It's Christmas time, a traditionally busy period for banks, especially this Toronto branch situated in a new shopping centre. Meek bank clerk Miles Cullen (Elliott Gould) has other things on his mind, however, such as his co-worker Julie (Susannah York) who he is in love with, but stuck with the fact that she is having an affair with the boss. Yet this is pushed out of his thoughts when he notices a receipt that has a note written on it saying the person who scribbled it has a gun and to hand over the money - this is the end of the working day and the bank is closing up, but there's no sign of any criminals. The next morning, Miles catches sight of a board carried by one of the charity-collecting Santas and it strikes him that the "G"s on the handwritten board are in the same, idiosyncratic manner as the "G"s on the note. Could there be a robbery planned?
Why, yes there could, and that's just the first act of this quirky thriller from Canada. Before David Cronenberg came along, the majority of Canadian films tended to be neglected and not treated as seriously as those from south of the border, but occasionally a film would come along that prompt more than a murmur of interest, and The Silent Partner was one of them. Perhaps this was down to two factors: the high standards of the cast, especially Gould, and the fact that future thriller director Curtis Hanson of L.A. Confidential fame had adapted the script, from a novel called "Think of a Number" by Anders Bodelsen.
With those two elements working in tandem, the film stands out from the run of the mill efforts of the day, and Gould does some of his best work as the kind of guy most people think nothing of walking all over, even unintentionally, but has a wilier nature than everyone gives him credit for. The film is careful to build up his background, with his lonely home life summed up by his devotion to his tropical fish collection, and his romantic life going nowehere despite Julie's sympathy. But when the criminal Santa drops into his life, everything changes, only you'd never know it from Miles' consistent behaviour. The Santa is Reikle (Christopher Plummer, superbly menacing), a nasty piece of work who Miles may be making a serious mistake in crossing.
Nevertheless, Miles allows him to rob the bank, but sets off the alarm when Reikle has only a small amount of cash; he gets away anyway, so why are the police saying the thief escaped with thousands of dollars? Because the cunning Miles has taken a lion's share of the cash for himself, and when Reikle finds out he vows revenge, demanding that Miles hand over the rest of it. We are never sure who is out of their depth, as a sinister game of oneupmanship commences, with Reikle making threatening telephone calls and breaking into Miles' apartment, and Miles wriggling his way out of each sticky situation, although not without consequences. About halfway through, when it looks as if the villain is beaten, you may be mistaken for thinking the film has turned into a romantic drama, but it's just lulling you into a false sense of security. It's not quite as ingenious as it could have been, and one scene of violence is strong enough to belong in a horror movie instead of this, but The Silent Partner has much to savour. Music by Oscar Peterson (yes, the famous jazz pianist).