Tuesday, December 23, 2008

A Criminally Canadian Christmas: Elliott Gould in The Silent Partner (1978)

With the tiniest hints of Hitchcock and, in one shocking moment, of the Italian giallos of Argento (see the broken glass over the title), The Silent Partner is a movie virtually unknown to, well, everyone. Set during Christmas 1977, the set-up is one we've seen before (which is fine with me): an everyday guy, Miles Cullen (Gould), who ends up in facing down a criminal mastermind. Cullen's a go-nowhere sorta fella working a boring job at a bank in a shopping mall with a little crush on his obnoxious boss's mistress, coworker Julie (a delectably bright-eyed Susannah York).

Cullen's other coworkers include an impossibly young John Candy and his improbably nubile girlfriend, a Suzanne Somers-type blonde who wears tight-fitting t-shirts that have cutesy bank-related phrases on them like "Early withdrawals penalized" and "Bankers do it with interest" (what, no "Night Deposits Welcome"?). Lonely evenings are spent playing chess and collecting exotic fish--until Cullen discovers that the mall Santa, Reikle, (a fey, sadistic Christopher Plummer) is planning on robbing the bank. Only then Miles does spin into action: when "Santa" robs him, Cullen defrauds the bank (and therefore also Reikle) by keeping a portion of the stolen till for himself, and then stashes the cash in one of the bank's safe deposit boxes.

Completely unrelated DVD cover

Of course, we movie fans know it's never that easy to escape the drudgery of everyday life, and while Miles attempts to woo Julie away from the boss, Reikle has seen him on TV being interviewed about the robbery. That cat-and-mouse game that follows resembles the chess games Cullen challenges himself with but turns far deadlier as he realizes he and Reikle are inextricably entwined in their criminal tête-à-tête.

This is a film made in Canada that, oddly enough, is actually set in Canada. Despite some stellar reviews on Amazon and in some blogs I ran across, it's hampered by its sometimes dull, dry delivery. Moments of black humor and morbidity crack the surface, as well as moments of almost Scorsesean violence, but director Daryl Duke, going by his IMDB entry, was a journeyman workhorse TV director and you can certainly tell that. The screenplay (based on some long-forgotten Danish novel), however, is by Curtis Hanson, he of the masterful L.A. Confidential. This is the second time in recent months Hanson's screenwriting credits have suprised me (at Halloween I learned he also adapted Lovecraft's "The Dunwich Horror" in 1968).

Plummer as Reikle, not dressed as Santa or woman

Gould has none of the smart-alecky, rubbery-faced charm and playful subversion he did so well in The Long Goodbye and the fantastic California Split, but that wouldn't fit Miles Cullen. In the couple scenes that he really shows emotion--panic in one and disgust in the other--the movie comes alive. A romantic evening between him and York is quite believable. The dreary daily grind of his life comes through, but I would've appreciated more of the Gould that was so prevalent in the '70s. But I suppose Cullen has to play it cool; he's got cops and Julie and his boss and a psycho-criminal and soon, the mysterious and exotic beauty Elaine, (Céline Lomez) sniffing around his every move.

You really don't want to see what happens with that fish tank in the background.

There are some great '70s moments here: a tacky Christmas office party; dimly lit "affair" bars with tinkly jazz and pretzel bowls; Miles' bachelor apartment and Julie's "liberated woman" one. Oscar Peterson's score is dramatic and overt, adding much malevolence to scenes that, honestly, would have limped along without it. Plummer is his usual urbane bad-ass self, even in drag and a Santa suit, and Susannah York is classy and elegant as a woman frustrated by Gould's inexplicable behavior (uh, as in not fucking her when he gets the chance). Céline Lomez is quite sweet and yet tough as the beauty caught between Cullen and Reikle--to disastrous results. But, c'mon, you knew that right? Thrillers like this are, quite purposely, paint-by-numbers (or murder by numbers, if one is a Police fan).

The Silent Partner came at the end of Gould's briefly brilliant career of the '70s; emotional insecurities as an actor and celebrity led to lack of good work and virtual unemployment through the '80s and '90s (until he returned as Ross and Monica's dad!). But I find Gould one of the most interesting actors of his age, perhaps even more so than Nicholson, Pacino, and DeNiro, simply because he could not make the transition from the personal films of the 1970s to the anonymous blockbusters of the 1980s and beyond. Perhaps one would do well to recall his famous words from his best role, as Philip Marlowe in The Long Goodbye: “It’s okay with me.”


Video Zeta One said...

Never seen it... looks like it will now go into my ever expanding Netflix queue. Sounds interesting.

The DVD cover is so awful I actually winced in pain when I saw it.

Amazing how an actor can be as popular as Gould and end up out of work and nearly broke. Glad he was able to make a slight comeback.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Lee Ann Howlett - Audiobook Narrator said...

Fantastic movie. I saw it years ago when it first came out. Wouldn't mind seeing again...