The Slender Thread (1965) ****

Hollywood paranoia in the 1970s ensured that any type of electronic surveillance was treated with suspicion. Cops, too, were almost certain to be corrupt. Although he would subscribe to such paranoia and implicit corruption in Three Days of the Condor (1973), in his movie debut director Sydney Pollack turns these concepts on their head.

Crisis center volunteer Alan (Sidney Poitier) faces a battle against time to save potential suicide Inga (Anne Bancroft), using his own powers of empathy and persuasion, but helped more than a little by dedicated policemen and the system of tracking calls. On the one hand the ticking clock ensures tension remains high, on the other Alan own’s battle with his nascent abilities brings a high level of anxiety to the proceedings especially as we learn of the particular circumstances driving Inge.

Alan is studying to be a doctor and he carries within him the arrogance of his profession, namely the power to cure. But that is within the realms of the physical. When it comes to dealing with the mental side of a patient he discovers he is ill-equipped. The intimacy he strikes up with Inga ensures he cannot seek relieve by handing over the problem to anyone else, the fear being that the minute he introduces another voice the spell will be broken. His medical training means only that he knows far better than a layman the effect of the pills the woman has taken and can accurately surmise how long she has to live. In the process he experiences a wide range of emotions from caring and sympathetic to angry and frustrated.

By sheer accident Inga’s otherwise loving husband, Mark (Steven Hill), skipper of a fishing vessel, has discovered that their son is not his. On being rejected, she has nothing to live for.

The simple plotline is incredibly effective. The pair never meet but we discover something of Inga’s life through flashbacks as her life gradually unravels and elements of insanity creep in. Alan, meanwhile, is shut in a room, relying on feedback from colleagues such as psychiatrist Dr Coburn (Telly Savalas) and others monitoring the police investigation attempting to discover where she is.

 Initially, the movie treats Seattle as an interesting location with aerial shots over the credits and other scenes on the shore or seafront, but gradually the picture withdraws into itself, the city masked in darkness and the principals locked in their respective rooms.

Sidney Poitier is superb, having to contain his emotions as she tried to deal with a confused woman, at various times thinking he was over the worst only to discover that he was making little headway and if the movie had gone on for another fifteen minute she might have reflected how impotent he had actually been. Anne Bancroft matches him in excellence, in a role that charts disintegration. The fact that their characters never met and that their conversations were conducted entirely by telephone says a lot about their skills as actors in conveying emotion without being in the same room as the person with whom they are trying to communicate.

Telly Savalas (The Dirty Dozen, 1967) delivers a quieter performance than you might expect were you accustomed to his screen tics and flourishes. Ed Asner (The Venetian Affair, 1966) and Steven Hill, in his last film for 15 years, are effective. This was only the second screenplay of the decade by prolific television writer Stirling Silliphant (In the Heat of the Night, 1967).

The bold decision to film in black-and-white pays off, ensuring there is no color to divert the eye, and that dialogue, rather than costumes or scenery dominates. Pollack allows two consummate actors to do their stuff while toning down all other performances, so that background does not detract from foreground. As the High Noon of the psychological thriller this ore than delivers. Gripping stuff. And it’s worth considering the courage required to undertake such subject matter for your first movie.

Winning the Oscar for Lilies of the Field (1963) had not turned Sidney Poitier into a leading man and in fact he took second billing, each time to Richard Widmark, in his next two pictures.  Anne Bancroft was in similar situation after being named Best Actress for The Miracle Worker (1962) and although she took top billing in The Pumpkin Eater (1964) it was her first film after her triumph and, besides, had been made in Britain. And for both 1967 would be when they were both elevated to proper box office stardom.

CATCH-UP: Sidney Poitier performances reviewed on the Blog are Pressure Point (1962), The Long Ships (1964), The Bedford Incident (1965) and Duel at Diablo (1966); regarding Anne Bancroft only The Pumpkin Eater (1964) features here.

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