“The Silent Partner” was a sleeper hit when it was released in the United States in 1978, but it seems like it has gained more recognition in recent years, and rightly so. The Canadian production- which one three Canadian Film Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and was one of the first movies produced under Canada’s Capitol Coast Allowance plan, which gave production companies tax incentives to film in the country long before Toronto became a hub for North America filmmaking- is a thriller that makes perfect use of a simple yet clever and rarely done concept, and is further anchored by the magnetism of its two leads.
Elliott Gould stars as Miles Cullen, a mild-mannered bank teller who works at a bank branch in a shopping mall (filmed on location in Toronto’s newly opened Eaton Centre). Miles is, quite frankly, a dork. He collects fish for his home aquarium. He’s attracted to his pretty coworker Julie (Susannah York) but doesn’t have much luck approaching her, and even when the opportunity to take her out is essentially handed to him (turns out she’s dating the boss, who wants Miles to look after her when he has to bow out of their date) their outing is filled with awkward silences (it probably doesn’t help that they detour so Miles can pick up a new fish).
“The Silent Partner” is set over the course of several months, but the first half is set in the middle of the holiday season. Carolers sing over the opening credits as the camera pans across the crowded shopping mall, tinseled out and filled with Santas. One of these Santas catches Miles’ suspicious eye, and his hunch proves correct when one day he approaches Miles at the counter and passes him a note demanding on the money in the till. Miles decides to take advantage of the situation, pocketing the big bills for himself and sending the thief off with just a few dollars. But it turns out that crook in a Santa disguise is a guy named Harry Reikle (Christopher Plummer), and he is not above engaging in violence and even committing murder to get his way- especially when he discovers Miles’ deception, launching the pair into a deadly game of cat and mouse in which neither can convict the other without persecuting themselves.
The glittery holiday setting of “The Silent Partner” stands in stark contrast to the dense themes and occasionally gratuitous violence contained in its story. The film was directed by Daryl Duke from a screenplay by Curtis Hanson based on a Danish novel titled “Think of a Number” by Anders Bodelsen (“The Silent Partner” was actually the third screen adaptation of this book). Duke, however, exited the production early due to creative differences. A grisly scene at the end of the film was so shockingly violent that Duke disagreed with its graphic nature and didn’t want to work on it; Hanson himself took charge of the reshoots and post-production.
“The Silent Partner” isn’t all gratuitous violence, however. The majority of it is concerned with getting inside the heads of its two leads, Gould’s Miles in particular. His criminal act seems to embolden the previously meek teller; he’s suddenly the object of every woman’s attentions—first Julie, and later a woman called Elaine (Celine Lomez) who supposedly nursed his ailing father—and is able to get just about anything he wants, although the threat of Harry is always looming there. The film’s examination of masculinity and its homoerotic undertones are fascinating. All of the interactions Harry has with women end in violence, but he pursues Miles as ardently as a lover, leading up to a climax that finds him dressed in drag. Miles, meanwhile, has to interrupt many of his potential dates to rendezvous with Harry.
Gould is charming and makes his character’s transition from nerd to confident schemer believable, while those who primarily know Christopher Plummer from his role as Captain Von Trapp in the musical “The Sound of Music” made over a decade earlier may be shocked at what a devious and frightening villain he can be. John Candy also has a small but impactful supporting role in one of his first movies, playing one of Miles’ coworkers who strikes up a romance with a new colleague, Gail Dahms’ Louise, who’s worth looking out for thanks to her punny T-shirts (“Bankers do it with interest!”). “The Silent Partner” is painfully underrated, but it’s one of the best and smartest thrillers to come out of the 1970s—and it’s a festive holiday watch, at that.
“The Silent Partner” can be rented from some digital platforms, and is available on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber. Runtime: 106 minutes. Rated R.