Wednesday, January 9, 2019

The Silent Partner (1978)

Bank teller Miles Cullen (Elliott Gould) is in the throes of a malaise very specific to old-style American white middle class people of his time. Still secure he’s going to be secure in his job and position for the rest of his life, it is exactly this security that seems to haunt him: it is obvious he believes he is doomed to spend the rest of his days doing a boring, mind-numbing job, the highlights of his life being his aquarium and ineffectively flirting with his favourite colleague Julie Carver (Susannah York), who clearly finds him terribly boring. Julie, by the way, clearly suffers from the same trouble as Miles, just that she’s actively trying to relieve her existential boredom by having an affair with their married boss. And here you thought life in the bourgeoisie was satisfying.

Miles is going to relieve his own ennui soon enough, too, in rather more radical ways than Julie. For when he accidentally stumbles upon the plan of one Harry Reikle (Christopher Plummer) to rob the bank – while dressed as Santa Clause – he doesn’t alarm his superiors but sets in motion a plan that finds him waiting on the robbery to steal most of the bank’s money in his hands himself, while handing only a fraction of it to Reikle. It’s something of an awakening for Miles; he’s clearly never felt as alive as he does now.

Unfortunately for him, when Reikle hears on the news how much he is supposed to have stolen from the bank, he rather quickly cops to the fact he had a very silent partner. Reikle isn’t the kind of guy you want to be angry at you, but the newly alive Miles turns out to have repressed quite a bit of criminal energy, as well as personal charm towards the ladies, himself, so a cat and mouse game between the two men ensues that grows increasingly violent and dangerous.

Daryl Duke’s relatively obscure Canadian tax shelter movie The Silent Partner is quite a pleasant surprise. Given the cast, you’d certainly expect this to be the showcase for the considerable talents of its two male leads it is, but it is also an effective thriller with more than just a hint of Chabrol-style pondering of the mental state of the bourgeoisie. It’s not as refined a treatment of the theme as you’d get from the French, but on the other hand, Duke’s film does work better at being thrilling and tense than most of Chabrol’s films do.

Gould’s performance is just as good as you’d expect him to be in this sort of material. He wears his usual scruffy, somewhat goofy, surface charm, and certainly keeps Miles sympathetic, but his performance also makes clear he knows exactly that Miles’s awakening isn’t all roses. As Gould portrays him, the more alive Miles is certainly more charming, more lively and more fun to watch, but Gould also makes clear that there’s an unpleasant smugness and a ruthlessness to the man now that was held in check by societal convention until he started to break these rules. I’m not sure the film always realizes this; at times, it feels as if it were treating this really rather dubious character a bit too much like its hero than just its protagonist. On the other hand, his antagonist in Plummer’s Reikle is certainly much worse – where Miles is merely callous, Reikle’s a murderous sadist; where Miles uses people in what seems a not completely conscious manner, Reikle uses them and delights in crushing them afterwards. There’s a really nasty scene where he kills his former girlfriend who has thrown in with Miles that makes this very clear. Speaking of delight, Plummer really seems to revel in the nastiness of the character, smashing places and people up, and glowering icily to great effect. Though, watching the film, I couldn’t quite shake the feeling that Reikle may very well have started out like Miles, the difference between them just being one of degrees that may very well get smaller in the coming years.

Of course, the film does end on what plays like a conventional happy end, so I suspect that’s my interpretation of the characters and not the one of the film, itself, though I wouldn’t put this sort of thing totally past scriptwriter Curtis Hanson. Apart from the rich thematic resonance of the whole film, Hanson’s script also is just a really inventive, sometimes more ruthless than you’d at first expect, example of classic American-style thriller writing, wonderfully paced, and clever in all the best meanings of that word.

I haven’t said much at all about Duke’s direction, but then, there’s really nothing spectacular about it. It’s standard, professional 70s-style work, nothing more, nothing less. But then, given the script and the performances, not trying to be too stylish or extravagant seems to me rather the right directorial choice. This is a case where the director’s job really is to show off the work of actors and writer, getting out of their way and letting them do what they do best.

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