This oddity, which turned up on Talking Pictures TV, is a good example of the kind of ‘international’ production during the end of the ‘studio period’ in British cinema. EMI, which had taken over ABPC in 1969, took over British Lion as well in 1976. With the Rank Organisation gradually reducing its production plans, the ‘British film industry’ was now almost reduced to a single studio and even that was reliant on various partnerships. The actual funding of The Silver Bears seems a little murky. A small US company seems to have been involved as the actual producers with Columbia taking US distribution, but it’s still down as a UK film.
My interest was aroused because the film was directed by Ivan Passer, one of the original directors of the Czech New Wave. I very much enjoyed Intimate Lightning (Czechoslovakia 1965) when I screened it for a class some time ago and Passer was also a writer on Forman’s best known Czech films. He and Forman left after the Prague Spring was smashed by the Soviet Union in 1968. I thought he had gone straight to the US but some of his films that followed seemed to be UK co-productions like Silver Bears, even though they were often American stories. Most of these films were savaged by critics and presumably he kept working only because the films made enough money around the world. His next film Cutter’s Way (US 1981) was a critical sleeper and one of my favourite films. Cutter’s Way is a dark film with some comic moments but Passer’s films generally tend towards comedies first and that is the way with The Silver Bears.
The film is an adaptation of a novel by Paul Erdman, which appears to be partly autobiographical with Erdman managing to turn his own disastrous experiences with a Swiss bank into an ‘entertainment’. The film comes across as a comedy about financial con-artists. There is the possibility of some form of violence lurking in the background but mainly this is about greed and ego. The pleasure for the viewer is in the wonderfully detailed script which prompts us to invest in some characters rather than others and to enjoy the comeuppance of those who deserve to lose most. Passer has a group of well-known stars and character actors to play with, led by Michael Caine as ‘Doc’ Fletcher who has been commissioned by a Nevada crime boss (Martin Balsam) to find a way of laundering money. Doc’s solution is to set up an American bank in Switzerland. This daunting task is accomplished by ‘Prince Gianfranco di Siracusa’ (Louis Jourdan), an Italian in Lugano. I can’t really spoil the narrative because I’m struggling to remember each step in the complex interplay. The other players in the game involve a couple (Stéphane Audran and David Warner), contacts of the Prince who claim to have a silver mine in Iran (and to produce the silver ingots that give the film its title), a legit American Bank that wants to buy into the Swiss market and a British dealer (Charles Gray) who virtually controls the futures market for silver at the London Metal Exchange. The American bank is represented by a grasping Joss Ackland and his naive young market analyst played by Tom Smothers, the older of the two Smothers Brothers who I remember as a comic double act. The only star who seems to me miscast as the ditsy wife of Smothers’ analyst is the second-billed Cybill Shepherd.
With this cast, a skilled director with comedy experience can certainly create an entertaining film. Critics in the US expected the film to be a satire on banking practice but it is more a comedy of manners. Louis Jordan is very good at the smooth talk, Caine pretends to be a bit of lout trying to be suave, but he is naturally engaging. There are certainly gags associated with American brashness which is ironic when a Brit like Joss Ackland has to be rude in front of London bankers. From my point of view the only disappointment was the limited use of Stéphane Audran (and indeed David Warner). The Iranian scenes were actually shot in Morocco, I think, adding another layer of conceit. The shots of labourers in the ‘mines’ reminded me of documentary photos of the Brazilian goldfields in the work of the photographer Sebastian Salgado. The Silver Bears is presented in CinemaScope ratio and looks good in its four settings of Las Vegas, Lugano, Iran/Morocco and London. If it pops up again on Talking Pics TV, give it a go.
‘Doc’ learns how to kiss a woman’s hand . . .