The Silent Partner (1978)
The songwriting duo of David Shire and Richard Maltby Jr. have always held a special place in my heart. Divided, they’ve been highly successful in their respective fields. Shire is an Oscar-winning composer on movies as diverse as Return to Oz (1985), Zodiac (2007), Farewell, My Lovely (1975), and even an unused score for Apocalypse Now (1979). Maltby Jr. contributed to the lyrics for Miss Saigon and conceived and directed the multiple Tony Award-winning Fats Waller musical Ain’t Misbehavin’. Together, they’ve had less success, having only reached Broadway twice with the short-lived Baby and the costly flop, Big The Musical. Yes, as in the Tom Hanks/Penny Marshall film. However, sometimes gold is in the places you least suspect. Maltby and Shire have often been regarded as cult writers, composing amazing scores to shows you’ve probably never heard of.
Two of their most important collaborations are the musical revue companion pieces, Starting Here, Starting Now (1977) and Closer Than Ever (1989). While Starting Here deals with the excitement and crushing disappointment that can come with falling in love, Closer Than Ever represents an older, wiser perspective. With Closer, the subjects of love loss and aging are explored. One particularly dynamic song, sung in the original production by the talented Sally Mayes, is entitled “Miss Byrd.” The piece has a plucky, jazzy sound, complete with scatting, wherein a mousy secretary reveals a secret. She’s covertly been having an affair with her building’s superintendent. She revels in her naughty ruse and wonders about the other “quiet ones” she’s encountered in her life. Could they too be more than what they seem? For Miles Cullen, the clever but diminutive bank teller in the late Daryl Duke’s outstanding crime thriller The Silent Partner (1978), he comes to rely on his relative invisibility to pull off a scheme unimaginable to a man who is always there, but rarely seen.
Since Duke didn’t direct a great deal of theatrical features, it’s not exactly accurate to describe him as one of the great unsung filmmakers of the 70’s. Most of his work, which included an Emmy-winning directorial effort, was in television; mainly TV movies and mini-series. He was a very passionate man and not above refusing to compromise his artistic principles. His first feature made it clear he had no problems plumbing the depths of the human soul. The 1973 character study Payday is a difficult film featuring a blisteringly lived-in performance by Rip Torn. I say difficult because although Torn’s character has some good qualities, he’s also simply not a very good person. That’s fine.
Movies shouldn’t contain purely good or bad people, but since most mass-appeal movies do, it can be jarring to see someone playing a character who can be charming and tender one minute, then vile and vindictive the next. Payday wasn’t a financial success and Duke returned to television, only attempting a return to features in 1976 for Shadow of the Hawk, which he’d be fired off of. Even with The Silent Partner, which I regard as his masterpiece, he had all but finished the film when he was ordered to shoot an additional scene of extreme violence, presumably to make the film more commercially exploitative. He refused, was removed from the production, and the scene was shot without him. If I wasn’t aware of this information, I wouldn’t find the scene particularly out of place in such an enjoyably nasty piece of work, although I suppose it is a bit more violent than some of the previous set pieces. Thanks to a stunning screenplay by Curtis Hanson based on the novel by Anders Bodelsen, the graphic scene in question simply works as another cog in a script as well-built as a Swiss watch.
The film features an epic battle of wits, with both parties one-upping the other. What sets it apart from many other films featuring brilliant opponents like Sleuth (1972) or Deathtrap (1982) is the upending of the cat-and-mouse game concept. In The Silent Partner, who is the cat and who is the mouse? It’s constantly shifting and leaves the viewer breathless thanks to the unpredictability of the plot.
Multiple Santa’s wander a Canadian mall, which must be quite upsetting for the younger kids, and we’re introduced to Cullen, played with a beautiful quirkiness by Elliott Gould, whose dexterity in handling cash is much stronger than his way with the ladies. He adorably uses a bank slip’s carbon copy to draw a martini glass in order to entice a pretty female co-worker, Julie, played by the feisty Susannah York, Oscar nominee for They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969), but also memorable as Lara in Superman (1978) and A Man For All Seasons (1966). Drawing a heart on another, he pulls the slip, but finds it’s already been written on. “The thing in my pocket is a gun. Give me all the cash.” He briefly tries to alert his fellow employees, but they’re not interested. Even jolly John Candy, in a surprisingly subdued performance, is more interested in the new blonde behind the counter. In fact, this may be the horniest bank in Canada as everyone seems to be getting it on with each other...except Miles.
