Silver Bears (1978)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Investing in Silver Mine.

This is an engaging, lighthearted look at the complex inner-workings of financial institutions and markets and how a group of con-men try to exploit it. The plot is elaborate and although it is easy to follow as you are watching it, as long as you are paying close attention, it is hard and even convoluted to explain, but I will try my best.

The basic premise works like this: Doc Fletcher (Michael Caine) is hired by underground kingpin Joe Fiore (Martin Balsam) to open a phony bank which they can use as a front for their laundered money. When they get there they find that the building is some rundown offices on top of a restaurant. Prince di Siracusa (Louis Jourdan) then tells them of a silver mine in Iran that is run by his distant cousins Agha (David Warner) and Shireen (Stephanie Audran).  Doc decides the bank can invest in the mine and use the money to create a better building premises as well as attracting rich investors. The silver in the mine begins to flood the market causing a drop in value at the London Stock Exchange and forces Charles Cook (Charles Gray) to decide to buy out the bank that is funding the mine in order to then close the mine. To do this he contacts the President of the First National Bank of California (Joss Ackland) who is looking to expand his business in Europe. The bank president sends Donald Luckman (Tom Smothers) out to negotiate a sale of the bank with Doc, but without telling Doc the true reason why. This makes Doc suspicious and to find out their true motives he decides to seduce Donald’s beautiful and free-spirited wife Debbie (Cybil Shepard). Once she divulges their secret things really get going in a high-spirited fashion.

The catalyst of the comedy comes through the many different ‘negotiating’ sessions that take place throughout the film all of which prove to be quite amusing. The first is when Doc negotiates with Agha about a suitable deposit Agha must give to the bank in order to obtain a bank loan even though the bank has no money to give. The second is when Donald tries to bargain with Doc on a selling price for the bank and the third is when Doc tries to intimidate Crime boss Joe into not accepting Donald’s offer. The final one at the end is where all the characters chase Charles around his mansion in order to get settlements to their deals, which have by then soured.

The characters are charming and delightful. Caine is superb as always playing a man who would like to be a lot more ruthless and intimidating if he weren’t surrounded by a bunch of incompetents. Jourdan is suave as the Prince and the two leads share very contrasting personalities and styles, which makes their conversations and budding friendship interesting.

This movie is also a great chance to see Jay Leno in a rare acting role. I’d say being a talk show host is more his repartee, but he is energetic enough here to remain amiable and seeing him with a big mop of curly black hair is almost worth the price itself. Shepard is fantastic and the one thing that gives the film some zest. She is best known for her bitchy roles of which she is very good, but her she plays a fun-loving hippie type and is hilarious. Although this movie is a bit hard to find fans of Shepard should really seek this out as they won’t be disappointed.

Smothers is okay as the meticulous accountant who thinks he has all the bases covered until he gets an unsettling surprise at the end. Usually he is stuck playing characters on the dim-witted side, so it was nice to see him in something that was a slight change of pace. Although Balsam’s screen time is brief I still got a kick out of the way he would look at pictures showing the bloody corpses of the victims he had ordered killed while he ate his breakfast.

The film was shot on-location in such places as Switzerland and Morocco and although it does show some of the exotic topography of the regions it wasn’t enough and I wanted to see more. The musical score is terrible and resembles a show tune from the big band era that does not fit with the mood, or action of the story. I also didn’t find it enticing to have the film begin by focusing the camera onto the naked rears of a bunch of fat, middle-aged men as they get into a hot tub.

For those looking for a diverting, original comedy that emphasizes the subtle and dryly humorous exchanges between business partners then this little known gem should hit the spot.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: April 21, 1978

Runtime: 1Hour 53Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Ivan Passer

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Available: VHS

3 responses to “Silver Bears (1978)

  1. Wish this was on Netflix. I’ve come to the conclusion that either Michael Caine or Robert Duvall were in every movie made in the 1970s.

    • I don’t think that is too far from the truth. That is one thing I really admire about these two men and their careers. Anyone can have their 15 minutes of fame, but to go 6 decades strong is something special.

  2. Nice to see a decent review of this extremely well-done and amusing film. For some reason few people like this, but it is a neglected gem. The performances and characterisations are a joy, the pacing is immaculate. The whole thing unfolds like a wonderful, leisurely anecdote: I spent the entire film with a smile on my face, and laughed out loud a number of times.

    A stylish delight and the sort of film that today is neither understood nor possible to make, I’m afraid. The lthrowaway details are really effective: things like (to describe just one of many) the Prince (Louis Jourdan) informing his guests – and fellow con-artists – as he seats them before an open fire in his Palazzo that ‘All this marble makes it rather chilly’ while smashing up another antique ballroom chair to keep it alight, and then just mentioning that he has 300 of them. A veritable wealth of chairs to burn! For he is apparently burning his way steadily through them – he keeps a stash ready on one side of the vast room. We are allowed to surmise that he is all style and no money. But my title is genuine, he tries to suggest, as he is at pains to introduce his decayed Major-Domo who ‘has been with the family since 1899’ adding with a show of pride that ‘he hasn’t been paid since 1957,’ meaning to imply that a Prince’s aristocratic prestige is sufficient to inspire such selfless loyalty! This kind of delicious wit couldn’t be bettered by Billy Wilder.

    Well Ivan Passer, the director, was Czech – another quirky Mitteleuropean like the Hungarian Wilder. Usually these huge star vehicles are just indigestible puddings – but this is just one delicious amuse-bouche after another. Perhaps those disappointed in the film were wondering when the main course was arriving? I think what they didn’t appreciate was that the movie is just a big box of high-class chocolates – non-fattening, at that! People can be so churlish, turning their noses up at such a raffiné pleasure.

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