Exchange Rate: The Silent Partner at 40

By Adam Nayman

I think Toronto is a wonderful town, smart and up to date, just like a good American city…makes me feel like I’m back home in Cleveland.” These words, spoken by a “Mr. Chester Vanderwick” (an apparently authentic Midwesterner, although I’ve always thought he looks and sounds like a bad actor) sum up the subtext of Leslie McFarlane’s short 1951 documentary Toronto Boom Town, a would-be city symphony that’s more like an advertising jingle. Produced in English and French versions for the National Film Board of Canada’s proudly propagandistic “Canada Carries On” series, Toronto Boom Town rides the crest of its subject city’s upward mobility. We’re given glimpses of Regent Park tenements before the narrator assures us that gentrification will make such economic disparity a thing of the past; the camera glides serenely past the poverty towards the downtown core. Modernity is here to stay, hence the Ohioan’s compliment and its embedded suggestion of the US as a sort of civic measuring stick. If Toronto Boom Town has a guiding light, it is the one described in Allen Ginsberg’s “Cleveland, The Flats:” “that blue flame burning? Industry!”

No film industry, however: while the city’s transition from what McFarlane’s narrator calls “a million people living in a forest” to a crowded steel-and-glass metropolis was well underway by 1951, it would be another decade and a half before moviemaking in (as opposed to about) Toronto would truly become possible. Even then, the city’s cinema was comprised of isolated gestures rather than a unified cycle. The only way to reconcile Sidney J. Furie’s lovers-on-the-run melodrama A Dangerous Age (1957) with Julian Roffman’s beatnik horrorshow The Bloody Brood (1959) and superior 3D thriller The Mask (1960) is in their yoking of local talent to sturdy American genre structures—specifically, the kind of youth bait that was filling up drive-ins across the United States.

Imitation is both the sincerest form of flattery and the path of least resistance, but eventually those overtures to an adolescent audience would become internalized and yield art: Don Owen’s Nobody Waved Good-bye (1964) and Don Shebib’s Goin’ Down the Road (1970) each inverted and subverted McFarlane’s capitalist triumphalism. The former’s teenage rebel-without-a-clue hero Peter (Peter Kastner) makes a show of rejecting suburban prosperity, but, lacking the skills or discipline to pay his way in the real world, ends up pilfering the till at his parking-lot job and fleeing the city in a stolen car, pregnant girlfriend discarded on the side of the highway. Peter’s pathetic self-exile anticipates the exit trajectories of his East Coast namesake Pete (Doug McGrath) and pal Joey (Paul Bradley) in Goin’ Down the Road as they flee down Highway 401 in the aftermath of a botched shopping-market robbery, their easy-living dreams long since crushed, busts in Toronto Boom Town.

Raggedly realistic and percussively downbeat, the Owen and Shebib films are twin cornerstones of the English-Canadian canon, fusing the Griersonian documentary tradition with working-class moralism and Cassavetes-style psychodrama. Goin’ Down the Road in particular is held up as a work above reproach; in an essay last year for The Globe and Mail, producer-director Albert Shin wrote that it “represented a brief interregnum…when artists seemed to be in control of the industry” before the introduction of the Capital Cost Allowance (CCA) created the real Toronto Boom Town: a Hollywood North hospitable to American interlopers who, like Mr. Vanderwick before them, were scouting for a location that reminded them of home, and where their dollars could be stretched to the absolute fullest.

The mostly motley cohort of producers, distributors, sales agents, shysters, shylocks and sleazebags that sought out Toronto as a tax shelter from the storm of independent film production in the mid-1970s rarely make the roll call of Canada’s film heroes. More commonly, they are painted as craven opportunists: moneylenders and -launderers who inaugurated an era of impure, highly incentivized filmmaking that yielded an inverse ratio of quality to quantity. Much has been written about the irony at the heart of the CCA, i.e., that a government plan to inoculate against the spread of foreign product in Canadian theatres ended up creating an infestation of American-style genre product on home turf. In the absence of a truly viable national commercial filmmaking tradition, the filmmakers of the tax-shelter era opted in large part for Hollywood knockoffs, a good portion of which sought to de-emphasize or disguise their local identity—which was easy enough to do when they foregrounded honest-to-goodness American movie stars like George C. Scott, Ava Gardner or Elliott Gould.