Roped into keeping Julie company by his asshole boss Charles (Michael Kirby, who appeared in two of Woody Allen’s stranger efforts: Another Woman (1988) and Shadows & Fog (1991)), who is carrying on an affair with her, he quietly sips his beer while she gently ribs him. He takes his leave along with his new aquatic date, an angel fish, or more specifically, a ‘holocanthus tricolor.’ Back at his apartment, he’s clearly a loner, with only his fish and a chess board to keep him company. It’s obvious he enjoys games, is a problem solver, and has an inquisitive mind. Little does he realize that his entire life is about to take a dangerous turn, thanks to almost no one else’s fault but his own.
In a brilliant detail, he notices a crummy poster written by a mall Santa soliciting donations. Looking at the letter ‘G,’ he realizes it’s written the exact same way as the one on the bank slip. His suspicions are confirmed when the same Santa enters the bank but is unintentionally hindered by a greedy little kid asking for presents. That night, Cullen comes up with a plan.
He brings in a sweet Superman lunch box, which I’m sure Susannah York must have liked, and when a businessman deposits a ton of cash, he discreetly places it in the box. To be clear, there’s no real indication that Miles is a criminal or even a bad man, which is what makes his character so fascinating and enigmatic. This is not a master thief. Rather, he’s a normal man in a dead-end job who sees the chance to pull off something extraordinary.
Jolly old Saint Nicholas waddles into the bank and stands in the queue for a very tense scene. He’s coming. You know he’s coming, and so does Miles. He has to keep his cool since Kris Kringle doesn’t realize he’s about to get fleeced. He hands the familiar-looking note to Miles, who quickly hands him some piles of cash. Noticing how little of it there is, he demands more, “I saw him make the deposit. Give me the money, fucker.” Miles pulls a few hundred dollar bills out of the bottom drawer, tripping the alarm and prompting an old security guard (Sean Sullivan, 2001: A Space Odyssey -1968, The Dead Zone - 1983) to test his universal health care benefits. There’s a brief shootout and Santy Claws makes his escape by stealing some poor Canuck’s car. He pulls off his hat and beard, revealing himself to be none other than Captain Von Trapp himself, Oscar winner Christopher Plummer. He certainly is an interesting dresser, what with the mesh tank top that looks like Bennett’s from Commando (1985).
Miles becomes a minor celebrity and when questioned about his actions by the police, he uses his own meekness and bland personality to convince them of his cowardice in the face of danger. It’s a brilliant psychological deception. At home, he carefully wraps the money in dish towels and places the stacks in safety deposit box #135 at the bank, hiding the key inside a jar of jelly in the fridge. He passes the time by visiting his invalid and mute father at a nursing home while listening to a choir of Damien lookalikes.
Harry (Plummer) hears on the news that over 48,000 dollars was stolen from the bank, which is news to him since he didn’t get nearly that much. As he stews in one of the many dirty massage parlor/bathhouses he presumably frequents, he takes out his anger on a young lady in the steam room. Beating her to a pulp, he sticks his foot directly on her face, sending her to the hospital. He merely shrugs it off when confronted with this development.
Being on TV makes you sexy, I suppose, because at a party, his philandering boss’ wife comes on to Miles while another co-worker gets it on with the sweetly dumb bimbo from the bank, who is dating John Candy's character. The sexuality in The Silent Partner is refreshingly adult, with characters having healthy sexual appetites and feeling unashamed about pursuing multiple partners. Silent partners, perhaps? Ugh. Sorry. One stray observation I must address. At the serving table, someone is pulling turkey off the bird with their bare hands. What, no tongs? Animals!
He takes Julie back to his apartment in a gorgeous exterior shot where the camera pans up along the building as we hear their conversation and just see bits of their bodies as they make their way upstairs. He’s finally getting it on with her...and then Cock Blockula himself, Christopher Plummer, places a call. Obviously disturbed, Miles hustles a bewildered Julie out and claims he has no idea what Harry is talking about. Harry remarks that “You’re doing it to her like you’re doing it to me.” Although he doesn’t come up to the apartment, Harry wants Miles to know that he’s being watched. It would appear that Harry is into the torture side of the S&M lifestyle.
The next evening, Miles returns home to find his lights on. Another call from Harry, and this time, he gets straight to the point. He’s quite complimentary of Miles, being mildly impressed with his ingenuity, but he’s “running low on dimes and I’ll have to come up, and I don’t want to do that.” Having seen what Harry is capable of, we know he’s psychotic and violent, lending credence to his amusement at menacing this poor bank teller who’s crossed him. Other criminals would have just burst in and strong-armed Cullen, but Harry likes to play with his meal. He explains that they’re “partners” now, and Miles quickly barricades the door. In the scariest scene of the film, the mail slot flips up, revealing the most terrifying set of eyes ever seen in a Canadian film, save for “Billy’s” single eye in Black Christmas or that deformed dude in Humongous. The camera slowly zooms in on Harry’s eyes as he gives Miles one more chance to give him the money.
