Do It With Interest: The Silent Partner
Updated: Jan 6
It's Christmas, and a gaggle of Santas follows shoppers into a mall in Toronto. Within the concrete edifice, an armed robbery initiates an escalating battle of wits - one with fatal consequences.
The Silent Partner is the third filmed adaptation of the novel Think of a Number by Danish author Anders Bodelsen, commissioned as part of a tax incentive to encourage productions to shoot in Canada (The Silent Partner is widely considered the only good film to come out of this scheme.) The screenplay is by none other than Curtis Hanson (director of L.A. Confidential and 8 Mile) and is directed by Daryl Duke. Although far from a household name, Duke also gave us the insanely hard Payday, which stars Rip Torn as a drug-addled, oversexed country music star hurtling toward oblivion. His big-screen career ended in 1986 with a disastrous adaptation of James Clavell’s Tai-Pan, which featured Twin Peaks’ Joan Chen.
The film stars Elliott Gould as Miles, an eccentric bank teller who notices that one of the men playing Santa in his building is acting strangely, and correctly predicts he is planning a robbery. Miles devises a scheme to steal the money for himself, leaving the perp with just the float and the blame for the missing cash. He succeeds, and no one suspects a thing – except the robber realises the trick Miles has pulled and sets out to recover the money.
Gould is perfectly cast in the lead - his mild-mannered, kooky affect masking a cunning streak. When he pieces together the clues of the impending robbery, he is curiously disinterested in stopping the crime or warning his colleagues. Instead, he decides to profit from the situation, suggesting that Miles’s tweed jackets and Superman lunchbox might be concealing a devious inner life. Christopher Plummer plays Reikle, the criminal in question, a malevolent dandy who proves himself capable of far worse than armed robbery. Plummer seems to be doing everything he can to distance himself from his Mr. Von Trapp image and is the driving force in a scene so shockingly violent that Duke refused to shoot it, requiring a second-unit step in to finish the job.
Although punctuated by moments of brutality, Duke pays close attention to constructing a believable milieu of ennui-ridden middle-class existence. Much of the film concerns the quotidian rhythms of notably pre-#MeToo working life. The bank is depicted as a drab, unfulfilling dead-end, filled with frustrated employees and thrumming with idle lechery. Her male cohorts casually objectify a young, blonde new recruit, and workplace relationships receive the same level of care and scrutiny as a decade-old petty cash receipt. Miles’s primary distraction is a crush on a coworker (Susannah Yorke). It's implied Miles has missed his chance to act on his feelings, and she is now having an affair with his married boss. The impending robbery gives Miles a chance to reclaim his agency and prove something – if only to himself.
The film’s setting is crucial to Duke’s intent. While most Toronto productions try to pass the city off as a better-loved cinematic locale like New York, Duke embraces its generic qualities. The Silent Partner captures the drab hegemony of life under capitalism. Situating a thriller around an indistinct shopping mall has a similar effect to Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, which famously used genre to critique consumerism. In Duke's film, the western cityscape is an anonymous zone, where money is the only language people understand - an idea he drives home through the Christmastime setting and the hordes of Santas and shoppers shuffling into the building during the opening credits. Like Canada’s finest director, David Cronenberg, Duke understands the disquieting feeling of cities with no history. The concrete, utilitarian non-spaces of The Silent Partner are vital to its sense of oppressive unease.
The Silent Partner is a true oddity. Combining Hitchcockian thriller mechanics with lurid violence has been done countless times (see the filmography of Brian De Palma), but the approach Duke takes feels different. It's a fun movie - tense and well-acted, with several bizarre moments - but a palpable darkness hangs over it. Duke is clearly as interested in the relatable concerns of his protagonist (professional malaise, the passage of time) as he is in the gruesome exploitation elements. The result is a film that is less a balancing act than a series of wild swings – and is all the better for it.