(Each week, sanity dictates that I must indulge in a few positive pop-culture experiences to make up for the Norbits and Jeff Foxworthy-hosted game shows of the world. Every Friday, I offer a few of them.)
1. The Silent Partner (1978): Like a lot of cineastes, I tend to be pretty auteur-oriented when trying to organize essential films in my head; in the ‘70s, that means Scorsese, Coppola, Ashby, Malick, Altman, etc. What tends to get lost are those great one-offs from directors who never did anything that interesting before or after. Much like the salty 1974 New Yawk thriller The Taking Of Pelham One, Two, Three, from longtime TV journeyman director Joseph Sargent, The Silent Partner was made by a director (Daryl Duke) who mostly worked on TV and doesn’t exactly dazzle you with his chops here, either. The bare-bones DVD, released for a budget price back in early April, has no feature more special than “Chapter Selections,” and like other publications, we failed to cover it, despite at least a couple of champions on staff. (Donna Bowman, aren’t you the one who pushed this film on me back in the day?)
The film’s connection to Pelham in my mind runs deeper than no-name directors, though: Both films are smartly plotted and twisty thrillers with a surprising amount of bite to them. Pelham leaves its mark through its filthy dialogue, which plays up the hilariously coarse New York attitude of subway control engineers dealing with a hostage situation. (Sample dialogue: “Screw the goddamn passengers! What the hell did they expect for their lousy 35 cents… to live forever?!”) For its part, The Silent Partner features some shocking acts of brutality, courtesy of one of the most frightening sociopaths in movie history. As played by Christopher Plummer, who makes the most of his cold blue eyes, he’s the sort of man who doesn’t take bad news well (you won’t forget “the sauna scene”) and ruthlessly goes about his business, even if it’s more about retribution than money.
Crisply adapted from an Anders Bodelson’s novel by Curtis Hanson—who would later go to direct L.A. Confidential and Wonder Boys, among many others—The Silent Partner has a pretty ingenious premise. A cagey Elliott Gould stars as a mild-mannered, seemingly ineffectual teller for a bank at a Toronto mall who catches wind of a planned robbery attempt on his branch. After figuring out the bank is being cased by a mall Santa (Plummer), Gould tucks away most of the available cash in a lunchbox under the counter. This way, when the place gets robbed, the authorities will obviously assume the robber has all the loot, when in fact it’s Gould who’s pocketing most of it. It’s a clever idea, except that Plummer isn’t some two-bit bozo, but a seasoned crook who quickly figures out what happened and hunts down his “partner” in crime with a vengeance. Yet he (and the viewer) underestimates Gould’s ingenuity; the guy may seem like a wuss who collects fish and withers in front of the opposite sex, but he’s a chess player, too, and has some tricks up his sleeve.
The wrangling of control between Gould and Plummer is the film’s pleasure; as my friend Keith suggested when I talked about it earlier today, this isn’t so much a cat-and-mouse story as “cat-and-cat.” Once Gould pulls off his little heist, he instantly becomes more confident and powerful, yet there are times when he loses control and has to improvise to save his neck. God knows we’re right there with him, because Plummer is an absolute manic, someone who seems happiest when he’s twisting the knife. In some ways, Gould’s switcheroo suits him just fine; while he’s enraged that someone had the temerity to steal from him, Plummer welcomes the opportunity to torment as much as possible. He’s the classic “talking killer” type, yet a man of action, too. Their back-and-forth elevates The Silent Partner to more than just a well-plotted thriller, and the merely serviceable direction isn’t much of a factor.
2. Mad Men (Thursdays, 10 pm ET/9 pm CT, AMC): Back in its early years, American Movie Classics used to dust off mostly obscure Hollywood offerings from before the ‘50s—some of the them worth treasuring, many others properly resigned to the dustbin of history. Then when Turner Classic Movies, perhaps the best curated network on cable, honed in on its territory, AMC underwent a radical shift in programming and started showing a lot of post-‘70s fare, much of it about as far from “classic” as it gets. Now it’s trying its hand at original programming that has absolutely nothing to movies. So the name “American Movie Classics” has always been a misnomer, and that won’t change with Mad Men, an original hour-long show that aired for the first time last night. But on this rare occasion, the term “classic” may well apply.
Set at a top Madison Avenue advertising agency in the late ‘50s, Mad Men was created by Sopranos writer Matthew Weiner (the premiere was also directed by a Sopranos vet, Alan Taylor), and excels primarily for capturing an office ambience that seems light years removed from our own. Here, it isn’t unusual for executives to sip on highballs and Bloody Marys in the middle of a workday, fill the conference room with cigarette smoke, and engage in sexual harassment as a matter of course. When a new secretary is shown around the office, more than one person suggests that she take some fabric off her prim skirts and show the boss a little more leg. The sheer amount of casual sexism—and, in one scene, racism—kicked around during the first episode is pretty startling to behold from the world of today, which has changed significantly (at least in socially acceptable language) from one that existed before the Women’s Lib and Civil Rights movements.
Though it’s hard to tell where precisely the show is going from here, it does seem to take place on the cusp of major social change, so the (white) Boy’s Club atmosphere may become harder to sustain from here on out. In the first episode, the ad men are dealing with panicked clients from Lucky Strike cigarettes, who are having a hard time adjusting to reports that smoking isn’t all that healthy a pursuit and the government will no longer allow the industry to promote it as such. Again, from today’s perspective, their dilemma seems absurd, since it would utterly ridiculous to promote cigarettes as being good for your “T-Zone” or some such nonsense. But it’s fascinating to see them puzzle over possible solutions, including one that seizes on the “death wish” impulse. Now that would be some truth in advertising.
At the same time, the role of women in the workplace is changing, too. When the daughter of a major department store owner confidently presents her ideas for using advertising to attract a more upscale clientele, the top executive shouts her out of the room, because he simply can’t abide a woman speaking to him in this way. Later, after the boss forces a reconciliation, he’s much kinder to her, but clearly perplexed. Why, he asks point blank, hasn’t a good-looking and personable woman such as herself found a husband and settled down? How else is she going to be happy? I’m guessing that he’ll have to figure out what makes women like her tick sooner rather than later, and it’ll be interesting to see where this show goes as women gain a little big more leverage in the workplace.
In any case, Mad Men has instantly moved to the top of my list for summer television, though my queue tends to thin out this time of year. I’m sure we’ll learn more about the individual characters in the coming weeks, but right off the bat, the show gives a vivid impression of the times. (It also has the creepiest gynecology scene this side of Dead Ringers.)
3. Chuckles, courtesy of Slate magazine. Because I’ve eaten up so much time and space on The Silent Partner and Mad Men, I leave you with links to a couple of Slate articles that brightened my week. One of the reasons Slate remains my favorite online publication is that it treats news and culture with a healthy dash of irreverence. Here are a couple of winners: The first, "Et Tu, Babycakes"goes over the results of a reader poll to come up with a great action-movie one-liner (“Yippie-kie-yay motherfucker” being the gold standard. My favorite of the bunch is “Welcome to America, douche bag,” but critic Dana Stevens crowns a different winner. The second is Hart Seely’s Senator, Here’s A Scenario, an inspired collection of outlandish life-or-death situations that take off from a real debate question posed by Fox News’ Brit Hume. (Though admittedly, they're not that much more outlandish than Hume's original query.) Have a nice weekend…