Another night passes, and this time Miles returns home to find his prized angel fish impaled on a wall with a knife in its side. Harry calls from the payphone outside and apologizes for the fish, then politely asks to come up. Miles is about to take the biggest risk of his entire life. He tells Harry to come up to the apartment. Harry complies, but finds the place empty. The phone rings. Harry, confused, answers it. Miles is on the line from the same payphone. “It’s me. Go fuck yourself.” WHOA! Holy shit! It’s on! This moment literally gives me chills for how triumphantly defiant Elliott Gould is in this moment.
He disappears and tails Harry back to his home. Thinking fast, he steals a fruit truck, makes an anonymous call to the police, who find the truck conveniently parked in front of the home of known criminal, Harry. He goes to prison on a previous assault and rape charge, likely for the woman he attacked earlier. The cops indicate his incarceration won’t last very long. Miles doesn’t identify him in a line-up for fear of Harry talking to the police, so he’s living on borrowed time as Harry awaits his trial.
Time passes, which this film visualizes brilliantly without the use of title cards by showing holiday displays at the bank. It’s now Easter, and Miles attends the funeral of his father alone. A pretty young lady, Elaine (minor Canadian sex symbol Celine Lomez, Ed Hunt’s Plague - 1979, Gina - 1975) says she knew his father, having cared for him at the nursing home. He offers her a ride home, and to the movie’s credit, we’re not entirely sure whether he’s merely smitten by her beauty or decides to play a long game when she mentions having “spoken” with Cullen’s mute father. He’s far too smart to allow such a slip to go unnoticed, but he decides to ignore it for now.
He arrives home to discover the cleaning lady doing her thing. Opening the fridge, he discovers, to his horror, that she’s thrown out the jar of jelly containing the key. Having just seen the garbage men leave his building, he desperately searches, but it’s gone. It’s over. It appears hopeless, since he casually asks Julie how one could open a safety deposit box without a locksmith, to which she replies that there’s no other option.
Fortune appears to smile on Miles as Elaine resurfaces at a park. They develop a relationship, which includes eating at a boat-themed restaurant where the poor servers have to dress in sailor suits. Julie is mildly jealous of Elaine and Miles as they all celebrate the wedding of John Candy and the blond bubblehead Louise (Gail Dahms-Bonine, who had a fascinating career, first as a pop singer, a chocolate turtle spokesperson, and then a Baptist pastor!).
Later, after Miles and Elaine make love, he notices scars on her waist. He asks “Who are you?” She feigns ignorance to the meaning behind his question, but she quickly realizes she’s caught. “He warned me you were smart,” she says. Obviously a honeypot sent by Harry, Miles decides to use her to his advantage. Believing he can buy Harry off by splitting the money three ways between them, Miles suggests a ploy to get the cash out of the safe deposit box. Elaine warns him that Harry will likely kill him and take all of the money. Nevertheless, a new plan is set in motion.
While Julie goes to lunch, Elaine arrives incognito and claims she lost her key. A locksmith is called and they nervously watch the clock while they wait for him to arrive. After the box is opened, Miles senses Elaine’s deceptive nature, so he wrestles the money out of her hand and forces her to place it in a new box and obtain a new key. He’s so desperate to distract Julie from Elaine that he lays a big smackeroo on her outside the bank just to allow Elaine to escape. Julie, once again, must find these Canadians an odd bunch of people.
At a celebratory dinner, it appears Miles and Elaine’s relationship might be real, but after she excuses herself, Harry, like a goddamn demon, appears out of thin air. Someone named “Freddy” worked the rape victim over, so now he’s a free man. They head back to Miles’ apartment, leaving our hero in the lurch. In the film’s most controversial scene (and the one Daryl Duke refused to shoot), Elaine unwisely irks Harry, who uses his belt to beat her, then shoves her head into the fish tank. The tank shatters and her neck is slashed to bits on the exposed glass.
Miles finds Elaine’s head floating among the remains of his tank. Wracked with guilt, he pulls himself together, places her once-lovely head in a plastic bag and rolls her body in the rug on which they first made love. A delivery boy is coming up the stairs just as he’s making his way down with the body, so Miles clings to the side of the building while the kid passes. Much earlier in the film, Louise had been wondering aloud about some construction that was being done, which felt innocuous at the time, but Hanson’s writing is sharp enough to make even a seemingly insignificant detail important later.
