The Silent Partner (1978)

Through the first two acts of this 1978 crime thriller, I was convinced I'd come across something truly special. Yes, there were flaws, along with plenty of things that aged poorly, but overall the experience was tense, engaging, and extremely rewarding. Then, sadly, came the third act, in which the plot unraveled. This isn't even one of those cases where they'd written themselves into a corner: there were easy, obvious ways to end this on a satisfying note. This just wanted to go in a different direction. It didn't invalidate what worked up until that point, but it still left me disappointed.

The movie's protagonist is Miles, played by Elliott Gould, a bank teller frustrated by his job and most of his coworkers. It's not entirely clear why he's so discontent - he doesn't seem to approve of the infidelity around him (it's kind of a running theme in the movie), but I don't think it's meant to be more of an annoyance. If anything, it feels a little like he considers his coworkers beneath him intellectually, though he's generally not openly snobbish. We do get a little insight at one point when he opens up to Julie, the one coworker he likes, and daydreams about wanting to get away and start over somewhere new, a fantasy that would normally be beyond his grasp for reasons that never make any real sense.

Regardless, it makes very little difference what would normally be within his grasp, because of... well... let's discuss the plot.

A few weeks before Christmas, Miles stumbles across a carbon copy of a note left behind by a mall Santa (played by Christopher Plummer), who came in and left without initiating a transaction. Only instead of deposit information, it's a "You're being robbed" note. Miles realizes the man will probably be back to actually rob the bank, but keeps this to himself and observes the robber's behavior over the next few days. Rather than warn security, he ensures he'll be the teller. He then spends the day shifting money from his register to his lunch box. When the robber gets there, Miles has only a pittance to hand over. The thief gets away, leaving Miles free to claim a small fortune was taken. Miles then moves the money to a safety deposit box and hides the only key in a jar of jam in his fridge.

The problem with this plan, of course, is that the thief knows what he walked away with. And thanks to Miles being interviewed, the thief knows who is to blame. He tracks Miles to his home and searches the place. He does not, however, find the key. So he starts playing mind games to try and break Miles, assuming he'll crack easily.

Turns out, he's underestimating the guy. Miles turns the tables, follows the thief to his home, steals a delivery van, parks it outside the thief's place, then calls the cops. The thief is arrested and convicted for an unrelated sexual assault, which buys Miles some time.

This actually closes the "Christmas portion" of the movie, as we jump ahead to the summer, when things get a bit more complicated. First, Miles loses the key when his housekeeper throws out the jam (why he's paying for a housekeeper while hiding something like that is a question we'll have to table, anyway). Since he stole the key in the first place, he can't very well get the bank's help in regaining access, so that's one issue.

Secondly, he meets a beautiful woman who claims to have known his recently deceased father. Miles realizes this is a lie almost immediately, but he plays along and sleeps with her before revealing he knows she's been trying to deceive him. Turns out she's with the thief, who sent her to learn where the money's hidden. Instead, Miles... ugh... wins her heart or something. He gets her help in regaining access to the deposit box in a fairly convoluted sequence.

But then the thief gets out of prison and confronts the girl. He forces her to bring him to Miles's apartment when Miles is out, then brutally murders her when she refuses to help. Miles discovers the body and has to dispose of it, lest the police think he was responsible. He's then confronted by the killer who demands the money. Miles agrees, telling him to come to the bank to claim it.

The thief does so, this time dressed as a woman. Miles hands him some money, then sets off the alarm, revealing a robbery note similar to the last time. The thief shoots Miles in the shoulder and tries to escape but is gunned down by the security guard. And, of course, the money Miles handed over wasn't the money from the original theft but the cash from his register. A wounded Miles is joined by Julie, a colleague Miles previously expressed romantic interest in, who's put everything together, anyway. With the cash in their possession, they happily decide to run away together.

As I said at the start, most of this is very good; it's that last act that unravels, beginning with the reveal the woman sent by the thief has fallen in love with Miles and is willing to die for him. First, this was basically established in the scene where she dies. Until then, I'd assumed the twist was going to be that she'd decided to play the two men off against each other. My hope was she'd walk away with the cash, and they'd end up dead, but I'd even have preferred Miles winning over this cheesy resolution. Having her completely smitten just makes her feel like a child, a pawn who's killed in a battle between kings.

It's worth noting Miles is distraught over her loss, too. He's sickened by what happens - the movie implies he doesn't really care about the money at the end; only getting justice. Until he hooks up with Julie one day later, of course. Now I guess that's true love.

Or is it that we're supposed to view women as interchangeable? The movie seems to have a similar approach to women to what you'd find in Bond films of the era, only without the campy, over-the-top tone that almost tricks you into thinking it's okay there.

The other aspect of the ending I've got an issue with - really the entire movie, if I'm being honest - comes down to some really unfortunate choices around Plummer's character. If you raised an eyebrow at him dressing as a woman, you're on to something: while the character is ostensibly straight, he's heavily coded as being gay. The movie plays on homophobic ideas, intending to make his character feel scary.

So, yeah, that choice sure as hell didn't age well.

That said, Plummer's performance itself is good, as is Gould's. It's a good cast all around, including a bit part played by a young John Candy.

Let's talk Christmas. Again, we're really only talking about the first half here - the second half is set in the summer. But the start uses the holidays heavily, and it uses them in several different ways. The most obvious, of course, centers around the thief committing his crime dressed as Claus. On top of that, it also uses the holiday to contrast the seedy behavior of Miles's coworkers. There's a lot of cheating and lying going on.

The more subtle aspect - and this might be me reading too much into things - is to sell the idea that Miles might view the opportunity as a sort of perverse Christmas gift from the Universe. Knowledge of the upcoming crime sort of falls into his lap, and the movie needs to ensure you buy the idea he's willing to use it rather than alert the authorities.

The first two-thirds really are fantastic, but the ending just leaves me with a bitter taste in my mouth, both because I don't find it satisfying and because of the homophobia and the objectification of women. The good stuff is so good, I'm almost tempted to give it a pass and give it a recommendation, but...

Okay, I don't always do this, but I think I'm looking to the holiday credentials as a tie-breaker. And in this case, it's only barely a Christmas movie. It clears our official definition with ease, but as the credits roll half a movie later, you don't really feel as though you just watched a holiday film.

And seeing as this is a Christmas site, I'm going to go ahead and say this is optional at best, at least for yuletide junkies. If you're a fan of '70s cinema or crime movies, you should definitely still check this out.