame on the robber.
Once the robber realizes what Miles has done, he sets out to reclaim what is rightfully his.
The robber, played brilliantly by Christopher Plummer is without a doubt one of the scariest most sadistic portrayals of a villain ever put on film.
Plummer plays Reikle, a career criminal with a brutal streak, who may, or may not, be transitioning into a woman throughout the film. Echoes of Plummer’s performance as Reikle are found in both Anthony Hopkins’ smooth take on Hannibal Lector and Ted Levine’s gender confused Buffalo Bill from The Silence of the Lambs. The audience spends no time wondering if this man is serious. There is no doubt.
Not only does Reikle mean business, but toying with him would surely mean your life.
The audience lives and dies with Miles Cullen’s choices, who we soon find is in way over his head from the moment he took advantage of the robbery. His life spins into so many directions that he finds himself digging deeper and deeper with each new action. But Miles isn’t dumb, not by a longshot. He doesn’t necessarily make poor decisions, he just doesn’t get away with them the way he’d hoped.
When the beautiful Elaine, played by Celine Lomez, suddenly enters his life, he questions her motives outright. He rightly can’t believe a guy like him could be so lucky. When Elaine comes clean, that she was actually sent to him by Reikle to keep tabs on him while Reikle is away in prison on a different charge, Miles chooses to continue the relationship anyway.
Like I said, Miles isn’t dumb.
Other standout performances include: the late great Susannah York as a fellow bank employee who Cullen is sweet on only to discover she’s having an affair with their married boss, French Canadian singer Celine Lomez who plays the mysterious Elaine who claims to have been Cullen’s recently deceased father’s nurse, and an early onscreen performance by none other than John Candy playing a loveable, yet gullible employee at the bank.
The behind the camera crew of The Silent Partner was equally impressive. Future Oscar winner Curtis Hanson, who would go onto great fame directing The Hand That Rocks the Cradle and LA Confidential, wrote the screenplay on spec. Hanson adapted it from the book Think of a Number by Anders Bodelsen in the hopes to be able to direct the film himself. Although Hanson never got to direct The Silent Partner, it is widely rumored he did pick-ups on the film after Daryl Duke walked off the picture due to a dispute over the infamous beheading scene (more on this later).
Daryl Duke was an amazingly underrated director. Duke, probably most famous for directing the hit TV mini-series The Thorn Birds, had made another fantastic sleeper film called Payday with Rip Torn a few years earlier. The expertise Duke displayed in Payday (a story of a singer’s downward spiral that’s been often imitated in films like Crazy Horse and Bradley Cooper’s A Star is Born) placed him at the top of his game here.
The twists and turns aren’t obvious.
The pacing is deliberate without being slow. Duke does an amazing job exhibiting a modern noir in Toronto’s burgeoning landscape. He even uses the fact Toronto’s forever undergoing construction to solve a few plot points. Even though the film is a great time capsule of the late seventies with its overcrowded shopping malls, and amazing leisure suits, it still has a high tech feel to it.
One of the more charming aspects of The Silent Partner is the amount of time Miles and his co-workers spend outside of work together. They routinely go for drinks, parties, and attend one another’s weddings throughout the majority of the film. Miles relationship with his co-workers becomes one more landmine to avoid while not only running for his life from Reikle, but also covering up the fact he himself robbed his own bank. Although his co-workers are like family, this is suffocating to Miles. One of his reasons for stealing in the first place is his wanton desire to finally break free from his monotony.
This film’s lynchpin is Gould’s amazing performance. Watching the mild-mannered Miles go from sedate wallflower to a crime committing Casanova is truly something to behold. It’s easy to see some inspiration for Walter White in Breaking Bad inside of Elliott Gould’s Miles, as well as in Curtis Hanson’s similarly themed film Bad Influence in 1990 starring James Spader and Rob Lowe.
Even though Miles is ultimately a criminal himself, you want to see him get away with it.
Although this film is an unmistakable forgotten masterpiece it’s important to point out its unflinching brutality.
The Silent Partner has extremely real depictions of violence against women, including rape, battery, and a horribly graphic beheading. While all of these are in service to the story its worth knowing what you’re getting into before you watch it on date night. The beheading scene was so controversial, Duke clashed with producers over its inclusion. After they insisted, Duke walked off the picture rather than shoot it himself.
The Silent Partner is now available as a collector’s edition Blu-ray from Kino-Lorber complete with film historian commentary and a new interview with Elliott Gould, who among other things, tells how Steven Spielberg sung the movies praises to him personally. It’s also available to rent on Amazon Prime.
Sadly, Daryl Duke, Curtis Hanson, Susannah York, and John Candy are all gone, but this is a great tribute to their talents. There has been rumors of its remake for years, most of which was attached to Hanson finally taking the reins himself, but with his death, that incarnation seems to have stalled. A new production is still listed as “in-development” but only time will tell.
Oddly enough, The Silent Partner is actually a remake itself of a Danish version of the original source material Think of a Number 1969.
While it is good on its own it doesn’t have Gould or Plummer.
In the meantime, I highly recommend this version.
* * * * *
Fred Shahadi is a playwright, TV writer, filmmaker living in Los Angeles.
He is the author of the JFK conspiracy cult sci-fi novel, Shoot the Moon.