Not so with Daryl Duke’s Gould-starring The Silent Partner (1978), however, which is unrepentantly Toronto-centric, from views of the Gardiner Expressway and Lake Ontario to the presence of a pre-SCTV John Candy in a key supporting role. The film has been widely, and correctly, celebrated as an example of first-rate filmic engineering, a rare case of true alchemy wrought out of banal formula. It’s instructive to contrast the sharpness and specificity of Duke’s thriller with the mouldy Velveeta intrigue of George Mendeluk’s contemporaneous The Kidnapping of the President (1980), with which it shares a shooting location, a production shingle (the then-fledgling Carolco Pictures, whose founders Mario Kassar and Andrew Vajna were still a few years away from drawing First Blood [1982]), and an above-the-title casting strategy steeped in cynical expertise. In order to qualify for the CCA, a project had to have two-thirds of its creative personnel identify as Canadian, but the configuration could vary according to the participants. This is why, despite its Lebanese and Hungarian-American producers, Danish literary source material, American-penned screenplay (by Nevadan Curtis Hanson), and American and British stars (Gould and Susannah York), The Silent Partner could still be classified as a Canadian production: by hiring the Vancouver-born Duke to direct and tapping Stratford stalwart Christopher Plummer as the villain, Kassar, Vajna, and their inside man Garth Drabinsky (not yet an impresario or a felon) could work the system to their advantage.

In terms of intertextual wittiness, The Kidnapping of the President gets the edge: it’s funny that the President is played by Hal Holbrook (Deep Throat promoted to Commander-in-Chief), and also that his protector on the ground is Canadian icon William Shatner, paying the bills in between Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1980) and The Wrath of Khan (1982) with stoic aplomb. But while the premise of Mendeluk’s film is suggestive of a decade’s political tensions—a Carlos the Jackal manqué abducts the leader of the free world on North American soil—Toronto is used just as a vaguely exotic backdrop: suitably sleek and modern, but ultimately purely incidental to the action. The Silent Partner makes less of an overt fuss about its setting, but nevertheless gets at something truer and more ominous about Toronto circa the late ’70s— specifically, the covetous late-capitalist mentality building up in the skyscraping shadow of the CN Tower.

“Money, money, money…stacks of bills…handfuls of coins.” So reads the first line of Hanson’s screenplay, which craftily adapts Anders Bodelsen’s novel about a bank robbery that ends up resulting in two simultaneous heists, one deftly obscured by the other. The film opens on the interior of “The First Bank of Canada” (a fictional institution created on the premises of the then newly-built Eaton Centre), where teller Miles Cullen (Gould) notices a message scrawled on the carbon of a discarded deposit slip: “The Thing in My Pocket is a Gun. Give Me All the Cash.” A master of slow-dawning reaction shots, Gould shows us Miles’ brain working to solve this riddle in real time, and Duke and Hanson trust us to figure things out along with him.

The paper offers a clue that somebody is planning to rob the bank in the near future, using the slip as a wordless, threatening prompt to whomever is working the till. The likely candidate is the department-store Santa Claus (Plummer) that Miles has seen lingering outside the bank, whose “Please Give” sign displays the same hooked handwriting style. Miles’ self-serving plan—which is to secretly shortchange the thief when he shows up and keep the difference for himself—is a good one; it’s also loosely analogous to the creative accounting of the tax-shelter era, which was predicated on skimming off the top (and under the noses of government authority). While I wouldn’t suggest that The Silent Partner was designed as a film-industrial allegory, the centrality of money and the best places to hide it (from a lunchbox to a jam jar to a locked safety-deposit box) do keep gesturing towards these contingencies.

