A Pair Of ’70s Crime Capers: The Silent Partner (1978) and St. Ives (1976)

The vast majority of the crime ‘n’ mayhem category in my to-watch list are old black & white b-movies from the ’40s and ’50s, and I was more in the mood to see some out of date fashion and even more out of date social mores in living color, so I watched these two. One was very good nearly great, the other not so good but not terrible.

Do you like my precise review categories? Why, you’re welcome.

Let’s start with the good-to-great The Silent Partner, directed by long-time TV director Daryl Duke and scripted by none other than Curtis Hanson, from the novel “Pick Any Number.” Gould plays a nerdish bank teller in Toronto who puts himself into a chess-like battle of power and brains with a psycho robber played by Christopher Plummer. Gould figures out that Plummer is casing the bank, sets it up to skim money from the robbery, but then Plummer finds out, and wants his money…. and then the two of them keep trying to screw the other one over. And it’s wonderfully clever and fun.

My only problem with it (and I think Leonard Maltin agrees with me, based on his little review in his indispensable movie guide) is that the violent scenes are too jarring – and this isn’t due to their plot content, but only in the totally gratuitous way they are shot to emphasize nudity or blood or gore – and much like the way I looked art Hitchcock’s Frenzy differently upon a more recent viewing, all I thought was “totally unnecessary” every time it happened. We can fully understand what a volatile violent explosive psycho Plummer is (odd casting, but it works) without seeing that level of detail, as well as Gould’s repulsion from it.

And the nudity? Well, welcome to the ’70s, I thought as EVERY main actress in the film goes topless or more at some point, and much of the subplots involve the other bank employees all trying to schtup each other behind each other’s backs at drunken office Christmas parties that would lead to endless HR-ordered sensitivity training in 2019. No one would buy such a universe as everyday reality now, but in 1978 it was merely a shrug of the shoulders. Therefore, we have a new theory as to why so many modern movies suck, I guess.

Gould plays his role well – controlled, scheming, smarter than he lets on. Susannah York plays the good girl well and Celine Lomez the bad one well, although I’d prefer her character had been smarter in confronting Plummer when it really counted. Another interesting angle of this is how Plummer and Gould only get a couple of scenes together in person – they mostly goad each other over the phone, yet it all works brilliantly. They plot and counter-plot against each other, you can figure some of it but not all of it, and the payoff in the end is great. Nice to see that Curtis Hanson had that LA Confidential vibe 20 years earlier. Big, big thumbs up… just wish I could rewrite that Lomez/Plummer scene.

And John Candy plays a small role as a banker schmuck! After all, it IS Toronto. And nuthin blow’d up!

Living in or close to LA all these years helps me to recognize soooo many shooting locations in old movies and TV shows, and this became a lot of the fun in watching St. Ives, a 1976 Charles Bronson item that feels a lot like a very spruced up 1970s TV private eye pilot. Lots of downtown LA, where Bronson, as Raymond St. Ives, former crime writer and would-be novelist, lives in a non-fleabag residential hotel (even featuring longtime gangster movie twitcher Elisha Cook as the constantly napping bellhop) and gets his what’s-the-word-on-the-street-johnny? info from the manager at Cole’s sandwich shop.

This movie should have been SO much better with this set-up: Bronson gets hired as a go-between by effete master criminal John Houseman, who lives in a big Holmby Hills mansion aided by Jacqueline Bisset, a former cop? CIA? FBI? Who knows, she’s presently eye candy, and confesses his sins to shrink Maximilian Schell. Someone stole Houseman’s ledgers filled with his crime-plotting diaries, and they’re ransoming ’em back. So, Bronson goes to get them, bodies start piling up around him, we find out that some cops (particularly a pair played by Harris Yulin and Harry Guardino) hate him but he’s got a pal in Lt. Blunt (Dana Elcar) who’ll vouch for him. The ledgers turn up but pages describing a BIG SCORE are missing, so Houseman, Bisset and Bronson plot to steal some money from the thieves who plan to steal it, Bisset jumps in bed with Bronson because the script says so and because everyone clearly had WAY more meaningless sex in the ’70s, other people shoot at him because the script says so, Bronson doesn’t carry a gun or kill people at will since he wants to distinguish this from Death Wish or practically every other movie he’s ever made and will make….

And it’s paced too slow. And any potential for all the connections, people, past or whatever that could be built into the St. Ives character to give us a handy toolbox of stuff to wonder what will be used later on is totally wasted. Believe me, I think about this kind of thing a lot, and (ahem) thought I did a nice job of building up a universe of hints & potential for the background and possible sources & assets for the main character in the first Wagstaff book before building on it in the second. We don’t really get that in St. Ives, and it’s too bad – the plot winds up becoming muddled instead of step-by-step intriguing as was the case in The Silent Partner, and the ending plays itself out with what Roger Ebert wonderfully called the “fallacy of the talking killer” where the villain gives us an exposition speech of the mystery while holding a gun on our hero instead of, oh, just shooting them maybe? I’d think one of the main commandments of any mystery/thriller writer would be to give the reader the explanation without making the killer that friggin stupid.

I know, cut to Ray Liotta in Goodfellas: “If they’d been wiseguys, I wouldn’t have heard a thing.”

We get some fun “Hey, look who’s in this!” moments when Jeff Goldblum and Robert Englund play a pair of thugs or when Daniel J. Travanti shows up, but this one disappointed me since it had such wonderful potential – of Bronson playing a fully developed resourceful character who’d earn the reputation as a crime-analyst-genius he has in this movie, as well as his ability to navigate the high-flyin’ caper world of the John Houseman character, who was clearly modeled after every sinister rich employer Marlowe ever had.

But in the end, it only made me want to watch Death Wish III again. Say what you want about that particular piece of extremely enjoyable drek, but it certainly lives up to ITS potential.

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