The Silent Partner: A Canadianization Dilemma

The Silent Partner: A Canadianization Dilemma

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The Silent Partner: A Canadianization Dilemma
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As a student of Canadian film, I find great appreciation in films that work to culturally enrich Canada's movie screens. I feel that an honest portrayal of Canadian values and culture is beneficial not only by enhancing the credibility of Canada's film industry, but also by maintaining a voice for the customs held by the Canadian people. For these reasons, among others, it had become very easy for me to dislike Daryl Duke's 1978 film The Silent Partner. Based on the knowledge I had before sitting through numerous screenings of the film, I found a challenge in making any concretely positive statements about it, or the state of Canada's film industry at the time. I asked myself about the effect this film had on Canada's film industry, wondering primarily if the film's success in Canada - it won a total of 6 Canadian Film Awards including best feature and best director - came not from a poignant portrayal of Canadian culture, but rather from a "Canadianization" of the typical American thriller. I questioned the details of the film's formation, the choices made about talent, and the credibility of the script, and still I found myself forcing out any positive criticisms I might muster. As far as first impressions go, The Silent Partner's was not promising.

Perhaps now I must consider an alternate approach to understanding this film. Maybe my difficulty in pinpointing The Silent Partner's positive attributes demonstrates to some extent my current narrow-mindedness on Hollywood-style pictures. I think it's only fair to treat this film as an article of film criticism in order to accurately look at it within the context of a national cinema. And so, let us begin by looking first at the particulars of the Canadian film industry around the time The Silent Partner was released. Maybe afterwards, we'll be able to understand the implications of what audiences saw on that illustrious Canadian screen I feel so emotionally bound to preserving.

The code word for success in the late seventies was "international appeal." In a time referred to as "the tax-shelter boom," it was perceived by some that the Canadian film industry had given in. Demoralized by countless relatively unsuccessful attempts at profitability and independence, "Canada's feature film industry had finally succumbed to that old adage: If you can't beat 'em, join 'em" (Magder 169).

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With a new focus on the "international market," the federal government proclaimed that changes were to be made to the current federal film policy. In 1975, Secretary of State Faulkner announced the government's principal measures, the most notable of which was the infamous capital cost allowance program, which allowed investors in a Canadian film to use 100 per cent of their investment as a tax deduction in the first year. In order to be eligible for investment, however, Canadian talent had to make up at least two-thirds of the so-called "key creative positions" for the film (i.e. director, screenwriter, art director, d.o.p., editor, music composer, highest-paid actor, second highest-paid actor). "It meant increased potential for profits by the Canadian and other investors," Pendakur states. "But at the same time," he adds, "it meant that they would look more like American films" (Pendakur 185).

Canada's new "internationalist" approach stemmed from a study of the film industry prepared by the Bureau of Management Consulting. The study basically outlined a new national rationale that stated that the film industry should be, before anything else, a business primarily structured for export. The Report had a very basic argument:

In the feature film industry it is recognized that there is a world-wide shortage of 'good' feature films. A good feature film is understood here as one that has a mass audience appeal beyond the boundaries of any one country, and subsequently returns a gross revenue well above the production costs ... With the costs of production rising (including substantial fees to performers) producers and investors have to be concerned with a breakthrough into the international market and subsequent large audiences. A film such as Jaws is a classic example of this trend...

It is our considered opinion that the Canadian feature film industry has to aim for a world-wide market, and that any actions taken by the various governments in Canada should lead to this end. (Film Industry in Canada, 22-3).

With the challenge to Canadian filmmakers now solidly outlined, producers had to find a way to satisfy the demands of an international market while working under the constraints of the new Canadian film policy. Thus enters The Silent Partner in 1978. Though a comparison of this film to the likes of Jaws wouldn't necessarily be fitting, the film was nevertheless released right in the middle of a flood of Canadian output, each film looking "more like American films". According to the ethos of the time, The Silent Partner presented all of the essential elements a film needed in order to compete with the likes of, essentially, Hollywood.

First, with regard to the talent the film brings together, the credits are rather mixed. Based on the novel Think of a Number by Danish novelist Anders Bodelson and adapted for the screen by American screenwriter Curtis Hanson (The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, 1992, Wonder Boys, 2000), the film excludes Canadian talent altogether from the writing process. Filmmaking credits, however, belong to Canadians in the form of Vancouver director Daryl Duke (who worked mostly in television, directing the first season of Wojeck in 1966), and recognized Canadian producer Garth Drabinsky (who would later produce The Changeling in 1980, and would found the infamous Livent Inc., originally based in Toronto). Also notable is the addition of Canadian jazz musician Oscar Peterson as the supplier of the film's soundtrack. Despite these positions, however, the major acting role is indeed given up to American muscle in the form of Elliot Gould. However, Canadians actors did make their presence felt with such names as Christopher Plummer, John Candy, and gifted Montréal actress Céline Lomez.

