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The Silent Partner

1979, Starring Elliott Gould, Christopher Plummer, Susannah York, Michael Kirby, John Candy, Celine Lomez. Directed by Daryl Duke.

Proof positive that Canadians are capable of making good genre films when they want to, The Silent Partner is one of the few fondly remembered films from Canada's notorious tax shelter era. A well-developed story and above average performances made this thriller a commercial and critical success, and served as a basic template for producer Garth Drabinsky's next hit, The Changeling. Not only is The Silent Partner rife with Canadian content, but where else are you gonna see Christopher Plummer in drag?

Although the romantic leads are played by imported actors Elliott Gould and Susannah York, the supporting cast is almost entirely Canadian. Besides Plummer, Michael Kirby and Celine Lomez have sizable roles here, and John Candy makes a memorable cameo as well. Canadian references come at so fast and thick you'll assume Tourism Toronto has it's hand in the pie. Besides being partially set at the Eaton Centre, Toronto's most famous shopping mall, shots of the CN Tower and Canadian flags can be seen throughout, and a joke about the word "eh" is even made at one point.

In the film itself, Gould plays Miles Cullen, a timid bank teller who finds himself in over his head after he launches a daring plan to take advantage of a robbery. It's Christmas-time, and the mall which houses the bank where Miles works is all done up with festive decorations. After work one evening, Miles finds a note that says "The thing in my pocket is a gun, give me all your money." Assuming it's from a robbery attempt aborted at the last minute, Miles becomes concerned. He tries to show it to Julie (York), a co-worker he has a crush on, but ultimately keeps the information to himself.

The next day, Miles recognizes the distinctive handwriting from the note on a sign held by a donation collecting Santa. His fears are confirmed when he sees the Santa nervously enter the bank after Miles accepts a significant deposit from one of the mall merchants. This time, a kid starts pestering Santa to listen to his wish list, and once again the robbery plans are ditched.

Anticipating Santa's return the following night, Miles brings a metal lunchbox to work and lines it with the cash from his teller's drawer. Right on schedule, Santa comes in and passes the note over the counter. Miles cleans out the rest of his drawer, about a thousand dollars, and hands it over to the robber. After closing up, Miles puts his lunchbox in a safety deposit box and leaves for home $49,000 richermoney that everyone assumes was stolen.

Everyone but "Santa" Reikle, that is. After hearing Miles confirm that over $50,000 was stolen on the news, Reikle realizes he's been played for a fool. He tracks down Miles' apartment, and from a payphone just outside starts demanding the money that is rightfully his. When Miles refuses, his apartment is ransacked, but Reikle is unable to find the deposit box key hidden in a jar of grape jelly. Miles is constantly chased by the persistent criminal, until he tips off the cops who arrest Reikle on an unrelated charge. Finally, Miles thinks he has seen the last of Santa.

With his money still hidden at the bank, Miles returns to his normal life. He soon learns his father has died, and at the funeral he meets Elaine (Lomez), one of the nurses who worked at the retirement home where his dad was living. Then, disaster strikes. His cleaning lady throws out the jar of jelly with his key, and Miles enlists Elaine's help to retrieve the cash. Since Julie usually takes care of the safety deposit boxes, Miles waits until she goes for lunch, then has Elaine pose as a customer who lost her key. They call the locksmith, but with only 30 minutes left on Julie's lunch, he hasn't shown up yet. Can they get the money out before Julie comes back? More importantly, can Miles trust Elaine to walk out of the bank with his lunchbox full of cash?

Without getting into the cross-dressing conclusion of the film, The Silent Partner makes for a satisfying thriller that just happens to be Canadian. Jason Gilmore's essay on the film [Ed. note: review no longer available on the web] grudgingly admits that this film for the "International market" might have more Canadian interpretations than are generally accepted by critics today. His investigation of whether The Silent Partner represents the "Canadianization" of an American thriller leads him to a conclusion that obviously surprises him. Noting a scene in which Miles knocks over a chess board in frustration only to contemplate a pawn, Gilmore wonders if it might be a metaphor for the Canadians, or our film industry in general. Although he admits that conveying this idea probably wasn't the original purpose of the scene (he's rightMiles simply considers himself a pawn in Reikle's game), he believes it still has resonance for " optimistic, Canadian" viewers.

I'm willing to go a step further than Gilmore and point to an allegory that appears more intentional. Towards the end of the film, Reikle and Miles meet face to face, and Reikle calls them "partners" (hence the title), and tells his adversary "you are just like me," referring to Miles' own criminal actions. It's an interesting point in the film, since until this conversation, the audience considers Miles the "good guy" and Reikle "the villain," yet they are both thieves, complicit criminals. Why does Miles deserve our sympathy?

In the same way that Miles considers himself superior to Reikle, we as Canadians constantly distance ourselves from "boorish" Americans. Yet when you come right down to it, the similarities outweigh the differences. Essentially, we share a privileged lifestyle, consumer culture, and are bombarded with the same movies and TV shows (as well as the values and beliefs that come with them). How superficial are deviations like improved health care, better gun control and a penchant for putting cheese curds on fries? I'll be the first to admit that it's a frightening thought that challenges our perception of ourselves, but that's perhaps why it resonates so well, a point the horror on Miles face confirms when he realizes his "partner" is right.

The Silent Partner isn't the only film to draw this comparison either. Similar attempts to blur the line between heroes and villains can be seen less blatantly in other Canadian genre films, including Death Weekend (1976), The Carpenter (1987), The Clown Murders (1975), and The Hired Gun (1961). But out of all these films, The Silent Partner is perhaps the easiest to recommend. Sure this film is well-directed and interesting throughout, but also, none of these other films feature a climax with a famous Canadian Shakespearean actor wearing make-up and a vintage 70s Chanel dress.

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