When Plummer’s thief Harry Reikle finally makes his move, swaggering right into the teller’s carefully laid trap, the film splits the difference between precisely edited sleight-of-hand suspense and the pure sight-gag hilarity of the crook’s fuzzy Yuletide drag. (Like Die Hard [1988] and Eyes Wide Shut [1999], The Silent Partner is a Christmas movie). While the film’s production values (including a coruscating piano score by the great Oscar Peterson) are solid enough, the pleasure here is largely in the direction, the ways in which Duke keeps bringing specifics of costuming, character, and decor to the fore. Like Miles, who needs to keep up appearances in the aftermath of the robbery so as not to arouse suspicion from either his co-workers or the cops, the film goes through the motions, but with a bristling, anxious sense of purpose.

Miles’ meek façade belies suppressed criminal ambitions, and his Cabbagetown apartment is littered with significant props (a chess board, a brightly lit tropical fish tank) that hint at hidden depths and eccentricities. Harry, meanwhile, wears his menace on the surface. Cinematographer Billy Williams (The Exorcist, 1973; Gandhi, 1982) accentuates Plummer’s tapered fingernails and feline eyes—most strikingly in a tightly framed close-up of him staring laser beams through the open mail slot in a dead-bolted door—as well as a Double Indemnity-style anklet to suggest that it is Harry, rather than Miles’ prim colleague Julie (Susannah York) or French-Canadian sex kitten Elaine (Celine Lomez), who is our protagonist’s true love match.

These psychosexual undertones are present in the obsessive, back-and-forth antagonism that drives the story, from Harry’s purring, borderline-obscene late-night phone calls (shades of Canadian classic Black Christmas [1974]) to Miles’ nifty plan to get his adversary arrested and subsequent refusal to identify him in a police line-up ( an act of self-preservation laced with an odd chivalry). They reach their fullest expression in a knowingly outrageous climax, which finds Harry attempting to recoup his lost funds once and for all while wearing a ladies’ Chanel suit and pumps. This campy-creepy money shot has its own bizarre poetry—and may be Plummer’s greatest-ever acting moment—but it’s really just a flourish on top of the film’s running interrogation of male insecurity and expediency. Miles’ self-deprecating charm when he flirts with Julie and Elaine masks his belief that he deserves better than his ordinary lot in life. This sense of entitlement, steeped first in resentment and then the superiority he feels after making it home with the money, brings our nominal hero perilously close to Harry’s own sense of criminal exceptionalism.

If Harry is a psycho, what is Miles? It’s telling that the latter’s gradually burgeoning confidence, both in his battle with Harry and his dual romances with Julie and Elaine, is tied to his newfound wealth. His ingenuity and resourcefulness are appealing, but the lengths that he’ll go to guard his nest egg start to give us pause. The revelation that Elaine is working for Harry (her lover-slash-pimp) to try and find out where Miles has hidden the money has a B-movie predictability, but her subsequent, gory murder at Harry’s hands (a gratuitous decapitation by fish tank that was shot by the second unit when Duke refused to do it) remaps the material’s representational and moral parameters in a discomfiting way. The slapstick choreography of a stricken but paranoid Miles trying to dispose of his lover’s headless body is less sly than sick, channelling nothing less than Norman Bates’ crime-scene anxiety in Psycho (1960). When he finally dumps Elaine’s corpse at a construction site beside the Sheraton Centre, his relief at literally burying the evidence melds uncomfortably with his nemesis’ approval. Not only has Miles covered up Harry’s crime, but he’s won the sociopath’s lasting respect.

Miles’ complicity in Elaine’s disappearance rhymes with his opportunistic piggybacking on Harry’s heist. The victim’s abject fate, meanwhile, unlocks The Silent Partner’s startling power as a conjoined allegory of individual and civic corruption. Miles has gone from dipping his fingers in the till (like Peter’s youthful transgression in Nobody Waved Good-bye) to stashing a body beneath tons of concrete. There’s something queasy about the image of foundations being laid over top of a forgotten woman, mirroring the moment in Toronto Boom Town when the camera speeds past shots of slums to focus on the growing downtown core. A sign reading “Hotel Toronto” hammers things home: the city as haunted burial ground, where nobody waves goodbye. In the end, Miles gets away clean (apart from a bullet wound), but the cost of his emancipation from the workaday world can’t be discounted.