Among bank heist movies are some gems that inject a clever plot twist or perspective that livens up the otherwise familiar contours of the subgenre, including Inside Man, Charley Varrick, and JCVD. In 1978, a small Canadian film earned a place among such worthies by crafting a story that is as much a character study as a caper film: The Silent Partner.
Like Charley Varrick, The Silent Partner features a bank robbery that hides another crime. In this case, that crime is pulled off by a seemingly mild-mannered bank clerk named Miles Cullen (Elliot Gould). When a hardened criminal Harry Reikle (Christopher Plummer) attempts a stick up, Miles gives the robber a pittance and secretly pockets most of the bank’s money himself! But the sadistic Harry doesn’t take kindly to being duped, commencing a tense and dangerous battle of wits between the two men.
Elliot Gould is in good form here playing a man who is continually underestimated by others. Gould makes credible Miles’ increasing confidence in his criminality and also his sexuality. He is matched by Plummer’s disturbingly good turn as a slightly fey yet clearly vicious sociopath. Susannah York, as a co-worker who is both romantically interested in yet confused by Miles, and Céline Lomez as a sexy woman of intrigue, add erotic sparks to the story. Indeed, there is a lot of sex laced throughout the film — including, Plummer makes us sense — some sexual fascination with Miles by Harry.
There’s a lot of talent around these actors. Daryl Duke, mainly a television director, makes the most of his chance to helm a motion picture. I felt he let the pace slacken a bit too much about 2/3 of the way through, but his storytelling skills and ability to establish tone are impressive. Screenwriter Curtis Hanson and cinematographer Billy Williams showcase the talent that would eventually bring them Oscars (For L.A. Confidential and Gandhi, respectively). Jazz legend Oscar Peterson provides a fine score.
It all adds up to one of most original and gripping bank heist movies ever made. The Silent Partner succeeds both as a thrilling crime film and also as a portrait of how an “ordinary” person can summon remarkable reserves when pushed to the limit.
p.s. Look closely for John Candy as a bank employee who pursues the office floozie.
p.p.s. There is one extremely violent scene in this movie (you will know it when you see it) that Daryl Duke hated so much that he refused to shoot, but the producers put it in anyway without him.