We don’t see him do it, but Miles stares downward as a crew dumps cement onto a new foundation. It’s another smart choice by a very smart film. We put everything together with a simple, wordless shot. “You’re clever,” Harry says, appearing in an overpass and marveling at Miles’ body disposal skills. Finally coming face to face, Harry is surprisingly congenial, which heightens Miles’ rage and fury. He tells him where the money is and they reach an uneasy truce. Miles agrees to help Harry retrieve the cash and in return, he won’t be killed. He makes it clear to Harry that it’s best to come later in the morning, when less customers are around.
In one of the films few weak bits, Miles gets an uncalled-for dressing down by his boss. It’s meant to drive Miles to his final decision, but it comes slightly out of nowhere since we haven’t seen him be rude to customers or do anything out of the ordinary. He snags the money and invites Julie to go away with him. She slowly begins to figure out what’s going on, but before they can talk further, a very handsome woman glides down the escalator. Plummer is all decked out, in eye shadow no less, looking more like a woman than Elaine did in her disguise. I’m reminded of Eddie Izzard’s entrance line on Dressed to Kill: “In heels as well! Yeah!” He has a little smirk as Miles chastises him for arriving too early. Harry informs him that he’ll be seeing him very soon, clearly reneging on his promise to not kill him.
In a gratifying and suspense-filled finale, Miles produces a note, carefully plagiarized to match Harry’s original, then throws his hands up, loudly begging Harry not to shoot. The look of terror that crosses Harry’s face is priceless. He shoots Miles in the shoulder but can’t make it to the exit without getting a bullet in the back, courtesy of our ever-watchful security guard. The shoppers cower as Harry stumbles awkwardly toward the wrong escalator, collapses, and is carried right down to the guard’s feet. With his final breath, he tells the guard that Miles gave him “the bank’s money.” The guard hilariously retorts, “What the hell did you expect him to give? His own money?!” Fantastic. Harry dies and Julie joins Miles in the ambulance, ready to take that trip with him.
This was the first major screen credit for the late Curtis Hanson, having cut his teeth on horror films; writing and directing the ridiculous Tab Hunter horror film Sweet Kill (1972) and co-writing the screenplay for The Dunwich Horror (1970). It’s a slick, razor sharp script that wastes absolutely no time and functions both as a unique bank robbery flick and even a neo-noir. The simultaneously creepy and romantic score by jazz legend Oscar Peterson (his only film score, likely due to his childhood friendship with fellow Canadian Christopher Plummer) has a style all its own but leans toward film noir.
Hanson wanted to direct The Silent Partner, but with only two features under his belt, one of which remained unfinished for years (Evil Town, 1977), he didn’t have the track record to helm a major production, despite the film being made under the controversial Canadian “Capital Cost Allowance” program, i.e. a tax shelter film. He would still go on to have an astonishingly successful career, scripting Sam Fuller’s amazing White Dog (1982) and Carroll Ballard’s Never Cry Wolf (1983) before moving full-time into directing. The Bedroom Window (1987), the knowing Bad Influence (1990), the surprise hit The Hand that Rocks the Cradle (1992), and the decent The River Wild (1994) would lead him to a stunning one-two-three punch of great films. First, a true masterpiece, L.A. Confidential (1997), for which he and Brian Helgeland won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, then the wonderfully dark comedy Wonder Boys (2000), and finally, the shockingly good 8 Mile (2002), which had no business succeeding and yet, it did. His work seemed to diminish after that, with In Her Shoes (2005) and Lucky You (2007) underperforming, but his TV movie Too Big to Fail (2011) and Chasing Mavericks (2012, which he would be unable to finish due to poor health) showed that he was still a capable director. He passed away in September of 2016. A tremendous loss to the world of film. L.A. Confidential, in particular, is one of my all-time favorite films.
Siskel and Ebert bemoaned the fact that such a fine film was not getting the attention it deserved on their early incarnation of Siskel & Ebert at the Movies, “Sneak Previews.” And why not, indeed? The cinematography by Billy Williams is crisp, with a naturalistic feel to the scenes, as if this is all happening in real life. He’d go on to win an Oscar (shared with Ronnie Taylor) for lensing Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi (1982), as well as working on Women in Love (1967), Sunday, Bloody Sunday (1971), The Wind and the Lion (1975), Saturn 3 (1980), and On Golden Pond (1981). George Appleby won a Canadian Film Award (now known as a Genie) for his editing. In fact, the film cleaned up, winning six awards including Best Picture and Best Director for Duke.
Why did the film fail to find an audience? Likely poor marketing. Take a gander at the poster above. It’s tacky and jumbled, featuring stills of Gould, who looks like a clown, York, and Plummer. Luckily, the film has been rediscovered as the strongest film Daryl Duke ever made. With smart storytelling, great direction, and appealing actors possessing dynamite chemistry, it’s a knockout.