Observed every January 23, National Handwriting Day was established in 1977 to promote the sale of writing instruments and supplies. The date was chosen because it’s John Hancock’s birthday and was inspired by his distinctive signature on the Declaration of Independence. The Silent Partner (1978) is an ideal viewing choice for this holiday, as it is the handwriting of one of the characters that betrays him to the film’s protagonist.
Throughout the history of heist films, there is a common thread: they create sympathy for their outlaw protagonists. Bonnie and Clyde go on a Depression-era bank-robbing spree, but are framed as heroes. In Dog Day Afternoon (1975), the protagonist’s love-driven motives for the theft make him an object of pity and fascination instead of scorn. The Long Riders (1980) wins us over because it sympathetically portrays legendary outlaws and folk heroes. The League of Gentlemen (1999) and both versions of Ocean’s Eleven (1960 and 2001) feature a fraternal buddy network whose well-laid plans are laid to waste by simple, unexpected bad luck.
Yet none of these, with all their cleverly-written dialogue and starry performances, can compete with the sympathy generated for Miles Cullen (Elliot Gould), the nebbishy hero of . Miles is no folk hero or outlaw, and he certainly doesn’t possess the kind of charisma needed to lead a well-planned buddy heist – he doesn’t even have many buddies. We feel for the poor schnook as we witness all the dreary details of a life barely lived by someone who has either made a mistake with his career options or is heartily sick of the career he has chosen.
Miles is Vault Teller at the First Bank of Toronto, and his days consist of unrelieved tedium except for his collection of tropical fish, figuring out chess moves (hinting at even more clever moves to come), and his unrequited love for Julie (Susannah York), the bank’s Operations Manager. His coworkers (one of whom is played by a young John Candy) treat him with kindly disdain and Packard, his boss, (Michael Kirby) is a petty tyrant who is having an affair with Julie.
The main reason Miles is so sympathetic is that director Daryl Duke ensures that we get to know him. Miles chats good-naturedly with coworkers, nods respectfully when being lectured by his jerk of a boss and is devoted to his elderly father, who is in a nursing home and cannot speak. (In one scene, before leaving, he bends down and bestows a tender kiss on the old man’s forehead.) Miles has practically no social life, and we feel his boredom. We watch through his eyes as he sips at the last of his orange drink during his lunch break and idly gazes at a bell-ringing mall Santa named Harry Reikle (Christopher Plummer) holding a crudely-lettered sign that reads, “Give, Give, Give, to those less fortunate.”
At the end of the business day, Miles finds a deposit slip with the words, “The Thing In My Pocket is a Gun. Give Me All The Cash” written on it. He tries to show it to Julie, but she brushes him off, and he pockets it. Later that night, he takes it out and studies it. Suddenly, he realizes the letter “G” on the note is formed identically to the ones on the sign carried by Reikle and knows the bank is about to be robbed. Sure enough, the next day finds a Santa-costumed Reikle arriving immediately after one of the bank’s customers makes a large deposit. Nervously, Miles watches Reikle write on a deposit slip and join the queue, but his robbery attempt is thwarted when a small boy runs over to him, chattering excitedly to “Santa” and tries to rifle through his pockets, causing him to push the child away and leave hurriedly.
That night, Miles goes into his kitchen and retrieves an old Superman lunchbox, which is another “tell” about Miles - in 1978, having one of these was considered nerdy rather than cool. He opens it and puts in some money, measuring the space inside. We realize uneasily that he plans to take the money and let Reilke take the rap. The robbery occurs the following day, and Miles handles his end flawlessly, tucking away almost $50,000 into the lunchbox when Santa/Reikle walks through the door and giving Reikle only the paltry few thousand left in his cash drawer. The robbery makes the news, and Miles is shown on television announcing the total amount of cash stolen, cluing Reikle that he’s been a chump. Infuriated, he immediately goes after Miles, and this begins an exciting game of cat and mouse that will play out for the rest of the film.
Reikle threatens him by phone and even breaks into his home. In a terrifying scene, a panicky Miles has barricaded himself in his darkened apartment. He stands panting, staring at the door. Suddenly, we see a flash of light coming from the mail slot in the door, then Reikle’s eyes showing through the slot. It’s truly frightening – Plummer’s Reikle is creepy, and the film has already shown us he is capable of very bad things. However, it’s just after this that we begin to see another side of Miles. Reikle, satisfied that he has reduced the teller to a quivering and compliant mouse, underestimates his prey, and we see that we have underestimated him as well when, in a well-turned plot twist, Miles boldly tells Reikle to “fuck off” and follows him to discover where he lives. He then steals a van and frames Reikle for the theft with an anonymous phone call to the police. He even hangs around to watch, hidden in the shadows, as the police escort a handcuffed and protesting Reikle to jail. Now, we move beyond sympathizing with Miles to admiring his chutzpah.
Julie also comes around, and, when she and Miles are alone at his apartment, she begins to realize she has also underestimated him. She presses him about the money, asking him what he would do if he had it. She has to ask twice before he finally answers, softly saying, “Well, I’d wait awhile to make sure nobody suspected me, and then I’d go away somewhere – far away. I suppose I’d use the money to buy myself another chance.” The tone of his voice and wistful look on his face are as eloquent as his words and give us a more intimate view of Miles. Here is a poignant reminder that he is human and vulnerable. To paraphrase Walt Kelly’s Pogo, “We have met the thief, and he is us.”