On paper, The Silent Partner fulfilled all the requirements asked of a Canadian film during the tax-shelter period. This, however, presented critics of the Canadian film industry with a new point of interest. How true to Canada's culture should a Canadian-funded film be? Does the nationality of a film's cast and crew necessarily determine the film's true origin, or should we be looking deeper? Though the lineup of talent presented in The Silent Partner fell more or less in line with the new film policy, it didn't do much by way of distinguishing itself from any Hollywood film as far as the material presented. After all, James Cameron was born in Kapuskasing, Ontario, and Terminator is about as far from being Canadian I'd like to think of. By the same token, Ian Holm's starring role in The Sweet Hereafter never works against the fact that it is indisputably a Canadian film. Perhaps we need to look to the film's story itself to uncover whether or not The Silent Partner represents Canada to Canadians.

The story presented in The Silent Partner acts as a classic example of one that would be told in a typical Hollywood thriller. Even a simple description of the basic plot ends up sounding like a glorified cover-box write-up. Complete with murder, deceit, and danger, the story of The Silent Partner draws audiences into the modest world of bank-teller Miles Cullen (Elliot Gould), whose humble and demure composure acts to conceal his crime. Cullen, finding out in advance about criminal Harry Reikle's plans to rob his bank, inconspicuously squirrels away $50,000 in a safety deposit box before the bank-robber strikes. Noticing that he is missing a substantial amount of cash after the total amount is revealed on the evening news, Reikle (Christopher Plummer) seeks revenge, tormenting Cullen until the money is handed over. Unfortunately, mild-mannered Cullen has lost the deposit box key.

Without going into much greater detail about the plot, let us settle on the notion that the film's story focuses on thrilling the audience with strategically placed twists and turns, rather than using its 106 minutes of screen time to present the audience with a cultured view of Canadian society. After all, as Hal Erickson writes, "don't let the comic-stip poster art of Silent Partner, depicting a gun-wielding Santa Claus, fool you; this one gets extremely brutal and bloody at times" (Erickson). Erickson connotes that an audience looking for blood and violence would find everything they want in this film. The Silent Partner was exactly the kind of film that would typically not have been shown in the small art-house theatres that screened most other Canadian films. Obviously, the film never attempted to target the art-house enthusiast, let alone the Canadian film lover specifically.

Truly, the only blatantly Canadian aspect of this film is its setting, as is the case for many films made in Canada during this period. Drawing from the metropolitan atmosphere created in films set in New York, The Silent Partner uses downtown Toronto as an appropriate Canadian supplement. The film's "Canadianization" is immediately evident as the audience is hit over the head with Toronto-esque landmarks at every corner. These include establishing shots of the Eaton Centre (keeping the word 'Eaton's' in full view), long takes of action conveniently taking place in front of the CN Tower, and quick cuts to Canadian and Ontario flags flapping outside of a fancy downtown restaurant. Most comical to the trained ear, however, is the hilariously Canada-oriented background noise, in which certain conversations can be overheard, like: "Let's finish up and go to lunch, eh?", and "I'm here on business, and every time I come all I hear is eh, eh, eh!" And who can overlook the unmistakable way American actors put extra emphasis on the second "t" in Toronto. But, I digress. Suffice to say The Silent Partner, as Pendakur states, "just happened to have been made in Canada, but...could have been made anywhere in the world" (Pendakur 185). It was big-budget cinema that began setting the pattern for Canadian film production in the late 1970's, and thus The Silent Partner was born, I hesitate to say, with little or no regard for the preservation of Canada on film.

However, admittedly, one aspect of the film does throw me for a loop. Though I find that I am instinctively prone to labelling this film "un-Canadian", and have conducted this discussion accordingly up to this point, I simply cannot ignore one of the film's resonating themes. Conceivably, one might be able to set up an argument that mild-mannered Miles Cullen represents the average Canadian who tries to comfortably live his small, solitary life while constantly being harassed by a brash, money-grubbing intruder. Also, there are certain aspects to the script that strike me to the point where I simply cannot ignore their possible Canadian interpretations.

During the course of the film, Miles is asked two very symbolic questions. Julie Carver, one of Miles's love interests in the film, asks him on two separate occasions, "Are you the type people usually underestimate?" and "Does anyone really know you, Miles?" Though Miles doesn't verbally answer either question, his actions might speak louder than words. Upon finding out that Julie is entertaining another man, Cullen loses his temper and swipes off a handful of chess pieces from his chessboard. Subsequently regaining his composure, Miles begins to gingerly pick the pieces up again. Pausing suddenly, as if coming to a small mental breakthrough, Cullen takes a moment to gaze reflectively at the pawn. A metaphor for the period? The nation? The citizens? This one shot, though used in the film to identify the pawn-like nature of the character, could perchance be observed as a metaphor for the Canadian film industry at the time. Though this allegory may not have been added deliberately, its presence is nevertheless felt when viewing the film through optimistic, Canadian eyes. Perhaps this film focuses more on Canadian themes than I had originally thought after all.

