Miles Cullen (Elliott Gould) is a teller at a bank located in Toronto's Eaton Centre (a real shopping mall that opened in 1977). At closing time, Miles stumbles upon a discarded hold-up note, and shortly after notices a Salvation Army-type mall Santa Claus holding a sign with the same distinctive, hand-written "G." The Santa has positioned himself near the escalator, with a clear view of the bank nearby.
Instead of relaying this to the bank manager, Charles Packard (), or the police, at the beginning of his next shift, as mall businesses bring their large deposits, Miles begins stashing cash in an old Superman lunch box, rather than in his cash drawer. When, as Miles had predicted, the Santa Claus approaches Miles window with a new hold-up note, Miles hands him only the paltry amount he's left in his cash drawer, which surprises the thief, who'd seen large deposits being made all morning. Miles triggers an alarm and the thief, Harry Reikle (Christopher Plummer) gets away, with most of the $48,300 still hidden in Miles's lunchbox.
Miles decides to stash the money in a safe deposit box in the bank, hiding the keys in a jar of blackberry jam at his apartment. Harry, a dangerous psychopath, breaks into the apartment and threatens Miles, taunting him from a payphone just outside his third-story window. The movie, then, becomes a battle of wits and nerve.
What makes The Silent Partner even better than good crime films of this type is that Miles's low-key character is very clever but also perfectly ordinary. The steps he takes trying to outsmart Harry are inventive, even ingenious, yet not extraordinary, but simple, believable solutions to potentially very dangerous situations. The bit with Miles hiding the safe deposit keys in the jam is one example. Where to hide something where no one would possibly look?
Rather than orchestrate a "perfect crime," Miles takes advantage of an unusual situation, an awareness shared with no one that his place of employment will soon be robbed. As a "vault teller" he knows approximately what kinds of deposits will be made that morning by other tenants in the mall, and the minimum amount of cash he'll need to pass to the Santa Claus bandit before he becomes too suspicious. Once he has the money he's able to hide it in a safe deposit box but has limited access to it, as another bank employee, Julie (Susannah York) is in charge of that department. He's attracted to her but she's been sleeping with the manager, Packard, an inveterate womanizer.
At a Christmas party she and Miles express a mutual attraction, but complications with Harry following the robbery get in the way, which she misinterprets as Miles being flaky and irresponsible and probably not serious about having a relationship. Just when this subplot doesn't seem to be leading anywhere it, too, becomes interesting.
Erudite, articulate Plummer would seem an odd casting choice as a violent, misogynistic psychopath; going in I assumed he'd be playing something akin to his glamorous jewel thief in The Return of the Pink Panther (1975). Plummer, however, pulls it off, partly by adding strange, unpredictable touches to his performance that keep the audience on-edge, like the character's habit of wearing long false eyelashes, which I'd wager were Plummer's idea. After initially expressing an admiration for Miles's cleverness, Harry becomes increasingly impatient, volatile, and genuinely creepy. His psychopathic nature is rooted in being in control, as expressed in an early sex scene where he's seen nearly beating a woman to death. Miles, for a time, takes that away, leaving Harry to simmer until he can take it back.
Adding to the verisimilitude is the authentic work environment of the small bank, whose employees are all distinctive and similarly ordinary: the womanizing manager; the genial old security guard (Sean Sullivan); busty, blonde clerk (Gail Dahms-Bonine) whom the men all lust after. John Candy, in one of his first features, has a small role as another employee who, during the course of the story, gets married.
Canadian director Daryl Duke made a splash with one of actor Rip Torn's best film roles, 1973's Payday, but Duke spent most of his career in television, most famously helming the miniseries The Thorn Birds. The Silent Partner was the only feature film scored by the great jazz artist Oscar Peterson; it's less jazzy than, say, one by Quincy Jones, and is more orchestral with little jazz flourishes - an interesting work.
The picture was a big critical and commercial success in Canada and some other parts of the world, but distributed piecemeal by at least three regional companies in the U.S. and barely seen.
Video & Audio
? Licensed from Canal-Plus, The Silent Partner is presented in 1.85:1 widescreen. The first reel, about ten minutes, looks pretty awful, soft and grainy like a dupey 16mm print. However, at about the 10-minute mark the picture pops into high-def clarity, albeit with more deliberate grain and softness emblematic of that era. Cinematographer Billy Williams liked that look, apparently, as his other movies from that period, including Voyage of the Damned, Going in Style, and On Golden Pond have a similar visual style. The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 (mono) is likewise just okay, the audio seeming to my ears to be a might thin and Peterson's underscoring even hard to hear some of the time. Optional English subtitles included on this Region "A" disc.
Supplements include an audio commentary by busy film scholars Nathaniel Thompson, Howard S. Berger, and Steve Mitchell, but the real treat is a new 25-minute interview with Elliott Gould, produced and edited by Elijah Drenner. Often these things turn into career retrospectives while barely touching upon the movie, or are little more than a collection of amusing anecdotes. Drenner, however, keeps the focus on The Silent Partner and Gould is obliging with a lot of insight and detail into the production and his character. A radio spot and trailer are also included.
A real pleasant surprise, The Silent Partner is a very good film of its type, intelligent, clever and adult. Highly Recommended.