Robbing Them Blind: The Silent Partner (1978)

April 4, 2017

SILENT PARTNER, THE (1978)

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.”

SILENT PARTNER, THE (1978)

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.

SILENT PARTNER, THE (1978)

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.

SILENT PARTNER, THE (1978)

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.

SCENT OF DESPERATION: WHIFFS AND I WILL, I WILL…FOR NOW

April 16, 2013

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Since its inception Hollywood has been the plaything of the super rich, an ideal medium for ego stroking and favor doling. William Randolph Hearst famously bankrolled the career of his talented mistress, Marion Davies, while Howard Hughes worked out his fetish for flying machines and bra technology. Many of these captain of industry vanity projects have been forgotten, however, including the output of one-time Fabergé fragrance CEO, George Barrie. A born entrepreneur, he built up a cosmetics company from his garage and invented Brut cologne, allowing him to fund a series of sex comedies in the 1970s. An amateur songwriter, he used the films as excuses to promote his tunes, and received Oscar nominations for his work in A Touch of Class (1973) and Whiffs (1975). The Warner Archive recently released un-restored versions of Whiffs and I Will, I WillFor Now (1976) on DVD, both starring Elliott Gould, giving a sense of what corporations thought scent consumers wanted to watch in the 1970s.

Barrie was born in Brooklyn in 1912 and raised in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and had to ditch his music education after marrying his first wife Lucille. His first job was selling door-to-door for Rayette, a hair products manufacturer, and started stashing money away. Before long he started up Caryl Richards cosmetics in a New Jersey garage, which he named after his two kids. He “took to the road and sold a line of products that hadn’t even been designed yet”, and by 1961 he had sales over $7 million. In 1964 the conglomerate purchased Fabergé, where Brut cologne became an international phenomenon – which Barrie stoked with a string of sports star endorsements, including Joe Namath, Billie Jean King and Muhammad Ali. Convinced that celebrity equaled sales, he was able to get Cary Grant to join the company’s Board of Directors.

Barrie produced his films under a “Brut Productions” shingle, while Brut Records put out albums by comedian Robert Klein and Brut Television co-produced the popular spy thriller series “The Protectors” starring Robert Vaughn. There was even a Brut Publishing imprint, whose initial offering People Magazine describes as “a manual on the psychology of marriage and sex”, clearly riding the ample coattails of The Joy of Sex (published in 1972). They were offering an entire Playboy lifestyle, not just a cologne, a more ambitious version of today’s Axe Body Spray’s frat boy chic.

The first Brut Production film was the downbeat Western, Cry for Me Billy (1972), but the first to register as a success was the 1973 sex comedy A Touch of Class, which netted Glenda Jackson the Oscar for Best Actress and Barrie (with lyricist Sammy Kahn) a nomination for best song for “All That Love Went to Waste”. After a couple of horror exercises (Night Watch and Laurence Harvey’s Welcome to Arrow Beach),  Whiffswas a return to comedy for Brut, a feeble attempt to 1365892634_2rekindle some anti-authority M*A*S*H magic. It shoves Elliott Gould into the role of Army chemical test subject Dudley Frapper, who is fired when his body breaks down. On his way out he steals some laughing gas and  joins up with civilian guinea pig Chops (Harry Guardino) to knock over some local banks. Wanting the patina of politics without offending anyone, Whiffs is too tame for satire,  and all that’s left is feeble slapstick. Director Ted Post (Hang ‘em High) is in check cashing mode, filming everything in flatly lit two shots, leaving Gould writhing on the floor in drawn out agony. It’s supposed to be chemical testing gag, but Gould is an ungainly physical comedian, and his flailing elicits pity rather than laughter.  Only Eddie Albert as a befuddled Army captain seems remotely engaged, and he sells the funniest line in this misbegotten enterprise: ““We don’t want to kill the enemy, we just want to make them…a little sick.”

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With that busted attempt at capturing the youth market, Barrie returned to the Touch of Class model of risqué rom-com for I Will, I WillFor Now (one of the most ungainly titles in film history). Like Whiffs, though, it wants to capitalize on counter-culture trends, like open relationships and sex counseling, but without any explicit behavior to turn off potential consumers. It’s another neutered project, although one composed with energy by old studio stalwart Norman Panama, who started out writing screenplays for Bob Hope. This time Gould plays Les Bingham, an executive for an urban development company, and recently divorced from his art student wife Katie (Diane Keaton). Gould seems to be a thinly veiled version of Barrie, stalking through a garish office of modeled white plastic out of 2001: A Space Odyssey. It looks exactly like Barrie’s digs as described in that People magazine piece:

His business quarters, tailored to his taste, are a space-age vision in mirrored walls, fluorescent colors, chrome and Lucite; his gleaming black, crescent-shaped desk stands cluttered with perfumes, hairsprays and records. Nearby is his “playroom,” equipped with two Baldwin pianos (there is an electric piano on Barrie’s company jet), an organ, bongos and drums, where he composes and holds jam sessions. By 5 p.m., when Barrie is in town, business associates begin arriving for the ritual “happy hour,” a designation Barrie rejects. “All my hours are happy,” he insists.

d25a16d1e7ecf98d608aa412f167ddd7.image.300x234All of Les’ hours are happy as well, at least until he runs into Katie again at her hippie sister’s wedding, and their attraction burbles to life once again. In this variation on the screwball comedy of remarriage, the duo choose to go sign a mutually binding contract instead of getting married again – they have the option to decline after 6 months. And so they go through the motions of a happy couple until their mutual antagonisms bubble again to the surface. Instead of calling it quits, they abscond to a beachside sex clinic – but instead of the promised raw sexual honesty you get feeble farce, including a accidental (and chaste) wife swap. Panama juices the pace to get the most out of the material (which he co-wrote), while the cast all seems to be having a blast, especially Paul Sorvino, who plays one of Katie’s suitors. After her final rejection, and pathetically holding a gun to his head, he bursts out with a creditable rendition of Pagliacci.

Both Whiffs and I Will, I Will…For Now are compromised, pre-test marketed material made to extend the brand of Brut cologne, and nobody went to see them. They are differing versions of what the Brut “lifestyle” was supposed to consist of, both mildly subversive and theoretically erotic. It’s about possibilities rather than realities, images rather than actions.  Neither were likely as effective as that simple Joe Namath ad, though, which has more sexual energy in Broadway Joe’s feathered mane than those two films combined. Perhaps recognizing the need for real danger in their product, Brut co-produced James Toback’s mob psychodrama Fingers (1978) before dissolving their film division soon after. In 1984 the McGregor Corporation purchased Fabergé, and George Barrie retired.