Movie review: The Silent Partner (1978)

The Silent Partner (1978) poster

Yesterday, Christopher Plummer, whose career spanned nearly 70 years and included films as diverse as The Sound of MusicMurder by DecreeAn American Tail, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, and Knives Out, passed away at 91. In remembrance, here is a look at a film that you may not be familiar with that I think any fan of Donald Westlake would enjoy.

Miles Cullen (Elliott Gould) appears to be somewhat of an underachiever, or at minimum under-accomplished. He’s physically attractive and clearly intelligent, but he’s single, has a run-down car, and is a mere teller at the bank branch office in which he works. Perhaps some of this is due to his social awkwardness, which, while not crippling, is definitely there.

Miles figures out not only that his bank is about to be robbed, but how and by whom–a man dressed as Santa Claus who is posing as a bell-ringer at the shopping mall where Miles’ branch is located plans to pass him a note claiming to have a gun immediately after a customer who regularly makes large cash deposits goes to Miles’ window with the latest.

Armed with this knowledge, Miles takes the large cash deposit and puts it in his own briefcase, so that when Santa robs the bank, the conniving Kris Kringle doesn’t fill his bag with most of the money. Miles then takes the surplus home, with the police and the other bank employees none the wiser.

While not a bad plan on the surface, there are two problems that Miles had not anticipated. First, the local news reports how much money the robber was supposed to have gotten away with, so the robber quickly figures out that somehow Miles must have the rest of it. And second, the hood is Harry Riekle (Christopher Plummer), a psychopath who is quite willing to kill Miles to get the money, and probably willing to kill Miles as revenge even if he does get the money.

Miles becomes something of a local celebrity after being on the news, because women find him quite handsome (or “photogenic”) and drop by the bank just to see him. This, and pulling off such a clever scheme, cause him to gain a great deal of confidence. His boss’ wife flirts with him. His co-worker Julie (Susannah York), who he has been pining for and who had previously belittled him, is suddenly interested.

The side-effect of this newly-found confidence that will have the greatest impact on Miles’ life, however, isn’t the attention from women–it’s that he believes that he can outwit Riekle, and is determined to do so no matter what.

The Silent Partner, then, is the clash of two strong–perhaps even pigheaded–personalities. Miles may be the brains to Riekle’s brawn, but Rieckle is a lot of brawn (and hardly stupid himself). The two use the weapons at their disposal in a series of phone calls, feints, and dirty tricks in an effort to control the money and squelch the threat his opponent represents. Who will eventually emerge victorious? Or will neither of them?

The script for The Silent Partner is by Curtis Hanson, who would go on to Oscar gold as writer (a win) and director (a nomination) of L.A. Confidential. Relentlessly clever, it indicates a young talent well on his way to his multiple later triumphs.

The direction by Daryl Duke, while solid overall, isn’t quite as sure-footed. The original poster for The Silent Partner misleadingly emphasized the film’s comic elements, and while they are there, the comic moments are both of relative insignificance and by far the clumsiest portions of the film. (The exception, unsurprisingly, is a minor subplot involving the great John Candy, who plays one of Miles’ fellow employees.) But that’s a quibble. On the whole, The Silent Partner is well paced, suspenseful, and unpredictable.

All of this is anchored, of course, but its two ever-reliable leads, both completely convincing in making this battle both professional and personal.

While it has a cult audience, this relatively obscure crime thriller (perhaps due to its Canadian origin), while not a lost classic, deserves a significantly higher profile than it has. The Silent Partner is a gem that has been secreted in movie history’s safe-deposit box for far too long.

I wouldn’t fault anyone for thinking there is a Donald Westlake influence in this film. The plot is very much like something DEW would have constructed, and so are the characters. Had Westlake written The Silent Partner, I suspect he would have made it much more overtly comic (and would have been a lot more successful at it). Or perhaps he would have done a straight noir. The material could easily lend itself to either approach.

If such influence exists, it was likely smuggled in by scripter Curtis Hanson, who was almost certainly familiar with Westlake–I simply can’t imagine L.A. Confidential‘s impresario not being familiar with Westlake. But The Silent Partner comes from another literary source, the novel Think of a Number (Tænk på et tal) by Danish author Anders Bodelsen, which had been previously filmed under that title in 1969. I am curious about both the novel and the previous adaptation.