The Silent Partner (1978) is a crime caper with a dynamite high concept, and opens stylishly with quiet, slow-building suspense, but sadly it loses its luster as soon as the nifty set-up is expended. Miles Cullen (Elliott Gould), a mild-mannered bank teller in Toronto, doesn’t much care for his work — especially since his boss is having an affair with Julie (Susannah York), the coworker he has a crush on. As the Christmas season approaches, Miles stumbles across clues that suggest the mall Santa (Christopher Plummer) may in fact be casing the bank, planning a robbery. In what at first appears to be a snap decision of petty rebellion, Miles withholds his suspicions, but later realizes he can use his foreknowledge of the crime as a cover for his own theft. Unfortunately, the bank robber figures out what Miles did, leading to a game of wits between the two “partners” over the fate of the money Miles stole.
At its best in its first act, The Silent Partner does what so many films of the seventies seem to do so effortlessly: it credits the audience’s intelligence, using subtle techniques and pure cinematic storytelling to lure the viewer into the twisty tale. And the film, overall, is fairly entertaining, once Gould’s peculiar charms sell Miles’ cunning as a foil to the threatening Plummer. Unfortunately, once the initial hook does its job, the film’s momentum slows and the plot loses its hold. Here the movie’s less successful 1970s elements — questionable gender politics, loose morals standing in for progressive attitudes, clunky humor — step on the magic of those bracing early scenes. It’s an interesting window onto the era, in some respects, but also dates the bulk of the film. In the end, The Silent Partner starts as a potentially special heist, but devolves into a fairly conventional, old-fashioned thriller.