The Silent Partner

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Daryl Duke is one of those truly underrated directors. In the seventies Duke directed two bonafide classics; the first was Payday (1973) and the second was The Silent Partner (1978). Duke’s approach is very workmanlike with a keen sense for economic visuals and strong characterizations; both Payday and The Silent Partner are constructed around a tour de force performance.

The Silent Partner is an early screenwriting credit for Curtis Hanson who would later make it big in the states as the writer and director of L.A. Confidential (1997) and Wonder Boys (2000). Hanson’s preoccupation with the storytelling techniques associated with Film Noir pictures is all over the plotting of The Silent Partner. Hanson’s writing takes the genre seriously, as does Duke’s visual direction, while leading man Elliott Gould carries on the same sort of subversion that he executed so well in Robert Altman’s masterful The Long Goodbye (1973).

Gould stars as bank teller Miles Cullen (a seemingly awkward and nerdy gentleman who collects exotic fish). That all changes when, one Christmas season, Harry Reikle (Christopher Plummer) robs the bank in a Santa costume. Cullen had his suspicions before hand and is able to beat Reikle too the job, leaving the man in the Santa outfit to take the rap. What ensues is an ongoing, often labyrinthian, game of cat and mouse between the psychotic master of disguise Reikle and the progressively sociopathic Cullen.

In the midst of this deadly game Hanson interjects the characters of Julie Carver (Susannah York) and Elaine (Celine Lomez). In true Film Noir fashion the former is the “good girl” and the latter the femme fatale. Both women become entangled in Cullen’s manipulations. However, unlike the films of the forties and fifties, the “good girl” Julie Carver becomes a willing accessory after the fact, escaping with Cullen and the loot. This decision updates and complicates the morality of the genre, lending The Silent Partner a more contemporary attitude that transcends being simply an homage like L.A. Confidential.

Duke’s direction of The Silent Partner does a lot to foreground the processes by which the tropes of Film Noir are executed. The amount of screen time allotted to Cullen’s disposal of Elaine’s decapitated corpse is an excellent example of this. Not only does this choice effectively dramatize the physical exertions of such a task, but also Cullen’s unfeeling attitude to the situation. The viewer is forced to live with both aspects of this sequence long after it has become uncomfortable.

The Kino-Lorber BluRay release of The Silent Partner has done a lot to revive this overlooked classic’s reputation. When I first saw The Silent Partner I had stumbled upon it in a video store’s discount bin on an old VHS tape. I had no clue what it was but the cover (a photograph featuring Gould at a desk with an apple in his mouth) intrigued me. Since that fateful moment in the autumn of 2007 The Silent Partner has been a regular in my Christmas movie rotation.