The Silent Partner
December 4, 2020
1 Hr., 46 Mins.
t’s common — maybe even a prerequisite — in the bank-robbery movie for things to go awry either in the middle of or after a heist. Rarely do things go as awry as they do in The Silent Partner (1978), a terrific cat-and-mouse thriller directed by Daryl Duke. It should all be so simple for the robber. He’s planning to filch the bank at the Toronto Eaton Centre, and it won’t be anything flashy — he’s just going to subtly hand a note over to
the teller with his demand. But little does the thief in The Silent Partner, the lip-smackingly nasty Harry (Christopher Plummer), know that the teller he’s going to face, outwardly mild-mannered Miles (Elliott Gould), is as clever as — maybe even cleverer than — he is.
By accident, Miles finds a discarded piece of paper on which Harry rehearsed by hand what he was going to write on his stickup note. Soon afterward, he notices Harry casing the place. Miles has nothing going on in his life, really —
the most exciting thing about him is that he is passionate about collecting exotic fishes, which he keeps in a gargantuan tank in his living room. So he decides he's going to outsmart the soon-to-be robber in a fit of daring self-amusement. Thrillers are always tacitly asking the viewer what they might do if they were put in the same position as the protagonist they're getting to know. Part of what’s appealing about The Silent Partner is that Miles, who will not be defined by this one act of corner-cutting courage, almost never goes with what’s safest. Few people in the audience might attest to wanting to go for as many risks as he does.
Audaciously, Miles will be the prey that outwits his predator. As he waits all afternoon for Harry to make his move, he's going to stash all the day’s transactions into a little leather bag he has tucked away on a shelf beneath him. He’ll sound the alarm when Harry pops in, and, when he inevitably gets away, Miles will report that the robber has stolen the exact amount he has collected in his bag. It’s such a mischievously clever move that you’re excited for Miles to get away with it; like him, we’re too elevated by the prospect of this outmaneuvering working out to really consider the consequences. Plus, Gould, at his deadpan-funny best, is the kind of actor already so likable that it doesn’t take very much labor from a screenwriter to get us to root for him.
Inexorably, though, the consequences prove nightmarish in The Silent Partner — that is nightmarish for Miles but fairly exhilarating for the viewer; we spend most of the movie anxious about how Miles is going to overcome a new trouble, and screenwriter Curtis Hanson (1992’s The Hand That Rocks the Cradle,
1997’s L.A. Confidential) does an efficient job ratcheting up the tension. Harry, who it turns out is a psychopath not averse to brutally killing someone when he doesn’t get his way, starts making threatening phone calls to Miles, and apparently breaking into his apartment when he’s away, once he's figured out what's happened.
One might think Miles, even after he’s been featured on the evening news as the hero teller who didn’t buckle under pressure, would give into Harry’s taunts. What could it mean for his precious fishes, and for the burgeoning romance he’s kind of, kind of not having with his co-worker Julie (Susannah York), who is herself having an affair with their married employer? But the cool-under-pressure label can’t so easily be ripped off Miles, it seems. Rather than get on his proverbial knees, he teases Harry back. The Silent Partner is a gambling movie disguised as a low-key heist thriller. It’s one in which big risks
fortunately do mostly pay off, though never because of something as simple and almost divine as rolling dice with a just-right flick of the wrist or pulling a slot machine lever with a scientifically perfect amount of gusto.
The movie has a Hitchcockian lift to it. It initially made me think of Strangers on a Train (1951), in which a naïve everyman gets in too deep with a psychopathic killer he meets by chance. But Miles more and more proves that he isn't meek like Farley Granger’s Guy Haines; The Silent Partner has more in common with the movie adaptation of Anthony Shaffer’s Sleuth (1972), in which Michael Caine and Laurence Olivier play a movielong game of one-upmanship that eventually turns deadly. We come to like the way The Silent Partner
continuously tests our own moral judgment. Although, like in Strangers on a Train, there comes a moment when the I-can’t-believe-the-protagonist-is-getting-away-with-this thrill of it all makes way for real terror. The Silent Partner is all fun and games until it isn’t anymore — and when it isn’t anymore the film's tension tightens into a stranglehold.
It’s inevitable we facilely look at the narrative in The Silent Partner like we would a battle between good and evil because Harry — a flashy villain who likes to wear false eyelashes almost as much as he likes to decapitate new women in his life who disappoint him — is so dastardly. (I dug Plummer’s performance — he’s so self-assured in his evil that it doesn’t matter that the movie gives him no real backstory or inner life; Plummer just makes you believe him and as a result have fun hating him.) But Miles acts badly, too — it's just that we almost have to remind ourselves that he isn’t exactly upstanding, and hasn’t done very much to earn our sympathy. He's not much of a hero. Gould is so charming, and so convincingly embodies the character’s consistently surprising deftness, that we aren’t so quick to think that this movie dwells in a lot more moral grayness than it seems to. The Silent Partner is escapist in the best way — it so smartly curbs expectations that we can really lose ourselves in it, then think about what exactly it has accomplished later on. A-