Robin’s Underrated Gems: The Silent Partner (1978)

The 1970s and early 1980s were remembered as the notorious “tax shelter” era for Canadian cinema. Many films were produced during this time period simply as a way for investors to take advantage of the provisions of the one hundred percent Capital Cost Allowance. This allowed investors to deduct their entire investment from their taxable income and defer taxes until profits were earned. Some of the films produced this era were quite good and some of them (such as Meatballs and Porky’s) even became huge hits, but generally, investors didn’t care much about the quality of the films or how well they would do at the box office. For example, nearly half of the feature films produced in Canada in 1979 never even got released! It’s easy to assume that the 1978 Canadian thriller, The Silent Partner, was produced as nothing more than a tax shelter deal with very little hope of it making any impact, but it managed to become a bit of a sleeper hit and a critical success once people who actually saw the film realized how good it really was. One of my major pet peeves of Hollywood productions these days is when they film their movies in a Canadian city like Toronto, and try to pass it off as an American city with no attempt to disguise some of the distinctly Canadian locations. When I watched the climax of The Incredible Hulk, it was really hard for me to suspend my disbelief and think that the Hulk and the Abomination were fighting in downtown New York City when you could see Sam the Record Man in the background. Some of the Canadian “tax shelter” productions did the same thing and would do a piss-poor job at passing themselves off as American. For this reason, I enjoy watching Canadian movies that make no attempt to disguise their roots, and once I saw that the opening scenes of The Silent Partner were taking place at the Eaton Centre in Toronto, the film had me.

The Silent Partner is based on a Danish novel by Anders Bodelsen entitled “Think of a Number” and is actually a remake of an obscure 1969 Danish film of the same name. The film opens at Christmastime in Toronto, where the protagonist, Miles Cullen (Elliott Gould), works as a teller at a bank inside the Eaton Centre. Cullen is a seemingly bland, unremarkable individual who lives a very bland, unremarkable life. He is bored with his job and has very little in the way of a personal life. He has a crush on a co-worker named Julie (Susannah York), but she is currently having an affair with the married bank manager, who loves to give Cullen the thankless task of keeping Julie occupied at social events that his wife will be attending. However, Cullen sees a major opportunity to escape from this existence when he starts picking up on several hints that the mall’s resident Santa Claus may be planning to rob the bank. Due to the holiday rush, one of the bank’s biggest clients is routinely making large cash deposits in the middle of the day, and Cullen eventually figures out that the guy in the Santa Claus suit will attempt to steal this from him. When the robber finally makes his move and threatens Cullen with a gun, Cullen comes up with the daring plan to hand over the money in the cash drawer, but keep the large $48,000 deposit for himself. When the silent alarm is set off and the robber is forced to flee, Cullen simply tells the police that the guy got away with the entire $48,000. Unfortunately, the robber in the Santa suit turns out to be a vicious psychopath named Harry Reikle (Christopher Plummer) who intends to make Cullen’s life a living hell until he gets his money back.

This is a very clever premise for a thriller, and The Silent Partner tells this story with great intelligence and ingenuity. It becomes obvious very quickly that Reikle is the LAST individual you would ever want to pull a fast one on. He sadistically enjoys harassing Cullen and toying with him, since he knows that Cullen cannot go to the police without his revealing his part in the robbery. What follows is an elaborate cat-and-mouse game between Cullen and Reikle, where it becomes apparent that the seemingly unremarkable bank teller is a lot more cunning than anyone would have expected. Reikle eventually sends a female acquaintance of his named Elaine (Celine Lomez) to seduce Cullen and find out where the money is. You’re never quite sure where her true loyalties really lie, leading to a wonderfully suspenseful sequence where Cullen is forced to use her to get the stolen $48,000 out of a safety deposit box. The screenplay for The Silent Partner was written by Curtis Hanson, who would go on to great acclaim by directing such films as L.A. Confidential and Wonder Boys. Believe it or not, Hanson’s directorial debut came in 1973 when he made a sleazy exploitation B-movie for Roger Corman called The Arousers, and he often struggled to find work in the industry during the seventies. However, his script for The Silent Partner showed him to be a lot more talented than anyone initially thought, as he takes what is essentially a very implausible premise and uses it to develop a very twisty and clever plot that constantly leaves you guessing. I’ve always found it a bit baffling that Elliott Gould was able to become a popular leading man during the 1970s. While he was definitely capable of good performances, he sometimes came across as bland and awkward in his roles. However, those qualities serve him very well in The Silent Partner, as Cullen is a guy who clearly seems to be in way over his head by committing such a dangerous scheme, but then winds up surprising everyone with how well he is able to adapt to the situation and work himself out of some very tight situations. While Christopher Plummer has never gotten the chance to play too many psycho roles throughout his career, he is legitimately frightening as Harry Reikle, and I consider the character to be of the more underrated screen villains of all time. The sequence where he rubs his mistress’ throat across the broken glass of a fish tank is one of the most harrowing scenes of violence I’ve ever seen.

It should also be noted that even though The Silent Partner is very suspenseful and features some shocking moments of violence, it does have an effective undercurrent of black humour running throughout the story. The idea of Christopher Plummer robbing a bank while dressed as Santa Claus is absurd enough, but the unexpected sight of seeing him play his climactic scene in drag is worth the price of admission alone! It’s also worth mentioning that not many actors could still manage to be scary and menacing while dressed in drag, but Plummer somehow pulls it off. I mentioned before that one of my favourite elements of The Silent Partner is its distinctly Canadian flavour, and this is also enhanced by the fact that the film’s score was composed by legendary Canadian jazz pianist Oscar Peterson! In addition, “Before They Were Stars” aficionados should enjoy seeing a young John Candy in one of his earliest roles as a bank teller. The Silent Partner also happened to be the first film produced by the now-defunct Carolco Pictures, who would eventually make such major Hollywood hits as the Rambo series and Terminator 2: Judgment Day, so this may explain why they were intent on making a quality film which was more than just a tax write-off. Overall, The Silent Partner is just a solid, first-rate thriller that has probably never gotten the attention it deserves simply because it’s Canadian. For those who have actually seen it, this film is the very definition of a “sleeper” and an “underrated gems”. Roger Ebert’s original review of The Silent Partner perfectly summarizes one’s typical reaction to it. Knowing that it was made during the Canadian “tax shelter” era and that quality was not usually a factor in these productions, the viewer goes in with very few expectations, but are then pleasantly surprised by how intelligent and well-crafted the film really is. So, as the holiday season approaches, if you’re in the mood to watch an alternative Christmas flick that features a violent cross-dressing psychopath who likes to wear rob banks in a Santa Claus suit, then The Silent Partner is the movie for you.

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