After examining the details of both the film and Canada's "internationalist" approach, let us consider again the question raised earlier in this essay regarding whether The Silent Partner reflects Canadian culture, or whether it is simply a "Canadianization" of the typical Hollywood thriller. Looking at this question now, I can see how unfair it truly is, and realize that this is not the kind of question you should be asking when trying to build a body of national film criticism. Consider the comments made by Michael Spencer, a representative of the Canadian Film Development Corporation (CFDC) in the late sixties, when the CFDC started talking about making "films for profit." During a presentation to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Broadcasting, Films and Assistance to the Arts in 1968, Spencer was asked whether the CFDC's activities would "supplement or supplant" the nationalistic-based activities of the National Film Board. Spencer replied:

I think the answer is of course that we may well do both...The Film Board has every right to produce, and under its Act can produce feature films, but it seems to me that it is limited in respect to the fact that every film it produces has to be "in the national interest," and particularly interpretive of Canada to Canadians. I think our feeling is that any film that has a chance of developing the Canadian film industry, even if that film is not particularly interpretive of Canada to Canadians, would still be considered and possibly invested in by us...We are not filmmakers...If we were to judge our scripts from an intellectual and cultural point of view we would not be a bank anymore. (Magder 134)

The important point to note here is the distinction Spencer makes between films that interpret Canada to Canadians and films that work to develop Canada's film industry, whether made "in the national interest" or not. This distinction is crucial when trying to understand a film like The Silent Partner's role in our film industry's development. I realize now that it comes down to a matter of mentality. Generally, those films that do not work towards the development of a unique, independent Canadian cinema can be seen as working against this development. With Hollywood's stranglehold on the moviemaking industry, frustrations run deep when a Canadian production emanates so strongly from Hollywood's influence. Thus, it becomes extremely difficult to accept a film like The Silent Partner as one of our own, regardless of the Canadian backdrop, the way it was financed, or by whom it was made.

However, a point must be made for the financial argument as well. The tax-shelter period paved the way not only for a watershed of film production, but also allowed Canadian talent to find work in their own country's film industry. "In the thirteen years [1973-1986], a total of $1.2 billion was invested in eligible feature film, short, and television serial productions. The tax-shelter mechanism clearly influenced greater investment in films over these thirteen years and also led to higher budgets...Of a total of 428 key creative positions, 367 (or 86 percent) were held by Canadians" (Pendakur 173). In 1979, Canada produced a total of 66 certified productions, amounting to a budget of $171,777,598.00. Five years prior, in 1974, it produced three (Magder 156). Whether you are fundamentally opposed to the ultimate success of Hollywood-style films or not, the fact is that investors will generally be more interested in something that has proven itself as a seller. As Globerman and Vining state, "films which are designed to appeal solely, or primarily, to Canadian audiences will not (ordinarily) be commercially viable. Therefore, profit-oriented firms that specialize in mass-appeal films could not be expected to invest resources in their production or distribution" (Globerman and Vining 20). Though these statements put the problem of distribution quite harshly, their notion of international appeal being beneficial is backed by some powerful forces. Hollywood has made it to the powerhouse position that it holds because of its international appeal, not despite it.

I have learned a great deal through analysing The Silent Partner. I no longer look upon this film as I once did, as a step back in Canada's culturalisation of its movie screens. I hope that I can now recognize the positive elements of such a film, not only as an internationally displayed vehicle for Canadian talent, but also as a proven financial booster for the Canadian film industry itself. I tend to agree with Peter Harcourt when he writes: "If we are Nationalists and want a cinema that is economically and culturally our own, we have to struggle simultaneously on several fronts. We must try to get films made, certainly - of whatever kind and by whatever means whether 'schlock' films like Black Christmas, The Parasite Murders, or Sudden Fury - imitation American products aimed at the so-called International market; or more personalized films like A Married Couple, or Paperback Hero or - in Quebec, Denys Arcand's Rejeanne Padovani or Gilles Carle's La Vraie nature de Bernadette - films that tell us something about our own world as Canadians" (Harcourt 165). With Harcourt's thoughts in mind, I begin to recognize how unfair I was being in my attempt at labelling The Silent Partner "un-Canadian." Though he may be disconcerted to see his words used in defence of the CCA pictures, Harcourt is correct nonetheless. To make a film, any film, using Canadian dollars which would allow you to make yet another Canadian film should not be seen as a drawback, but rather as an opportunity.
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