April 4, 2017
In The Silent Partner, the devil is in the details. Elliott Gould’s mild-mannered bank teller Miles is transformed into a criminal strategist because he notices a scrawl of handwriting on a deposit slip. This causes his analytical mind to pivot its attentions from customer accounts to an elaborately unfolding heist. The script by Curtis Hanson is relentlessly logical as it pits the chess-playing, game theory wielding Gould against the brute force of a sociopathic thief named Harry, played with dark charisma by Christopher Plummer. Their pas de deux takes place all over Toronto (this was one of the early Canadian Tax Shelter films – 100% of costs were tax deductible), and what began as a teasing game becomes something elemental. The Silent Partner won six Canadian Film Awards, including Best Picture, but had trouble finding screens in the United States – but now The Silent Partner is streaming on FilmStruck as part of its six-film “How to Rob a Bank” collection.
Mario Kassar and Andrew Vajna’s fledgling Carolco Pictures bought the rights to the Danish crime novel Think of a Number, and Curtis Hanson was hired to write the adaptation, and also had the intention of directing it. But Hanson was invited to adapt Romain Gary’s White Dog for Paramount (eventually directed by Sam Fuller), and while he was working on that job Carolco pushed Think of a Number into production as The Silent Partner and hired Canadian director Daryl Duke – mainly to qualify for the tax break. In order to receive it, among other things, the production had to have two-thirds of its crew be Canadian (John Candy appears in an engagingly dopey supporting role), and Duke fit the bill. He was a longtime director for the CBC, and had also made a feature, the hell raising Rip Torn country music movie Payday (1973). Duke was removed from the job late in the production process after refusing to shoot a sequence of exploitative violence. I won’t spoil it here, but it’s tonally out of whack with the low key tension the rest of the film is building. Curtis Hanson recalled that “I wound up going up to Toronto while they were filming and getting very involved in it…and after it was wrapped, they brought me back for a week of pickups and to completely re-edit it. I did all the post-production on it as well.”
The Silent Partner is set during the Christmas season, opening in the Eaton Center mall as Miles’ bank is slammed with deposits. As he idly, awkwardly flirts with his office crush Julie (Susannah York), he doodles on a carbon deposit slip. As he is about to throw it in the garbage, he notices a message on the discarded slip: “The Thing In My Pocket is a Gun. Give Me All the Cash.” In addition, he recognizes the unique way the “G” is written on a slant – it is the same “G” he saw on a sign held by the store Santa. His observant eye, which made him an efficient if dull teller, now leads him to a path of crime.
His suspicion becomes a certainty, that Santa tried and abandoned an attempt to rob the bank and will try again soon, if not tomorrow. Miles is a meek bachelor whose sole passion is tropical fish, anxiously lonely, Julie says he is “less than the sum of his parts.” But something shifts in his psyche at the sight of the slip, and he sees an opportunity to reinvent himself. He plans to skim from the Santa’s robbery, keeping the majority of the day’s take in a lunchbox under the desk – so when he is held up, Miles takes home the majority of the cash, and Santa is the only one wanted for armed robbery. The only issue is that the Santa, Harry Reikle (Christopher Plummer) is a bit of a psychopath who beats up underage girls for kicks. Reikle won’t let Miles get away with the ruse and begins to stalk and harass him for the rest of the cash, believing his violence will cow him as it does everyone else. Plummer plays Reikle as a sinuous smooth-talker with a stone face, his torrent of silken words not matching the emptiness in his face. Not to mention his long sharp fingernails that seem like they could cut glass. It is a uniquely unsettling performance.
Miles, reading The Principles of Chess by James Mason, is not terribly concerned with his physical well being, more so with staying multiple moves ahead of Reikle. Miles discovers untapped wells of duplicity, from lying to the cops to grand theft auto to improvised corpse disposal. Miles is not a killer but an adapter to circumstances, and his moral slipperiness, while preferable to Reikle’s abject depravity, is impossible to pin down. The nervous smiles that Gould cracks in the beginning of the film seem like normal anxious guy tics, but by the end they are a finely tuned mask so his opponents underestimate him. The “Miles” from the opening scene is a distant memory, this new one is a blank space, one that Reikle is prone to praising by the final reel. SPOILER ALERT: In the faux-happy ending Miles gets the girl and the money, but it is unclear if Miles wants anything anymore. He has emptied himself out for the dream of escape.