Sunday, December 10, 2006

Films of Michael Caine #31: Silver Bears (1977)

Cast: Michael Caine (Doc Fletcher), Cybill Shepherd (Debbie Luckman), Louis Jourdan (Prince di Siracusa), Stephane Audran (Shireen Firdausi), David Warner (Agha Firdausi), Tom Smothers (Donald Luckman), Martin Balsam (Joe Fiore), Jay Leno (Albert Fiore), Tony Mascia (Marvin Skinner), Charles Gray (Charles Cook), Joss Ackland (Henry Foreman).

Crew: Ivan Passer (director), Arlene Sellers and Alex Winitsky (producers), Peter Stone (writer), Claude Bolling (music), Anthony Richmond (cinematography), Bernard Gribble (editor), Edward Marshall (art direction).

Synopsis: Doc Fletcher flies to Switzerland to buy a bank for Mafia boss Joe Fiore. Doc takes Fiore’s son Albert and a counterfeiter called Marvin Skinner. The $3 million deal is negotiated by Prince di Siracusa, a poor Italian aristocrat. But the bank proves to be just an office above a pizza restaurant in Lugano. Prince introduces Doc to siblings Agha and Shireen Firdausi. They show him a secret silver mine in Iran containing silver reputedly worth $1 billion. He loans them $20 million to fund exploitation. American banker Henry Foreman wants to buy a European bank. He sends one of his staff, Donald Luckman, to find a suitable candidate.

In London, the world’s richest man, Charles Cook, is worried when silver from the Firdausi mine depresses the market. He wants Luckman and Foreman to buy the Lugano bank for $60 million. Cook will then buy the silver mine from the Americans for $60 million, leaving them with a European bank acquired for nothing. Doc seduces Luckman’s ditzy wife Debbie to find out what is really going on. Fiore wants to sell the bank, but gives Doc a week to organise a management buyout. Doc tries to foreclose on the mine but discovers it does not exist. The Firdausis are smugglers, recycling silver trinkets from India into ingots. Doc engineers a complex deal that leaves him with ownership of the bank, no-one out of pocket and only one person going to jail – Luckman. Debbie moves in with Doc while her husband serves his prison sentence writing a book about his experiences…


Paul Erdman’s novel, The Silver Bears, was a financial thriller set during the early 1970s collapse of silver prices. First published in 1974, the film rights were snapped up and screenwriter Peter Stone commissioned to turn the book into a comedy. Stone had achieved great success with his work on several Cary Grant films including Charade (1963). Director Ivan Passer was brought on board to helm the project. He had been a leading figure in the Czech cinema new wave during the 1960s, co-scripting all of Milos Forman’s native films. Passer left his homeland after the Soviet invasion of 1968.

In his 1992 autobiography, Caine recalled how he came to be cast as lead in Silver Bears. The actor was planning to shift from England to Los Angeles but his accountant said Caine was virtually penniless, thanks to Britain’s punitive taxes on high earners: ‘Panicking, I accepted the first offer of work that came along, to make a picture called Silver Bears.’ The picture reunited him with Joss Ackland, who worked on The Black Windmill (1974). Making his film debut in Silver Bears was young comedian Jay Leno, who later became famous as a TV host on The Tonight Show in the US.

The picture was shot in the final months of 1976, with locations in Switzerland, Morocco and England, and studio work at Twickenham. Caine was interviewed in Lugano by London’s Evening Standard newspaper. The actor had a ready explanation when told he looked lean and fit: ‘We were on location in Morocco. I had my usual cold and dysentery and lost 11 pounds.’ Despite what he later wrote in his autobiography, in the 1976 interview Caine denied rumours about going into tax exile. ‘You know, I took my decision and I’ll pay my taxes and stay in England.’

Silver Bears was released in British cinemas during 1977, rated A. Critics were unimpressed by the picture and it was not a hit at the box office. The pattern was repeated in America, where it was rated PG. The film was released on video a decade later but has since been deleted. Silver Bears has yet to make its DVD debut.

Reviews: ‘Amusing people. Opulent houses. Vintage cars. Glorious settings. Lovely women. Pity about the story.’ – Evening News
‘Director Ivan Passer has assembled a rather talented squad of performers, then marched them through a minefield, losing all hands in an attack on an uncertain objective.’ – Variety

Verdict: Silver Bears is proof that glamorous locations and a distinguished cast are not enough to overcome tepid direction and a yawn-inducing script. This film is supposed to be a comedy but laughs are few and far between. It takes nearly an hour to set up the first part of the premise before introducing a dozen new characters and subplots that merely muddy the stagnant waters of this unremarkable tale. Most of the actors seem to be sleepwalking through their paces. Caine’s performance is a strictly low energy affair. He is upstaged by the frenetic efforts of Cybill Shepherd, who yelps and screams as if being subjected to electric shocks through her underpants. This film is perhaps best used as an insomnia cure.

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